Off the Climate Cliff?

Right on the heels of the latest report from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a startling paper appeared last week in the journal Nature. It was the proverbial train coming down the track, driving home the message that dramatic, life altering global warming is just a few stops away.

According to the study, the new normal for millions of people in a few decades will be hotter than the warmest years between 1860 and 2005 if greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise.

“Go back in your life to think about the hottest, most traumatic event you have experienced,” lead scientist Camilo Mora told the New York Times. “What we’re saying is that very soon, that event is going to become the norm.”

Analyzing data from 39 different climate models out of 12 countries, the team of scientists from Hawaii and Japan sought to predict the timing of a move to the new climate regime rather than examine the climate at a fixed date such as 2030 or 2050, as most previous studies have done. The paper concludes that the tropics will undergo this extreme shift first, as early as 2029, and by 2047 more than half of the planet will experience average temperatures hotter than anything recorded between 1860 and 2005.

Coming in the midst of the confrontation between President Obama and Congress over the federal budget and debt ceiling, it’s hard not to draw a comparison. In politics, when playing “chicken,” the first rule of game theory is throw the steering wheel out the window. It’s one thing for Republicans and Democrats to pursue this tactic, however, and another thing for the human race to try to pull this stunt on nature.

Even in the most intractable situations, political parties can negotiate with each other and come to some reasonable resolution, but as Bill McKibben has pointed out numerous times, you can’t negotiate with the laws of physics and chemistry. Go ahead and throw the steering wheel out the window; it’s not going to change the outcome one whit. When it comes to climate change, better to acknowledge that reality than drive the car off the cliff.

The Planet Is Not the Same

We’ve all noticed the increase in extreme weather over the last few months. Almost two-thirds of the lower 48 states are now suffering from drought conditions, the Washington Post pointed out last week. Nearly all of Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri, and Illinois are in extreme or exceptional drought, making this the worst dry spell since the 1950s.

It’s not only been dry; the New York Times reported that the first six months of 2012 were the hottest since record keeping began in 1895. In early July, another Times article noted, the surface of Greenland’s ice sheet melted to a greater extent than ever observed in 30 years of satellite monitoring. About half of the surface of the ice sheet usually melts, but from July 8 to July 12, the ice melt reached 97 percent.

More and more people are making the connections between the extreme weather and climate change. The percentage of Americans who now believe that climate change is occurring rose to 70 percent in July, according to a University of Texas poll, and those insisting that it was not fell to 15 percent. A 2010 survey showed, in contrast, that only 52 percent of the American public thought that the climate was changing.

The following video from July 2012 shows Earth’s land surface temperature data from 1800 to 2009, tracking deviation from the mean temperature and overall global warming since the Industrial Revolution. For more information about this study visit http://berkeleyearth.org.

The story told in this video, even though it’s statistical, couldn’t be more dramatic. All one has to do is watch the spread of yellow, orange, and red across the map to understand that the planet is not the same place it was in 1800. The real question is, what are we going to do about it? In Bill McKibben’s words, “Climate change operates on a geological scale and time frame, but it’s not an impersonal force of nature; the more carefully you do the math, the more thoroughly you realize that this is, at bottom, a moral issue.”