Quick Guide To The New Climate Report: Five Minutes Before Midnight

The Atlantic gave a quick summary of the climate report with a post on What Leading Scientists Want You to Know About Today’s Frightening Climate Report. For those who don’t want to read even this much, here are the key points:

The polar icecaps are melting faster than we thought they would; seas are rising faster than we thought they would; extreme weather events are increasing. Have a nice day! That’s a less than scientifically rigorous summary of the findings of the Fifth Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report released this morning in Stockholm.

Appearing exhausted after a nearly two sleepless days fine-tuning the language of the report, co-chair Thomas Stocker called climate change “the greatest challenge of our time,” adding that “each of the last three decades has been successively warmer than the past,” and that this trend is likely to continue into the foreseeable future.

Pledging further action to cut carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said, “This isn’t a run of the mill report to be dumped in a filing cabinet. This isn’t a political document produced by politicians… It’s science.”

When I asked him for his headline, Michael Mann, the Director of the Earth Systems Science Center at Penn State (a former IPCC author himself) suggested: “Jury In: Climate Change Real, Caused by Us, and a Threat We Must Deal With.”

It is now 95 percent likely that human spewed heat-trapping gases — rather than natural variability — are the main cause of climate change, according to today’s report. In 2007 the IPCC’s confidence level was 90 percent, and in 2001 it was 66 percent, and just over 50 percent in 1995.

What’s more, things are getting worse more quickly than almost anyone thought would happen a few years back.

“If you look at the early IPCC predictions back from 1990 and what has taken place since, climate change is proceeding faster than we expected,” Mann told me by email. Mann helped develop the famous hockey-stick graph, which Al Gore used in his film “An Inconvenient Truth” to dramatize the sharp rise in temperatures in recent times.

Mann cites the decline of Arctic sea ice to explain : “Given the current trajectory, we’re on track for ice-free summer conditions in the Arctic in a matter of a decade or two… There is a similar story with the continental ice sheets, which are losing ice — and contributing to sea level rise — at a faster rate than the [earlier IPCC] models had predicted.”

But there is a lot that we still don’t understand. Reuters noted in a sneak preview of IPCC draft which was leaked in August that, while the broad global trends are clear, climate scientists were “finding it harder than expected to predict the impact in specific regions in coming decades.”

There are some possibilities that are deliberately left out of the IPCC projections, because we simply don’t have enough data yet to model them. Jason Box, a visiting scholar at the Byrd Polar Research Center told me in an email interview that: “The scary elephant in the closet is terrestrial and oceanic methane release triggered by warming.” The IPCC projections don’t include the possibility — some scientists say likelihood — that huge quantities of methane (a greenhouse gas thirty times as potent as CO2) will eventually be released from thawing permafrost and undersea methane hydrate reserves. Box said that the threshhold “when humans lose control of potential management of the problem, may be sooner than expected.”

Box, whose work has been instrumental in documenting the rapid deterioration of the Greenland ice sheet, also believes that the latest IPCC predictions (of a maximum just under three foot ocean rise by the end of the century) may turn out to be wildly optimistic, if the Greenland ice sheet breaks up. “We are heading into uncharted territory” he said. “We are creating a different climate than the Earth has ever seen.”

The head of the IPCC, Rajendra Pachauri, speaks for the scientific consensus when he says that time is fast running out to avoid the catastrophic collapse of the natural systems on which human life depends. What he recently told a group of climate scientist could be the most chilling headline of all for the U.N. report:

“We have five minutes before midnight.”

Andrew Sullivan has further reactions to the report.

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