The first session of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 1988. Courtesy of IPCC.
By 2021, climate scientists should be 99 percent certain that climate change is our fault–up from 95 percent certain presently and a mere 90 percent certain all the way back in 2007. This conclusion of the leaked draft of the forthcoming assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) begs the question: Is any of that certainty changing anything?
A survey of greenhouse gas emissions suggests not. This spring atmospheric concentrations way up atop Mauna Loa on Hawaii touched 400 parts per million for the first time in millennia–and human emissions of CO2 reached another all-time record last year, despite an IPCC that has been patiently working since 1988.
This latest IPCC magnum opus isn’t designed to tell you anything you don’t know if you’ve been paying an iota of attention to the problem of climate change. The global warming of surface temperatures has just as good of a chance of being not that bad (plus 1 degree Celsius this century) or terrifyingly bad (plus 5 degrees C by 2100), with something in the middle, as always, most likely. Sea level rise is going to be worse than previously predicted, because previous predictions didn’t include the meltdown of Greenland’s ice sheet–and drowned coasts are going to be with us for a very long time, as will more acidic oceans.
Nor is this onslaught of facts likely to change a single mind, for that better social science is needed. But the IPCC report isn’t designed to, rather it’s designed to present the consensus, and therefore conservative, position of Science and Society on climate change–and it does an admirable job of that. Too bad scientists are more worried than they can usefully admit in an IPCC document, and society (meaning governments) just don’t seem to give a damn. I can’t wait to see how Saudi Arabia, Canada, the U.S. and China, among other nation-states, attempt to tweak this leaked draft at the end of September in Stockholm. In case you missed it, progress toward a global deal to combat climate change is presently on hiatus, working ever so slowly to arrive at a deal that can be sealed in 2015 and that would take effect in 2020–just in time for the next IPCC report.
In the end there is one thing modern society can be quite sure of: we are setting the thermostat for millennia. Some of the CO2 emitted today from fossil fuels will still be wafting around the atmosphere blocking in heat thousands of years from now. The conversation we should be having is about what kind of planet we want over the long term, not whether or not climate change is happening (it is) or who is to blame (we are). It’s like a game of Clue where the central mystery has been solved, and yet the pieces keep moving around the board in an endless round. I, for one, suggest we get a clue and start speeding the implementation of the technologies and techniques that could combat climate change.