Earth (still) has a fever.

The latest IPCC report (more precisely, the policymaker summary) was released on Friday, and since then has been sharing the news headlines. Considering that the competing stories here in the U.S. include Syria and the pending shutdown of the federal government, that’s saying something. The news from IPCC, though, was less new news than old news warmed over, so to speak (in fact, at this point government shutdown and the Syrian problem also have that same-old, same-old feel as well). Here’s the leadoff highlighted text:

Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, and since the 1950’s, many of the observed changes are unprecedented over decades to millennia. The atmosphere and oceans have warmed, the amounts of snow and ice have diminished, sea level has risen, and the concentrations of greenhouse gases have increased.

Other text highlights speak to the details: trends over recent decades, shrinkage of polar ice sheets, sea level rise, greenhouse gas concentrations, human influence on the climate system, improvements in models, etc. The main change since the previous IPCC report dating back to 2007 is an incremental ratcheting down of the level of uncertainty. The news media have referred to this as a wake-up call. Of course, that’s what they said back in 2007.

Some pessimists might say that instead of waking up back then, seven billion people opted for hitting the snooze button for another six years. (In fact, that may not be what’s going on; please hold this thought for the moment.)

Doctors take our body temperature during office visits because it’s one of the oldest, simplest, quickest, least expensive, measurements to make. A fever indicates something’s wrong. Pathologists tell us that so-called pyrogens trigger a release of prostaglandin E2, which acts on the hypothalamus, which responds with a body-wide change in temperature. (Think of this as analogous to the effects of increased CO2 in the atmosphere.)

However, by itself, a fever doesn’t tell the doctor much about whether the underlying problem is relatively benign or serious. Causes can include infectious disease, immunological disease, tissue destruction, cancer, metabolic disorders, thrombo-embolic processes and more. Then there’s the question about what action to take. Depending upon the diagnosis and the prognosis, that action may range from taking aspirin to bed rest to surgery or chemotherapy or some blend of treatments. When the doctor is uncertain, the patient may seek a second opinion.

When my kids were growing up, the three doctors in our pediatricians’ office displayed the possibilities. Dr. A was trigger-happy. He told me more than once that Benylin and penicillin ought to be delivered to households with the milk. Dr. B was a bit less extreme, but used to open every visit with a stern-faced “What have you done to this child?” Dr. C. would say, “A temperature of 1070? Tell you what, if it’s not down in two-three weeks, you give me another call.” Since we parents never knew which of the three we’d draw on a given visit, nerves were on edge.

When it comes to climate change, scientists, policymakers, business leaders (and the general public they all answer to) are similarly divided as to the seriousness of the underlying problem. There’s not just a second opinion to be had; there’s a third and a fourth and many more. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions seems warranted, perhaps urgently. The real issue is that such reductions are likely not sufficient, any more than taking aspirin to mask or eliminate the symptom of a serious underlying disease. We’re told that we need to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, and we’re reminded this dependence is threaded through everything we do, but our circumstance is rather more dire. Seven billion people, most of us consuming water, energy and food at levels 10-50 times higher per capita than our ancestors, are rapidly straining the Earth’s carrying capacity, changing landscapes, polluting the air, water, and soil, reducing habitat and biodiversity, and building vulnerability to natural hazards. Climate change, complicated though it may be, is merely a symptom. We don’t need simply to tweak our energy infrastructure (though just that one step, by itself, seems beyond us); we need to reinvent everything we do. And we can’t take our time and make needed changes in sequence; we need to tackle every piece simultaneously.

We might be forgiven should we hit the snooze button!

But the task seems impossible and tiring only because we insist on viewing it in terms of top-down, command-and-control approaches. We’re waiting for the United Nations, or the European Union, or the G-20 to reach consensus and take action. Let’s suppose that instead we come at the challenges through localized, place-based tactics focused on short-term, incremental improvements, continually revisited and revised in light of experience[1]. We’ll discover two things: (1) such approaches allow society to respond far more rapidly and effectively; and (2) that at the local level, we don’t have to wait for such work to start, or hope that it will start; it’s already well underway.

Turns out that seven billion people haven’t been snoozing after all; they’ve been working at bits and pieces of the problem, making progress, and sharing their success stories.

Hopefully we’ll wake up in the next day or so and learn that our elected leaders haven’t been snoozing either, and that they’ve found a way to keep government functioning, and speed an end to the Syrian fighting.

[1] Along the lines suggested, for example, by Ron Brunner and Amanda Lynch, in their book Adaptive Governance and Climate Change.

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One Response to Earth (still) has a fever.

  1. Edward O'Lenic says:

    Great piece. Thanks for your years-long effort to render complex issues, like climate change, amenable to rational discussion.

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