At the core of the global warming dilemma is a fact neither side of the debate likes to talk about: It is already too late to prevent global warming and the climate change it sets off.
Environmentalists won’t say this for fear of sounding alarmist or defeatist. Politicians won’t say it because then they’d have to do something about it. The world’s top climate scientists have been sending this message, however, with increasing urgency for many years.
Since 1988, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, comprised of more than 2,000 scientific and technical experts from around the world, has conducted the most extensive peer-reviewed scientific inquiry in history.
In its 2001 report, the panel said that human-caused global warming had already begun, and much sooner than expected. What’s more, the problem is bound to get worse, perhaps a lot worse, before it gets better.
Last month, the climate change panel’s chairman, Rajendra Pachauri, upped the ante. Although Pachauri was installed after the Bush administration forced out his predecessor, Robert Watson, for pushing too hard for action, the accumulation of evidence led Pachauri to embrace apocalyptic language: “We are risking the ability of the human race to survive,” he said.
Until now, most public discussion about global warming has focused on how to prevent it — for example, by implementing the Kyoto Protocol, which comes into force internationally (but without U.S. participation) on Wednesday. But prevention is no longer a sufficient option. No matter how many “green” cars and solar panels Kyoto eventually calls into existence, the hard fact is that a certain amount of global warming is inevitable.
The world community therefore must make a strategic shift. It must expand its response to global warming to emphasize both long-term and short-term protection. Rising sea levels and more weather-related disasters will be a fact of life on this planet for decades to come, and we have to get ready for them.
Among the steps needed to defend ourselves is quick action to fortify emergency response capabilities worldwide, to shield or relocate vulnerable coastal communities and to prepare for increased migration flows by environmental refugees.
We must also play offense. We must retroactively shrink the amount of warming facing us by redoubling efforts to remove existing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere and sequester them where they are no longer dangerous. One way is to plant trees, which absorb carbon dioxide via photosynthesis.
Researchers are exploring many other methods as well, some of them supported by the Bush administration. And Norway is burying carbon dioxide in abandoned oil wells beneath the North Sea.
The problem with the Kyoto Protocol is not that the 5 percent greenhouse gas emission reductions it mandates don’t go far enough, though they don’t. (The climate change panel urges 50 to 70 percent reductions.)
The problem is that Kyoto governs only future emissions. No matter how well the protocol works, it will have no effect on past emissions, which are what have made global warming unavoidable.
Contrary to the impression given by some news reports, global warming is not like a light switch that can be turned off if we simply stop burning so much oil, coal and gas.
There is a lag effect of about 50 to 100 years. That’s how long carbon dioxide, the primary greenhouse gas, remains in the atmosphere after it is emitted from auto tailpipes, home furnaces and industrial smokestacks.
So even if humanity stopped burning fossil fuels tomorrow, the planet would continue warming for decades.
So far, the greenhouse gases released during two-plus centuries of industrialization have increased global temperatures by about 1 degree Fahrenheit and raised sea levels by 4 to 7 inches.
They have also given rise to the larger phenomenon of climate change. The climate change panel scientists predict that because of global warming, the future will bring more and deadlier weather of all kinds — more hurricanes, tornadoes, downpours, heat waves, droughts and blizzards — and all that comes in their aftermath: flooding, landslides, power outages, crop failures, property damage, disease, hunger, poverty and loss of life.
In California, torrential rains induced a mudslide on Jan. 11 that killed 10 people, buried children alive and crushed dozens of houses. In 2003, a record summer heat wave killed 35,000 people, most of them elderly, in Western Europe. And this is just the beginning.
Scientists are careful to say that no single weather event can be definitively linked to global warming, but the trend is unmistakable to the insurance companies that end up paying the bill.
“Man-made climate change will bring us increasingly extreme natural events and, consequently, increasingly large catastrophe losses,” an official of Munich Re, the world’s large reinsurance company, said recently. Swiss Re expects losses to reach $150 billion a year within this decade.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair regards climate change as “the single biggest long-term problem” of any kind facing his country. His government’s top scientist, Sir David King, goes further, calling climate change “the biggest danger humanity has faced in 5,000 years of civilization.”
Although the Bush White House continues to downplay the urgency of global warming, some parts of the Bush administration have recognized the gravity of the situation. A report released last year by the Pentagon’s Office of Net Assessments said that by 2020, climate change could unleash a series of interlocking catastrophes including mega-droughts, mass starvation and even nuclear war as countries like China and India battle over river valleys and other sources of scarce food and water.
All of this underlines the urgency of revising the world’s response to climate change. To be sure, it remains essential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by strengthening the Kyoto Protocol and augmenting it with other measures. Otherwise, the amount of warming that civilization eventually will have to endure will prove too great to survive.
In the meantime, it is imperative to prepare against the climate change already on its way.
The need for such a two-track strategy of prevention and protection is gaining acceptance from most of the world’s governments. In Britain, the Department of the Environment promises to publish its strategy for adapting to global warming by the end of 2005.
At the most recent international meeting on global warming, held in Buenos Aires in December, a majority of the delegates supported the establishment of a fund to aid countries already suffering from the early effects of global warming.
A leading candidate for such aid is Tuvalu. A Pacific atoll whose highest point is 12 feet above sea level, Tuvalu was largely submerged last year by 10- foot seasonal high tides. But the United States opposed the adaptation assistance, arguing that there is no “certainty what constitutes a dangerous level of warming… .”
Preparing to live through the global climate change bearing down on our civilization will be an enormous undertaking. It will require immense financial resources, technical expertise and organizational skill. But perhaps what’s needed most of all, especially in the United States, is fresh thinking and political leadership — an acceptance that climate change is inescapable and requires immediate counter-measures.
The unspeakable death and destruction wrought by the Indian Ocean tsunami showed what can happen when people are unprepared for disaster, but there is no reason global warming should take us by surprise.
Our civilization’s early warning system — the scientists of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — have been telling us for years that great danger is approaching. The question is, will we act quickly and decisively enough to protect ourselves against the coming storm? Or will we simply stand and face our fate naked, proud and unafraid?
Mark Hertsgaard is the author most recently of “The Eagle’s Shadow: Why America Fascinates and Infuriates the World; and “Earth Odyssey: Around the World In Search of Our Environmental Future.”
Mark Hertsgaard, SF Chronicle