By George B. Kauffman
From the thousands of articles that have appeared in in the scientific literature for decades, I am convinced that climate change is a serious problem and is anthropogenic (caused by humans). The climate change nightmare is so complex and the statements and misstatements coming so fast and furious that I’ll deal with the situation by themes and issues rather than chronologically.
According to the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), climate change is already stressing human communities, agriculture and natural ecosystems, and the effects are likely to increase in the future. This year’s three-part report is a practical guide to action. It highlights the greatest risks and draws on an emerging body of social science to suggest how policymakers might take practical steps to help communities adapt.
Researchers say governments should be doing more to prepare for climate effects, such as the 2011 coastal flooding in Scotland.
“The reframing of the report in terms of managing risk is a very good one,” says geographer Susan Cutter, an expert on disasters at the University of South Carolina, Columbia.
“I don’t know of any other previous effort to rank the risks of climate change,” says IPCC lead author Michael Oppenheimer of Princeton University. “We hope that will help policymakers make investment decisions on adaptation.”
The report is the second of three volumes on climate change. The first, on physical effects, appeared last September; a third, on ways to reduce or mitigate it, was published in April.
The first installment details how the buildup of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere is affecting thousands of species, reducing farm yields and threatening marine ecosystems with ocean acidification. For the future, the report says projections indicate “many more negative impacts than positive impacts.”
A shorter 44-page summary for policymakers highlights eight especially pressing “key risks.” These risks may have “potentially severe consequences for humans and social-ecological systems.”
- Death or harm from coastal flooding
- Harm or economic losses from inland flooding
- Extreme weather disrupting electrical, emergency or other systems
- Extreme heat, especially for the urban and rural poor
- Food insecurity linked to warming, drought or flooding
- Water shortages causing agricultural or economic losses
- Loss of marine ecosystems essential to fishing and other communities
- Loss of terrestrial and inland water ecosystems
The new report also offers solutions. On fisheries, the document lays out how maintaining coastal vegetation or protecting reefs from fishing equipment or coral harvesters could help “maximize resilience” of coastal ecosystems to shifting ocean temperatures and chemistry. Some coastal communities are already incorporating rising sea levels into their zoning and planning efforts, but more could do the same. The biggest single barrier to improving societal resilience to the vagaries of climate is poverty, to which the report devotes an entire chapter.
Such material comes as a direct response to policymakers, many of whom have begged scientists to make their climate work more meaningful for decision making. IPCC participants say the new approach was born in 2011, during the preparation of an influential report on extreme events, known as SREX. That effort partnered climatologists with risk management scholars and other social scientists more closely than ever before. “[We] all had to be together in the same room,” Cutter says.
As climate effects increasingly hit home, however, it is investment dollars for adaptation that will matter, not lip service, say the IPCC authors. The costs of global adaptation have been estimated at $70 billion–$100 billion per year by 2050, although the IPCC found low confidence in those numbers. But the report states that “the projected global needs [are] orders of magnitude greater than current investment levels particularly in developing countries.”
“We live in an era of man-made climate change,” said Vicente Barros, co-chair of the IPCC Working Group II that authored the report: “In many cases, we are not prepared for the climate-related risks that we already face. Investments in better preparation can pay dividends both for the present and for the future.”
Impoverished communities—subsisting on foods gathered or fished from the wild and on crops grown using conventional farming methods—are and will be hardest hit by climate change, with greater warming meaning more severe effects. Tim Gore of Oxfam International told the Washington Post that “in a world where a billion people are already going hungry, this makes it harder for more people to feed their families.”
However, the report also mentioned opportunities for human communities to adapt.
Initiating public health measures and making water supplies more flexible are a couple of the ways that humans can lessen the effects of climate change. “Thirty years ago, the previous generation maybe was damaging our atmosphere, [and] the Earth, out of ignorance. Now, ignorance is no longer a good excuse,” said Michel Jarraud, the head of the World Meteorological Organization, at a press conference announcing the release of the report.
On May 6, the latest National Climate Assessment, a 30-chapter document, prepared by several hundred scientific and technical authorities and providing the most comprehensive current analysis for the United States of global climate disruption, was released by the U.S. government. In its study of regions, it underscored the high risk faced by residents of Florida:
- At least 2.4 million people, 1.3 million homes and 1.8 million acres of land are vulnerable to sea-level rise.
- An estimated $40 billion in tourism revenue will be lost by the 2050s as the sea-level rise affects the Everglades, the Florida Keys and other top tourist attractions.
- Among the most vulnerable to climate change risks are population-dense Florida cities such as Miami and Tampa.
- Southeast Florida faces an “imminent threat” of flooding due to rising sea levels—putting coastal communities, freshwater supplies and 37,500 acres of cropland at risk.
So how did Senator Marco Rubio (R–Fla.), a politician angling to be president in 2016, respond? In one of the most egregious cases of climate change denial in recent history, on May 11 Rubio told ABC News Correspondent Jonathan Karl on This Week: “I do not believe that human activity is causing these dramatic changes to our climate the way these scientists are portraying it. That’s what I do not—and I do not believe that the laws that they propose we pass will do anything about it. Except it will destroy our economy.” So much for Rubio’s purported concern for the men, women and children of his state. And he said it on Mother’s Day!
On May 15, Nobel economics laureate Paul Krugman wrote the following:
So why would the senator make such a statement? The answer is that like that [Antarctic] ice sheet [that recently slid into the ocean], his party’s intellectual evolution (or maybe more accurately, its devolution) has reached a point of no return, in which allegiance to false doctrines has become a crucial badge of identity.
There are, obviously, some fundamental factors underlying G.O.P. climate skepticism: The influence of powerful vested interests (including, though by no means limited to, the Koch brothers), plus the party’s hostility to any argument for government intervention. But there is clearly also some kind of cumulative process at work. As the evidence for a changing climate keeps accumulating, the Republican Party’s commitment to denial just gets stronger.
Once upon a time it was possible to take climate change seriously while remaining Republican in good standing. Today, listening to climate scientists gets you excommunicated—hence Mr. Rubio’s statement, which was effectively a partisan pledge of allegiance.
And truly crazy positions are becoming the norm. A decade ago, only the G.O.P.’s extremist fringe asserted that global warming was a hoax concocted by a vast global conspiracy of scientists (although even then that fringe included some powerful politicians). Today, such conspiracy theorizing is mainstream within the party, and rapidly becoming mandatory; witch hunts against scientists reporting evidence of warming have become standard operating procedure, and skepticism about climate science is turning into hostility toward science in general.
George B. Kauffman, Ph.D., chemistry professor emeritus at California State University, Fresno and Guggenheim Fellow, is recipient of the American Chemical Society’s George C. Pimentel Award in Chemical Education, the Helen M. Free Award for Public Outreach and the Award for Research at an Undergraduate Institution, and numerous domestic and international honors. In 2002 and 2011, he was appointed a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Chemical Society, respectively.