The (climate) signal and the (social) noise.

Let’s start with a little climate science.

Today the big news splash centers around the release of the IPCC 6th assessment report on Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability (WGII). The Washington Post reports this morning Humanity has a ‘brief and rapidly closing window’ to avoid a hotter, deadly future:

In the hotter and more hellish world humans are creating, parts of the planet could become unbearable in the not-so-distant future, a panel of the world’s foremost scientists warned Monday in an exhaustive report on the escalating toll of climate change.

Unchecked greenhouse gas emissions will raise sea levels several feet, swallowing small island nations and overwhelming even the world’s wealthiest coastal regions. Drought, heat, hunger and disaster may force millions of people from their homes. Coral reefs could vanish, along with a growing number of animal species. Disease-carrying insects would proliferate. Deaths — from malnutrition, extreme heat, pollution — will surge.

Other media coverage is similar (from the New York Times: Climate Change Is Harming the Planet Faster Than We Can Adapt, U.N. Warns)

Somber reading, and a lot of it.  The IPCC study proper weighs in at 3500 pages distilled from thousands of studies by world experts, and thus carries special heft. UN Secretary-General Guterrez reacted this way: “I have seen many scientific reports in my time, but nothing like this…” [The document is] “an atlas of human suffering and a damning indictment of failed climate leadership.”

Thousands of studies? Even so, there’s still room for fresh thinking from individuals. ICYMI, here’s a beautiful example. Michael E. McIntyre recently published an “essay,” Climate Uncertainties: A Personal View.

His thoughts reward a thoughtful, complete read. The paper’s abstract, reproduced verbatim, should whet your appetite:

This essay takes a brief personal look at aspects of the climate problem. The emphasis will be on some of the greatest scientific uncertainties, as suggested by what is known about past as well as present climates, including tipping points that likely occurred in the past and might occur in the near future. In the current state of knowledge and understanding, there is massive uncertainty about such tipping points. For one thing there might, or might not, be a domino-like succession, or cascade, of tipping points that ultimately send the climate system into an Eocene-like state, after an uncertain number of centuries. Sea levels would then be about 70 m higher than today, and surface storminess would likely reach extremes well outside human experience. Such worst-case scenarios are highly speculative. However, there is no way to rule them out with complete confidence.  Credible assessments are outside the scope of current climate prediction models. So there has never in human history been a stronger case for applying the precautionary principle. Today there is no room for doubt—even from a purely financial perspective—about the need to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions urgently and drastically, far more so than is possible through so-called ‘offsetting’.

(That was enough to get me hooked.)

The full essay merits your time and study. Two reasons.

First, there’s McIntyre’s exposition of various scenarios. He demonstrates not just willingness but intellectual ability to dig deep and explore the possible implications of concatenating successive tipping points, instead of throwing up his hands and halting the thought process upon encountering the first such. References and underlying rationale for these explorations are supplied throughout. Just what one would expect from the author, who’s a Fellow of the Royal Society and who was awarded the Carl-Gustaf Rossby Research Medal of the AMS (in 1987, 35 years ago!).

Second, there’s the writing itself. It’s an easy read, crisp and clear, supplying important detail but stripped of excess verbiage; identifying major though uncertain risks, but without overstating and without histrionics.

The author stops short of prescriptive solutions, but does suggest that society, mindful of the precautionary principle, should do more to limit emissions, and do so more concertedly. That brings us to the last reason you might want to give the essay a look. Some readers will find themselves by virtue of education and background positioned to do more – to extend the particular line of reasoning, or flag other scenarios and additional pathways or cascades that merit investigation. This subject matter cries out for diverse individual perspectives to complement the more structured IPCC work. The biggest climate risks we face will be the ones we fail to see coming.

So much for efforts to detect the climate signal. Now let’s turn to the social noise. Also in today’s news, the NYT reports Supreme Court to Hear Case on E.P.A.’s Power to Limit Carbon Emissions, observing that the case, brought by Republican-led states and coal companies, could frustrate the Biden administration’s efforts to address climate change. A Washington Post report on the same subject notes that [today], the court takes up a years-long challenge from coal-mining companies and Republican-led states contesting the authority of the Environmental Protection Agency to mandate sweeping changes to the way the nation’s power sector produces electricity, the nation’s second-largest source of climate-warming pollution…

Environmental advocates fear the Supreme Court’s conservative majority could limit the Biden administration’s ability to curb carbon pollution from power plants before any regulation is written, and leave the United States short of its climate goals at a time when scientists suggest drastic cuts in emissions are needed to avert dangerous warming.

So, at precisely the moment when climate change trends challenge society to identify, develop and carry out a unified, sustained set of actions, those sectors of society most invested in one side or the other of impacts, adaptation, and vulnerability questions (the major political parties, the fossil fuel industry, environmental groups) are putting out shrill messages more aimed at emphasizing polar-opposite views than attaining an actionable middle ground. The public is then left to sort that out on its/our own.  

Climate change is not a slow-onset event. It’s rapid onset, compared with the time required for 8 billion people to reach consensus on what to do about it.

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