or Not, Here Comes Global Warming
At the core of the global-warming dilemma is a fact neither
side of the debate likes to talk about: It is already too
late to prevent global warming and the climate change it triggers.
Environmentalists won’t say this for fear of sounding alarmist
or defeatist. Politicians won’t say it because then they’d
have to do something about it. But the world’s top climate
scientists have been sending this message, with increasing
urgency, for years now.
Since 1988, the United Nations Environment Programme-associated
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which comprises
more than 2,000 scientific and technical experts from around
the world, has conducted the most extensive peer-reviewed
scientific collaboration in history.
In its 2001 report, the IPCC announced that human-caused global
warming had already begun, and much sooner than expected.
What’s more, it is bound to get worse, perhaps a lot worse,
before it gets better.
Last month, the IPCC’s chairman, Dr. Rajendra Pachauri, upped
the ante. Though Pachauri was installed after the Bush administration
forced out his predecessor, Dr. Robert Watson, for pushing
too hard for action, the accumulation of evidence led Pachauri
to embrace apocalyptic language: “We are risking the ability
of the human race to survive,” he said.
Until now, most public discussion about global warming has
focused on how to prevent it—for example, by implementing
the Kyoto Protocol, which came into force internationally
(but without U.S. participation), yesterday (Wednesday, Feb.
But prevention is no longer a sufficient option. The world
community must make a strategic shift: It must expand its
response to global warming to emphasize not only long-term
but also short-term protection. Rising sea levels and more
weather-related disasters will be a fact of life on this planet
for decades to come, and we have to get ready for them.
Among the steps needed to defend ourselves, we must act quickly
to fortify emergency response capabilities worldwide, to shield
or relocate vulnerable coastal communities and to prepare
for increased migration flows by environmental refugees.
We must also play offense. We must retroactively shrink the
amount of warming facing us by redoubling efforts to remove
existing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere and “sequester”
them where they are no longer dangerous. One way is to plant
But researchers are exploring many other methods as well,
some of them supported by the Bush administration. For instance,
Norway is burying carbon dioxide in old oil wells beneath
the North Sea.
The problem with the Kyoto protocol is not that the 5-percent
greenhouse-gas emission reductions it mandates don’t go far
enough (though they don’t—the IPCC urges 50 to 70 percent
reductions). The problem is that Kyoto governs only future
emissions. No matter how well the protocol works, it will
have no effect on past emissions, and it is these past emissions
that have made global warming unavoidable.
Contrary to the impression left by some news reports, global
warming is not like a light switch that can be turned off
if we simply stop burning so much oil, coal and gas. There
is a lag effect of approximately 50 to 100 years. That’s how
long carbon dioxide, the primary greenhouse gas, remains in
the atmosphere after it is emitted from auto tailpipes, home
furnaces and industrial smokestacks. So even if humanity stopped
burning fossil fuels tomorrow, the Earth would continue warming
So far, the greenhouse gases released during two-plus centuries
of industrialization have increased global temperatures by
about 1 degree Fahrenheit and raised sea levels by 4 to 7
inches. The IPCC scientists predict that because of global
warming the future will bring more and deadlier extreme weather
of all kinds—more hurricanes, tornadoes, downpours, heat waves,
droughts and blizzards—and all that comes in their wake: more
flooding, landslides, power outages, crop failures, property
damage, disease, hunger, poverty and loss of life.
In California, torrential rains induced a mudslide on Jan.
11 that killed 10 people, buried children alive and crushed
dozens of houses. In 2003, a record summer heat wave left
35,000— mainly elderly people—dead across Western Europe.
And this is just the beginning. Scientists are careful to
say that no single weather event can be definitively linked
to global warming. But the trend is unmistakable to the insurance
companies that end up paying the bill. “Manmade climate change
will bring us increasingly extreme natural events and consequently
increasingly large catastrophe losses,” an official of Munich
Re, the world’s large reinsurance company in the field of
natural-disaster mitigation, said recently. Swiss Re expects
losses to reach $150 billion a year within this decade.
Though the Bush White House continues to downplay the urgency
of global warming, some parts of the Bush administration have
recognized the gravity of the situation. A report released
last April by the Pentagon’s internal think tank, the Office
of Net Assessments, said that by 2020, climate change could
unleash a series of interlocking catastrophes. This could
include mega-droughts, mass starvation and even nuclear war,
as countries like China and India battle over river valleys
and other sources of scarce food and water.
To be sure, it remains essential to reduce greenhouse gas
emissions by strengthening the Kyoto Protocol and augmenting
it with other measures; otherwise, the amount of future warming
civilization eventually will have to endure will prove too
great to survive. But in the meantime, it is imperative to
prepare for the climate change already on its way.
The need for such a two-track strategy of prevention and protection
is gaining acceptance from most of the world’s governments.
At the most recent international meeting on global warming,
held in Buenos Aires last December, a majority of the delegates
supported the establishment of a fund to aid countries already
suffering from the early effects of global warming. A leading
candidate for such aid is Tuvalu. A Pacific atoll whose highest
point is 12 feet above sea level, Tuvalu was largely submerged
last year by 10-foot-tall “king tides.” But the United States
opposed the assistance, arguing that there is no “certainty
what constitutes a dangerous level of warming. . . .”
Preparing to live through the global climate change now bearing
down on our civilization will be an enormous undertaking.
It will require immense financial resources, technical expertise
and organizational skill. But perhaps what’s needed most of
all, especially in the United States, is fresh thinking and
political leadership—an acceptance that climate change is
inescapable and requires immediate countermeasures.
The unspeakable death and destruction wrought by the Indian
Ocean tsunami showed what can happen when people are unprepared