It’s a reality reflected in the hooded expression of my youngest son, Noah, when the topic arises. At 20, he realizes all too well the world we’ve left his generation.
Launching into coverage of climate change right now is like tuning into a football game that’s half over and your team is on its way to losing. The only question is by how much.
Even if every word of last December’s breakthrough Paris Agreement is implemented and global warming is slowed, according to climate scientists I’ve interviewed, nations might moderate the planetary abuse caused by generations of mankind pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, ocean, plants and soil.
At best, a catastrophe might be averted, they say.
But theirs is the joy of a patient learning that a diagnosis may not be terminal — only crippling. It’s a reality reflected in the hooded expression of my youngest son, Noah, when the topic arises. At 20, he realizes all too well the world we’ve left his generation.
“We’re committed to a path that is taking us into parts unknown, and there’s no turning back,” says Gavin Schmidt, a NASA climatologist. “There are only choices about how much of an unknown situation we put ourselves in.”
The Paris Agreement, since signed by 180 nations, would limit global warming by the year 2100 to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees F), compared with pre-industrial levels.
An added push for a 1.5-degree limit could make a huge positive difference for the planet.
But even at that stricter limit, Earth still will see rising sea levels, persistent droughts, species extinction and volatile weather patterns, the climate specialists say.
“The world has already signed itself up for some level of climatic impact,” says Nick Nuttall, spokesman for the U.N. Climate Change secretariat. “The amount of pollution amassed over the two centuries of industrialization — you can’t just suck it up with a vacuum cleaner.”
Oh, if only it were 1980, says Katherine Hayhoe.
Hayhoe, director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University, says a Paris Agreement and the renewable energy efforts gaining speed today would have had a profound impact on a far less sullied planet 35 years ago.
“Our carbon dioxide levels now are over 400 parts per million,” Hayhoe says, referring to what scientists says is a historic milestone reached this past year for a gas that is shrouding the planet like a blanket. “Our global temperature changes are already pushing 1 degree Celsius.”
In the past, scientists warning of climate change were labeled alarmists. But most of their calculations are proving to be accurate.
If anything, they have underestimated the changes underway. A 2012 analysis at the University of Alberta in Canada found a scientific bias in climate research toward “erring on the side of least drama.”
Climate scientist Michael Mann — co-author of the new book The Madhouse Effect, about the threat posed by denialism — says many uncertainties concerning global warming “appear to be breaking against us, rather than for us.”
“Arctic sea ice is disappearing faster than the models projected,” he says. “The continental ice sheets (in Greenland and the Antarctic) are losing ice faster than expected.”
Another surprise was uncovered in a study Mann co-authored last year in Climate Nature Change.
It found disturbing evidence that a North Atlantic current crucial in controlling weather patterns was slowing, possibly because of an influx of fresh water from melting ice in Greenland.
So much needs to be done so quickly that the Paris treaty goals for limiting warming may already be unattainable.
“I would say people are pretty pessimistic about that. I’ve not found anybody that actually thinks 1.5 (degrees Celsius) is at all realistic” because too much of society remains unwilling or unable to act, says NASA climatologist Schmidt.
What’s needed now is some tough love on the topic. “The earth is going to look like a different place,” says Peter Tans, chief greenhouse gas scientist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “It’s very scary stuff.”
“We need to be upfront with our children,” Mann says. “Such a world would not be unlike the dystopian worlds depicted by Hollywood in movies like Soylent Green or The Hunger Games. Fortunately such a future is still avoidable. The challenge is to act. Now.”
USA TODAY US Edition19 Sep 2016
Gregg Zoroya Zoroya covers climate change for USA TODAY.
Photo: FRANCOIS GUILLOT, AFP/GETTY IMAGES
Demonstrators rally in Paris in December 2015 during the U.N. Climate Change Conference, where a pact signed by 180 nations was worked out.