The next report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change will be released in stages beginning this summer and continuing into next year. IPCC reports involve input from climate scientists around the world who share their research findings with each other. The finished product is basically a “state of the world” document intended to provide policy makers with the best available information about global heating and what can be done to mitigate its impacts.
In the past, IPCC reports have been criticized for being too clinical and lacking a sense of urgency. Not this time. A draft of the upcoming report has been obtained by Agence France-Presse, according to The Guardian, and it pulls no punches. It says climate scientists are seeing greater evidence that global heating will trigger tipping points in Earth’s natural systems sooner than expected.
Once those tipping points occur, widespread and possibly irrevocable disaster will follow, the draft report warns. “Life on Earth can recover from a drastic climate shift by evolving into new species and creating new ecosystems … humans cannot,” it says. How much more stark a warning do we need before we stop following a business as usual, let the free market decide approach and start addressing the root cause of the problem — the extraction, transportation, and combustion of fossil fuels?
A tipping point occurs when rising temperatures trigger a cascade of interrelated consequences with global repercussions. For instance, as rising temperatures lead to the melting of Arctic permafrost, the unfreezing soil releases methane, a powerful greenhouse gas that in turn causes more heating. Other tipping points include the melting of polar ice sheets, which once under way may be almost impossible to reverse even if carbon emissions are rapidly reduced.
Once the ice at the poles melts, sea levels will rise dramatically over the following decades. The scientist say there is a very real possibility the Amazon rain forest may quickly turn into parched grassland after a relatively small rise in global temperatures. According to AFP, the draft report lists at least 12 potential tipping points that are imminent. “The worst is yet to come, affecting our children’s and grandchildren’s lives much more than our own,” it says.
Bob Ward, the director of policy and communications at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics, tells The Guardian, “Scientists have identified several potential regional and global thresholds or tipping points in the climate beyond which impacts become unstoppable or irreversible, or accelerate. They could create huge social and economic responses, such as population displacements and conflict, and so represent the largest potential risks of climate change. Tipping points should be the climate change impacts about which policymakers worry the most, but they are often left out of assessments by scientists and economists because they are difficult to quantify.”
Simon Lewis, a professor of global change science at University College London, adds, “Nothing in the IPCC report should be a surprise, as all the information comes from the scientific literature. But put together, the stark message from the IPCC is that increasingly severe heatwaves, fires, floods and droughts are coming our way with dire impacts for many countries. On top of this are some irreversible changes, often called tipping points, such as where high temperatures and droughts mean parts of the Amazon rainforest can’t persist. These tipping points may then link, like toppling dominoes.”
Lewis adds, “The exact timing of tipping points and the links between them is not well understood by scientists, so they have been under-reported in past IPCC assessments. The blunter language from the IPCC this time is welcome, as people need to know what is at stake if society does not take action to immediately slash carbon emissions.”
Myles Allen, a professor of geosystem science at the University of Oxford, worries that such gloomy forecasts may have the opposite of the desired effect. “It’s important people don’t get the message ‘we’re doomed anyway so why bother?’. This is a fixable problem. We could stop global warming in a generation if we wanted to, which would mean limiting future warming to not much more than has happened already this century. We also know how. It’s just a matter of getting on with it,” he says.
In the US, there is little indication that Mitch McConnell, the Darth Vader of the Senate, has an interest in addressing global heating. He and his lunatic friends are much more concerned with whether black and brown people will be able to vote in future elections as America races to recreate the racist restrictions that characterized the Jim Crow era.
According to Vox, a group of Democratic senators believes the coming months may present their last, best hope to actually do something about it. “The time to do something was 20 years ago,” says Senator Martin Heinrich from New Mexico. “The second-best time to do something is now. My state is burning up.”
