One word in the latest draft report from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) sums up why climate inaction is so uniquely immoral: “Irreversible.”
The message from climate scientists about our ongoing failure to cut carbon pollution: The catastrophic changes in climate that we are voluntarily choosing to impose on our children and grandchildren — and countless generations after them — cannot plausibly be undone for hundreds of years or more.
Yes, we can still stop the worst — with virtually no impact on growth, as an earlier IPCC report from April made clear — but future generations will not be able reverse whatever we are too greedy and shortsighted to prevent through immediate action.
The world’s top scientists have finalized their “synthesis” report (of their fifth full scientific Assessment since 1990). It integrates the analysis from their three previous Fifth Assessment reports — ones on climate science, climate impacts, and climate solutions. They have sent a draft of this report to the world’s leading governments, who must sign off on it line by line and will no doubt water it down.
This report was leaked to the AP and others. That means we can see the unvarnished language.
The scientists want to know that “currently observed impacts might already be considered dangerous” — at least if you think more extreme heat waves and more extreme droughts and more extreme deluges and more extreme storm surges are dangerous.
But it’s the future we should be worrying about the most:
Continued emission of greenhouse gases will cause further warming and long-lasting changes in all components of the climate system, increasing the likelihood of severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts for people and ecosystems.
Translation: Continued inaction would be catastrophic and immoral.
The risk of abrupt and irreversible change increases as the magnitude of the warming increases.
Translation: The more we delay, the worse it can get.
Without additional mitigation, and even with adaptation, warming by the end of the 21st century will lead to high to very high risk of severe, widespread and irreversible impacts globally.
Translation: Future generations can’t simply adapt to the ruined climate we are in the process of handing over to them. Either we start cutting carbon pollution ASAP or we should just stop pretending we are a rational, moral species.
How bad can it get? The IPCC already explained that in the science report (see “Alarming IPCC Prognosis: 9°F Warming For U.S., Faster Sea Rise, More Extreme Weather, Permafrost Collapse”). And they expanded on that in the impacts report (see “Conservative Climate Panel Warns World Faces ‘Breakdown Of Food Systems’ And More Violent Conflict”).
As an aside, while the AP has done a great job summarizing this draft, there really is no excuse for quoting climate confusionist John Christy that we will be okay: “Humans are clever. We shall adapt to whatever happens.” The point is the IPCC has explained that conclusion is just B.S. by any useful definition of the phrase “adapt to” — unless you think it means “suffer through.”
As I’ve explained recently, quoting John Christy on climate change is like quoting Dick Cheney on Iraq. Even the AP acknowledges that Christy “is in the tiny minority of scientists who are skeptical of mainstream science’s claim that global warming is a major problem.” Since when does the media have to give any space to a tiny minority?
The IPCC reports are just reviews of the scientific literature, so the focus on the irreversible nature of climate change is no surprise. Indeed, as far back as January 2009 we reported on research led by NOAA scientists titled “Irreversible climate change because of carbon dioxide emissions.” That study had some alarming conclusions.
…the climate change that is taking place because of increases in carbon dioxide concentration is largely irreversible for 1,000 years after emissions stop … Among illustrative irreversible impacts that should be expected if atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations increase from current levels near 385 parts per million by volume (ppmv) to a peak of 450-600 ppmv over the coming century are irreversible dry-season rainfall reductions in several regions comparable to those of the ”dust bowl” era and inexorable sea level rise.
Recent studies strongly support that finding.
It is always important to remember — as RealClimate wrote of the 2009 study — “Irreversible Does Not Mean Unstoppable.” This latest draft synthesis report makes clear we can still stop the worst from happening, at a very low cost, but we have to start slashing emissions ASAP.