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“There Is No Question That We Live in a World Already Altered by Climate

By Phil Plait

Yesterday, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released Part 2 of its Assessment Report. Part 1 came out in September 2013 and showed unequivocally that climate change is real, and human influence is the root cause. Part 2 deals with the impacts of climate change, and what might be done to minimize the effects. The technical summary is an interesting if depressing read. It concatenates the results from scientific journals in the field, giving what is essentially the position of the scientific community on the issues.

The scope of the report is very broad, going over the climate change impact on the planet’s physical systems (oceans, coasts, weather, and so on) as well as the biosphere (humans, animals, agriculture) and human society, and then discussing how we must adapt to and manage/mitigate these risks.

Let me be clear: The report plainly states the world is warming, the climate is changing, and we already see the impacts today. Now. It also goes into detail on projections for the future, and the great majority of them are grim.

Food production rates are already getting lower, with crop yields dropping. Most studies project yields dropping even more over time, with half the studies showing a 10 percent or (far) more drop by the end of the century. More people (millions) will be displaced due to coastal and waterway flooding as sea level rises. There will be even more extreme weather events, including more droughts in some places and more rainfall in others. The dynamics of marine organisms will be profoundly altered, including shifting migrations of species due to warming waters, ocean acidification, and changing oxygen levels in water (warm water holds less dissolved gas in it). Those “oxygen minimum zones” are expanding over time as well. The examples in the report march on for quite some length. It’s grave.

(Note: My Slate colleague Eric Holthaus has a solid overview of the report on the blog Future Tense. I strongly urge you to read it, and an article in the Guardian as well.)

As you might expect, the deny-o-sphere’s reaction to this report is to spin like the blades of a kitchen mixer.

A Wall Street Journal op-ed written by Matt Ridley is one example. I’ve written about him several times (like here, and in a follow-up, and a third time). Ridley’s new article makes a lot of dubious claims downplaying the conclusions of the report, saying things aren’t as bad as the IPCC says. I’ll leave you to Climate Science Watch and Hot Whopper for the handy debunkings of those claims.

While the IPCC report talks about the devastating impact climate change will have on populations, resources like crops and water, economic loss, extreme weather, and more, the Daily Mail has an article with the headline—seriously—of, “Climate change will benefit tourism and cause a boom in Arctic cruises, claims leaked UN report.”

Not surprisingly, the Heartland Institute has weighed in on the report, giving it its usual bizarre misinterpretation. Like many other deniers, the group focuses in on the (at best very limited and local) benefits of climate change, ignoring the vast and global risks involved that are hammered home by the IPCC report. It’s like finding a penny in huge pile of bills and calling it a net profit.

James Delingpole took to the keyboard and wrote an article in advance of the IPCC report, focusing on the idea that global warming won’t cost us nearly as much as earlier claims. This is based on the findings of economist Richard Tol, who actually worked on the IPCC report, but left the group after claiming they were being alarmist. However, Tol’s conclusions have been widely rejected as severely underestimating the economic damage due to climate change.

There are more examples, of course, but that should give you a pretty good idea of how the IPCC report is being misrepresented.

Despite this, I want to mention one other thing that struck me, both in the report and by the scientists themselves during the press conference: a sense, just a whiff, of cautious optimism. Let me be clear: Things are already bad, and they are going to get very much worse. We know this. But how much worse they get depends in large part on us.

The faint optimism by the chairs of the report seems to come from the idea that there are measures we can undertake to minimize the damage. It may not be enough, but it may help, and give us needed time to create better solutions. Many governments are well past the stage of acknowledging climate change and are in fact starting to figure out what to do about it. Incremental adjustments are being made, emphasizing “flexibility and learning.”

The one I think is most important is the mitigation of greenhouse gas emission. According to the report this can “substantially reduce risks of climate change in the second half of the 21st century.” Reducing these emissions can help crop yield, reduce water scarcity, reduce sea level rise issues, and more. It also slows things down, giving us more time to adapt and figure out what steps to take next. This is clearly a first, best step.

We need to learn from experience, act across all scales (local to global), increase our resilience, and embed thinking about climate change into our actions that can affect the environment. They give many examples of this: using renewable energy sources, carbon storage and sequestration, changing agricultural practices, and so on.

It’s possible we can stave off the very worst of the disaster.

But make no mistake: This optimism, weak as it may be, depends on mitigation of and adaptation to our warming planet. In other words, and critically, there is only a chance if we take action.

The false optimism peddled by deniers (“it’s not so bad”) is the opposite of this. If we ignore them we may yet minimize the terrible impact of climate change. But if we heed them, and ignore climate change, then their false optimism will prove to be disastrous.

The title of this article you’re reading is a quote from the IPCC working group co-chairman Christopher Field. He’s right: We are living on a planet that is already affected by warming, and it’s going to get worse. The time for denial is long past, the time for Congress members and senators to stick their heads in the sand long gone.

The scientific community agrees on this. The time for action is now. The IPCC report outlines where we need to start. I just hope we can get the policymakers to listen, and to move.

(Note: Midterm elections are this fall. Does your representative have his head in the sand? You can do something about it.)

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