If you have not been following the climate change issue much in the last five years (and you’ve received little help from the news media) then, you are in for a shock. Since the mid-2000s, climate science has advanced by leaps and bounds, with much new data about our climate and environmental present and past, new and more advanced models, and generally a better understanding of how greenhouse gases (GHG) interact with and alter the planet’s climate.
In short, this science has shown that the problem of global climate change is far worse and much more closely looming than previously feared. Earlier predictions that seemed so alarmist were wrong: They were too optimistic. No one, anywhere wants any of this to be true, but that does not matter. It is now pretty clear that
- The level of atmospheric GHG that is tolerable without major, highly-disruptive changes to the earth’s climate – and to human society – probably is a lot lower than previously thought;
- The bad outcomes will arrive sooner and will be worse and more varied than we thought, in large part because major planetary systems (polar ice, tundra, the oceans themselves) are more sensitive to temperature changes than was believed; and
- The disruptions already have begun and the costs are already substantial,
On Monday I’ll try to summarize a little of these new findings, focusing on new information about climate “tipping points” and the effects warming may have on human society in the next 20 years. Then, we can discuss what could be done, and what little actually might be done.
A caution. This is not really a one night topic. In fact, it’s a uniquely difficult topic to even begin to bend one’s mind around. First, it’s technical, highly politicized, and focused on the future more so than the here and now, all of which hit the news media at their weakest points. But, climate change is also so.. big and unprecedented that it’s difficult to fully grasp and invites skepticism. All of human civilization is built for a planet with a very stable climate. One where sea levels don’t rise and erase our cities, ports, and infrastructure. One where glaciers and reliable snow fall feed our rivers and aquifers. One where crops are adapted to grow within a narrow range of temperatures and rainfall levels. Where tropical diseases are limited to the tropics, and fish are abundant because they have plenty of plankton to eat. Where drought is a temporary problem, not a permanent condition. And so forth.
The future of all of these things is in doubt now, and the changes necessary even to adapt to this new world may be practically beyond human capacity, much less to do much to prevent it. Certainly, any of this is beyond our current political capacity, both here and abroad. It doesn’t help that U.S. political debates on global warming are – I swear to God – the stupidest I have ever seen on any issue in my lifetime. But, given what is at stake, I’ll give it a shot if you will. There is a lot to talk about beyond name calling and blaming the other side. The whole point of my presentation will be to show that, even if we had a better brand of politics, this problem is still immense and no one knows exactly what to do.
And, of course, there remains some degree of uncertainty surrounding all of this, and, since many of the solutions will be very expensive, that makes this all that much murkier and harder to decide exactly what to do.
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –
- What are the latest findings of climate scientists? Why is warming happening more rapidly than previously thought? What are the major mechanisms that are accelerating this problem? How much uncertainty – in both directions – are these findings?
- What can we expect in terms of climate change in, say, the next 20 years, in the United States and elsewhere?
- What are our policy options? Which of these would give us the best bang for the buck; i.e., the most mitigation at the least cost and least disruption? What could the United States do itself, and what would we need other countries’ cooperation to accomplish?
- Why has the world – not just we – done so little to (1) limit GHG emissions and (2) prepare the adaptations that will be necessary to thrive in a changed world?
- What will it take to turn around American public opinion on climate change – NOT just to get more Americans to believe it’s really happening, but to make it a higher public priority?
- Relatedly, what can regular people do to help this process along, given the decade of deceptive propaganda by the Right and the public and politicians’ inability to think long-term about anything?
The Problem, the Basics –
- If you’re not alarmed about climate change, you’re not paying attention. A must-read.
- The ABCs of climate change [Note link changed to an easier shorter one]. One of many available, in case you need it.
- Warming has accelerated in the last 15 years. Scientists have consistently underestimated global warming’s effects. Both recommended.
The Effects –
The Solutions – .
- Quick, bulleted summary. Or, try this longer explanation. [UPDATE: The latter is your 2nd must-read, after the first one, above.]
- What can Obama do about climate change? (from Scientific American). Recommended.
- Very long, boring, but crucial analysis of the politics of climate change solutions in the United States. Skim if you want.
- Geo-engineering: What about a future purely-technological solution to the problem, which they call, geo-engineering? Maybe, but these are problematic, too.
- “Climate-Gate:” Since it will undoubtedly come up – The “scandal” explained here.
- The Europeans aren’t doing much of anything to combat climate change, either. So, don’t just blame American Republicans/conservatives for the lack of action.