Saturday, November 17, 2007

A 4th Climate Warning. Anyone Listening?

by Andrew C. Revkin
The New York Times
November 16, 2007

Meltwater flows from the Kangerlussuaq Glacier in Greenland. (Credit: Andrew C. Revkin)

It was the culmination of an extraordinary meeting on the human-changed atmosphere. For three days, scientists had described how a buildup of long-lived gases emitted by burning fuels and forests would, if it continued, raise temperatures, raise seas and disrupt weather patterns important to agriculture, water supplies and wildlife.

As the conference concluded, a leader of the group, Michael McElroy of Harvard, stood and said this: “If we choose to take on this challenge, it appears that we can slow the rate of change substantially, giving us time to develop mechanisms so that the cost to society and the damage to ecosystems can be minimized. We could alternatively close our eyes, hope for the best, and pay the cost when the bill comes due.”

That was June 1988. Dr. McElroy’s statement was the kicker on my first long story on global warming, which ran on the cover of Discover magazine a few months later.

That year also saw the birth of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Tonight in Valencia, Spain, the panel completed the final summary section of its latest review of what is known, possible and still a mystery about how human activities are influencing Earth’s climate and what we might do about it.

This was the fourth such review since 1990. Progressively over that span, the panel’s reports have raised the likelihood that people, mainly by burning billions of tons of coal and oil, have been the main force responsible for global warming since 1950 and that a lot more warming, coastal retreats and shifting weather are in the offing under business as usual. (In the bargain we get some plankton-harming ocean acidification, something not anticipated originally).

The rituals surrounding the release of these reports have always been the same. Around 10:30 p.m. local time on Friday in Valencia, according to my colleague Elisabeth Rosenthal, applause rang out when Rajendra K. Pachauri, the chairman of the panel, declared the fourth assessment completed after government officials approved the wording in a final concluding document. (There’ll be more applause in early December in Oslo when he and others snag half of the Nobel Peace Prize for nearly 20 years of painstaking, unpaid, exhausting, contentious work.)

As they always have, news services began describing the embargoed findings earlier in the evening, prodded by environmental campaigners and some scientists who hoped the results would inspire diplomats preparing to gather next month in Bali for the latest round of climate-treaty talks. Industry-backed groups issued their own news releases playing down the notion that new climate perils had been identified.

On Saturday governments will issue formal statements, each seeking to spin the findings to suit its own agenda and needs.

But the central question remains largely as it was posed by Dr. McElroy 19 years ago: Will the world’s leaders and citizens act on the basis of this building picture of a world sent into environmental flux by human actions, or choose to wait for some future round of research to clarify things a bit more?

In the meantime, the world is heading toward nine billion people, all seeking comfort and security and prosperity. A broad range of experts, within and outside the I.P.C.C., agree that sufficient energy to enable such progress (without overheating Earth) will come only with a mix of more efficient use of fossil fuels and fundamentally new energy technologies that do not influence the climate.

In essence, this challenge reflects a question I posed on Nov. 9, in a post called “What Does the Present Owe the Future“? As you can see from reader comments, there is no easy answer.

Many of the scientists involved with this marathon effort have spent more than half their lives trying to clarify what may come from what Roger Revelle, in an understated line, described in a 1957 paper as a “large scale geophysical experiment.”

In an e-mail exchange during a break in the proceedings today, Stephen H. Schneider, a Stanford University climatologist who has been in the climatology trenches since long before I quoted him in that 1988 article, put it this way (while declining to discuss the still-embargoed report): “The world learns slowly, so we keep moving forward haltingly, with backsliding, and do the best we can.”

Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company

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