Robinson: New climate report reveals planetary horror story
Here is how to interpret the alarming new United Nations-sponsored report on global warming: We are living in a horror movie. The world needs statesmen to lead the way to safety. Instead we have President Donald Trump, who essentially says, “Hey, let’s all head to the dark, creepy basement where the chain saws and razor-sharp axes are kept. What could go wrong?”
The answer is almost everything, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The impact of human-induced warming is worse than previously feared, the report released Monday says, and only drastic coordinated action will keep the damage short of catastrophe.
To this point, climate change has been a slow-motion calamity whose impacts, month to month and year to year, have been hard to perceive. Unfortunately, according to the report, that is about to change.
The burning of fossil fuels on an industrial scale has raised global temperatures by about 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit. That may not sound like much, but look at the consequences we’re already seeing: Stronger, slower, wetter tropical storms. Unprecedented heat waves. Devastating floods. Dying coral reefs. A never-before-seen summer shipping lane across the Arctic Ocean.
Meanwhile, humankind continues to pump heat-trapping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere at a tragically self-destructive rate. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change calculates that a further temperature rise of about 1 degree — almost inevitable, given our dependence on coal, oil and gas — would be challenging but manageable. A increase of about 2 degrees, however, would be disastrous.
What’s the difference? With a 1 degree rise, about 14 percent of the world’s population would be vulnerable to severe and deadly heat waves every five years; with a 2-degree rise, that figure jumps to 37 percent. With a 1-degree rise, an additional 350 million city dwellers worldwide will face water shortages; with a 2-degree rise, 411 million people will suffer such drought. With a 1-degree rise, coral reefs will experience “very frequent mass mortalities”; with a 2-degree rise, coral reefs will “mostly disappear.”
Small differences can have huge impacts. Under the 1-degree scenario, up to 69 million people will be newly exposed to flooding. Under the 2-degree scenario — which the report estimates would boost sea-level rise by as much as 36 inches — the number rises to 80 million.
Please don’t dismiss all of this as just another boring compendium of carefully hedged facts and figures. I have followed the intergovernmental climate panel’s research since covering the first Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. The new report strikes a different tone that combines weary fatalism with hair-on-fire alarm. In dry, just-the-facts language it predicts declining fisheries, failing crops, more widespread risk from tropical diseases such as malaria, economic dislocation in the most-affected countries — and, by logical extension, greater political instability.
All of these impacts are bad with one more degree of temperature rise. With 2 degrees they are much, much worse.
The obvious solution is to dramatically reduce carbon emissions. The intergovernmental climate panel says that emissions need to decline by at least 40 percent by 2030, and to reach net zero by 2050, if we are to hold warming to 1 more degree. Yet last year, according to the International Energy Agency, global emissions hit an all-time high.