Instead, Republicans prefer to do nothing. In the news yesterday, Joe Biden’s $2 trillion infrastructure proposal has been whittled down to just $580 billion in the Senate. The agreement does not address the need for EV charging infrastructure or EV incentives and strips out all of the social justice provisions included in Biden’s American Jobs Plan. It also does nothing to address the stunning lack of fairness in the current US tax code that allows corporations and the super wealthy to avoid paying taxes entirely, leaving the burden of paying for the critical needs of the country on the shoulders of those least able to pay.
On June 15, Senator Ed Markey said boldly “No climate, no deal.” Yesterday, it was announced that a deal had been struck that ignores most of the spending and policy initiatives needed to put global heating front and center on the nation’s agenda.
Sheldon Whitehouse is one Democratic senator who says he may not vote for the compromise package. He tells Vox, “While the nods to climate that are in the bipartisan bill are appreciated, they don’t even come close to putting us on a 1.5 [Celsius] degrees trajectory. We have a planetary emergency that essentially anyone who’s not on the payroll of the fossil fuel industry agrees with. Unfortunately, a lot of people around here are on that payroll, so this is the place where it’s difficult.”
My high school history teacher used to say, “The gates of history turn on tiny hinges.” More than a decade ago, Senator Ed Markey and Representative Henry Waxman teamed up to put an aggressive climate change bill before Congress. At the time, Democrats had enough votes in the Senate to meet the 60 vote super majority needed for passage. Then Ted Kennedy died and Massachusetts elected Republican political gadfly Scott Brown to fill his seat.
That was the end of the super majority and the end of the Markey/Waxman bill. It was also the end of America leading the global community on climate change. Today, Joe Manchin of West Virginia is the single vote that stands between climate action and kicking the can a little further down the road.
Since 2008, opinions among voters about global heating have changed substantially. According to researchers at Yale and George Mason universities, back then about 12% of people said they were “alarmed” about climate and the same amount were “dismissive” about the issue. Today, those in the alarmed group have grown to about 26% (there’s another 29% who classify themselves as “concerned” about climate change), while the number in the dismissive category has shrunk to 8%.
There’s also widespread support among voters for the US to embrace clean energy. In a December survey, Yale and George Mason researchers found 66% of registered voters said developing sources of clean energy should be a “high” or “very high” priority for the president and Congress. 72% supported transitioning the US economy from fossil fuels to 100% clean energy by 2050.
Democracy In The Balance
While the next IPCC report will express the extreme dangers of an overheating planet, conservative are playing a shell game with voters, warning them that Joe Biden wants to eliminate jobs and keep them from eating hamburgers. They breathe endless streams of hot air into manufactured crises like critical race theory and transgender people using the wrong bathrooms to distract voters from recognizing their nefarious schemes.
Meanwhile, the 2022 mid-term elections are coming closer. Historically, the party in power loses seats in Congress in bye year elections. Democrats are hungry for a win on the core issues that energize their voters and Repugnicans are desperate to keep as many Democrats away from the polls as possible.
Senator Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin tells Vox,“Lessons learned [are] that we have to be able to show how we’re protecting working people, how we’re creating new job opportunities, and how we’re protecting the planet. We have to be very proactive, not just policy nerds.”
If 72% of registered voters support the transition to clean energy, why are there so many members of Congress who are determined to thwart any legislation designed to make that transition a reality? Simple. Republicans have sold their souls to fossil fuel companies who are wiling to spend whatever it takes to keep their personal gravy train in operation.
Jimmy Buffett told us decades ago, “Power is a dangerous drug. It can maim; it can kill.” The urge to hold onto power is permitting fossil fuel pollution to maim millions of people every year and may end up killing the vast majority of the human species.
The world has a very narrow window of opportunity to address climate disruption in a meaningful way. Based on what we have seen so far, humans would rather let that window close than work together to solve the existential crisis that confronts us all. We can unite to fight wars but not to save ourselves from extinction. Perhaps the next species to inherit the Earth won’t be subject to such built-in character flaws.
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