Today – April 22 – is Earth Day. Each year, Earth Day marks the anniversary of what many consider the birth of the modern environmental movement in 1970. Earth Day was founded by Gaylord Nelson, then a U.S. Senator for Wisconsin, after he witnessed the ravages of the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill. At the time, the Santa Barbara oil spill was the largest oil spill in United States waters, only to be eclipsed by the 1989 Exon Valdez and the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spills. The spill caused a public uproar, received prominent media coverage, and achieved a rare political alignment. With support from Republicans and Democrats, rich and poor, tycoons and labor leaders, on the 22nd of April, 1970, 20 million Americans took to the streets to protest against the deterioration of the environment. “It was a gamble,” Senator Nelson recalled, “but it worked.” Earth Day 1970 led to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and the passage of the Clean Air, Clean Water, and Endangered Species Acts.
In the run up to Earth Day 2014, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released two major reports: on March 31, Working Group II released its report, Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability, and on April 13, Working Group III released its report, Climate Change 2014: Mitigation of Climate Change. Both reports struck a particularly urgent tone, citing substantially more evidence of substantially more global warming and its related impacts than previous reports. In many ways, the report represents an important recognition from the international scientific community that they can no longer mistakenly assume that the facts can “speak for themselves.” To actually influence policymakers and the public, scientists must lucidly communicate the complex challenges and uncertainty climate change poses.
“There is a clear message from science: To avoid dangerous interference with the climate system, we need to move away from business as usual,” said Ottmar Edenhofer, an energy expert at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany, and one of the lead authors of the roughly 500-page report.
Though the IPCC report largely paints a grim picture of our current situation, one exacerbated by world governments that have made paltry efforts to address the problem, it provides modest hope. According to the IPCC, the world can still meet the UN goal to limit global warming to 3.6 degrees (2 degrees Celsius) over pre-industrial levels. But to do so, nations must work together to lower greenhouse gas emissions “by 40 to 70 percent” of what they were in 2010. For reference, if present trends were to continue, scientists predict that the planet would be 3.7-4.8 degrees Celsius warmer by 2100 – a level many scientists say could be catastrophic.
The IPCC report described three different sorts of problems posed by climate change. The first are those in which climate is the dominant influence – such as rising sea levels. Due to thermal expansion, the average sea level is expected to go up 20 inches (half a meter) by the end of the century, posing a significant threat to the 271 million people living in coastal cities (a figure which may increase to 345 million by 2050). The second are those in which the climate’s influence is modest – such as climate change’s effects on human health. Rising temperatures will mean more summer heatwaves, leading to more premature deaths, and more unpredictable weather. The third category involves how climate change will alter species’ ranges. In the oceans, for example, both animals and plants are migrating from the tropics to temperate latitudes in pursuit of cooler waters.
The report includes a variety of pathways to a more stable climate system by 2100. The IPCC made clear, however, that avoiding catastrophic climate change will require an energy transformation. “The stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations at low levels requires a fundamental transformation of the energy supply system,” the summary of the report noted. Zero carbon is a central part of the equation, and four technologies are key to achieving the reports aggressive emissions reductions goals: nuclear power, energy efficiency, biofuels, and biomass energy with carbon capture and storage (known as BECCS).
This transformation will come at a cost. According to the IPCC, such a change would clip the growth of global consumption about 0.06 percentage points, which would otherwise have been about 1.6 to 3.0 percent per year over the century. It is clear, however, that the longer it takes to switch to cleaner energy sources, the harder and more expensive it will become to halt global warming. “The longer we delay on tackling climate change, the harder the challenge becomes,” said Samantha Smith, the head of the World Wildlife Fund’s climate and energy program.
As The Washington Post recently noted, “A more rational Washington wouldn’t have needed this document to formulate a better plan for handling the many risks; that would have happened long ago. It’s a measure of the country’s dysfunctional debate on global warming – primarily the fault of Republican cynicism or senselessness – that many lawmakers want no such plan and will ignore this document, as they have many before it.”
The latest IPCC report is the organizations fifth effort to summarize the latest climate science and repackage it as digestible information for the world’s governments and policymakers. Its message is crystal clear and compelling: “The high-speed mitigation train needs to leave the station very soon and all of global society needs to get on board,” said the IPCC’s chair, Rajendra Pachauri. For anyone in Washington to downplay or deny its findings is irresponsible and short-sighted.
Photo Credit: USFWS on Flickr