IPCC: Humans Wrecking The Planet; Humans: /Shrug/

ipcc surface temperatures
Observed change in average surface temperature, 1901-2012. Source: IPCC

The most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report’s summary for policy makers (pdf) released today — the first installment of the UN-affiliated body’s fifth report — is in many ways exactly what one would expect: a further tightening of what we already knew. The takeaway at Twitter speed? The world is out of whack and we’re to blame. 

At least that analysis would make sense to anyone who has followed the explosion of global temperatures and extreme weather events — the flooding, freezing, storming, sinking, burning, and general climate-related mayhem — and also bothered to skip over their ideologically crafted blogs of choice to read the published science.

The massive amounts of greenhouse gases being belched out by human fossil-fuel-powered industry is behind the increased global warming now destabilizing our earth’s climate system. We’ve known that for years. It’s just basic chemistry.

That said, CNN did a decent job of ticking off the report’s key points: the 95-percent confidence that human industry is behind half or more of the observed temperature rise of the last 50-some years; that the last 30 years represent likely the warming period on earth in 1,500 years with current greenhouse gas levels “unprecedented” in 20,000 years; that we’re on course for nearly 7 degrees temperature rise this century; ice sheets shrinking, seas rising…

Again, nothing you haven’t heard before.

However, there is a serious problem with the offering your local news outlet likely won’t touch. I’m not talking about bogus claims of a “pause” in global warming (that’d be La Niña folks, the excess heat is still accumulating). I’m talking about the omission of even worse news.

Last November’s report stating that the Arctic permafrost, with vast stores of the potent greenhouse gas methane, is melting faster than expected and leading to a potential “tipping point” in the climate is not included.

Neither are reports of faster melts happening in Greenland and the Antarctic, with their resultant massive contributions to sea-level rise and coastal flooding.

Another more recent report overlooked because of the IPCC’s production schedule includes the finding that cyclones are expected to increase in number, not just intensity, because of human-caused global warming.

The problem, as the editors at Scientific American spell out in their current issue, is that the data in the IPCC’s six-years-in-the-making report is “already out-of-date.”

“Without the latest data, the IPCC, already conservative in its proclamations, tends to underestimate the risks of climate change,” the editors write. “And the slow update schedule gives foot-dragging governments cover, as they can always claim that they should wait for the next report to come out before taking action.”

So far, “action” on climate change hasn’t been much of a problem.

So here we are poised once more to flub an opportunity to avoid a potentially unlivable planet. While the news from those in the field is actually worse than even the IPCC is telling us today, a manufactured “debate” fomented by petroleum partisans of the denial industry buddied up with media members of questionable scientific literacy is poised to win the day, according to Douglas Fischer at The Daily Climate.

“The real take-home message is that the confidence has increased,” Susan Joy Hassol, director of Climate Communication, a nonprofit science and outreach project dedicated to furthering scientific understanding, told Fischer.

But that message has been buried. 

“Instead of focusing on all of those things, people are overly focused on the short-term slowing in the rate of increase of one variable – surface air temperature,” Hassol said. 

“Scientists focus on the science. The deniers act more like lawyers,” she said. “The media battle between the climate scientists and the denial machine is like a fight between the Boy Scouts and the Marines.”

In the same piece, Fischer quotes Andrew Revkin, former New York Times environment reporter and editor the Dot Earth blog, suggesting that the fight for climate action is not even about having the right facts.

“There’s been a false perception, propagated by the climate activism community, that if they just get the message straight, that somehow the world and country would decarbonize, just on the evidence.”

The reality is that we love fossil fuels, he added. “Everything we do, for the moment, is based on coal and oil. … Anyone who wants to maintain the status quo has a very easy job.”

“This IPCC report and the next one and the last one are not going to change” those underlying fundamentals, Revkin said.

So, what will it take to move the world off carbon-intensive fuels, agriculture, and transportation, usher in a renewables-based response, and start taking stock of the damages and making amends?

Writes Andew Steer, president of the World Resources Institute:

“It’s not too late to change course, but we need an urgent response based on the mounting evidence. We need to find pathways to low-carbon, economic growth. We need actions that will reduce global emissions, expedite the shift to clean energy, and enhance the resilience of our communities. We know that the costs of action on climate change are modest, and are dwarfed by the costs of inaction.

“Future generations are depending on us to wake up to this global challenge. It’s time for our leaders to answer the call.”

Today, we are each in possession of huge unrequested yet pressing obligations to the entire human family and, truthfully, the entire planetary system that sustain us.

As those who are able to overcome the overwhelming weight of that charge understand, it’s not just our own inertia blocking the way. It’s a collective thing.

To follow Rifkin here, we have to ask: As long as the residents of the wealthiest nations on earth can still pad their TV dens with petro-secured comforts, create media to spin the climate message in reverse, and live unchallenged at work, school, church, or the street about the suffering their apathy is locking in, how can we change?

We have to further ask, as David Biello does back at Scientific American, can we do something about it?

Undoubtedly, we can. But we have to start with making the comfortable uncomfortable. In the street. At work, church, and school. We have to move the base that moves the politicians.

The world is out of whack and we’re to blame. It’s a simple message. Now be a good human and share it — especially with those who don’t want to hear it.