Tuesday, February 06, 2007

GW: Great Summary of the Situation

Andy Revkin is a science reporter for the New York Times. Today, the website of the Times posted a short video featuring Revkin's summation of Friday's report from Paris on that Great Big GW In the Sky, Global You-Know-What. Revkin does a really nice job of putting things in perspective. He starts off by reminding us that the first really big conference on the subject took place in Toronto in 1988.

1988 will be remembered as the beginning of the "we told you so, and what did you do about it" years. Here is a transcription I made of Revkin's remarks:

I've been writing about climate change, the human influence on the climate system, since about 1988 or so. That was the year we had record heat waves around the world. The Amazon was ablaze. And there was a big meeting in Toronto, Canada, about the atmosphere, the human influence on the atmosphere. And that's when this intergovernmental panel on climate change got started, the IPCC, which just came out with its fourth report since 1990 on what's happening with people and the climate.

The report states that it is "very likely" that humans caused most of the global warming measured since 1950. The report predicts sea level will rise 7 to 23 inches by 2100. The report also states that over the next 1000 years, today's coastlines will disappear.

Humans now are the dominant drivers of warming. What we know profoundly well is that we are in for probably 12 feet of sea level rise over the next 1000 years, in other words a new coastline every century or so. If you're in Bangladesh or even downtown Manhattan, that's a big deal.

To some extent, the findings in this new report find us kind of like the wily Coyote in those old Roadrunner cartoons, where he realizes suddenly he's over a cliff, and you see his feet run in fast motion, and he's trying to scramble back.

Essentially, what the report is saying is that we face, already, because of this buildup of these gases that trap heat, and because of the trajectories of growing populations and growing energy use, that we are pretty much committed to seeing rising temperatures and rising seas for centuries to come. The other inconvenient reality is that any policy changes -- in other words a best case policy where everyone starts driving a Prius tomorrow, and a worst case scenario where we just keep on going -- neither of those would alter our climate perceptibly for several decades. So politically, that is very unfortunate, because that leaves us in this place where the political cycles are 2 years, 4 years, 6 years, and the realities of this are that the consequences of choices made now wouldn't be apparent for a long time to come.

That puts it back in all of our laps as a legacy issue, almost more than a policy issue. How do we want to limit our actions, how change our priorities to avert a long term path to a truly different planet?

Revkin's not correct to say that 'if we all drove Priuses tomorrow' would be a best case scenario. Honestly, best case, we wouldn't be buying new cars. Most of us wouldn't even be using any significant amounts of fossil fuels at home or on the road. We'd have to have our groceries shipped in on efficient rail lines. We're talking radical changed beyond any that will gain favor in the next few decades. We'd have to clamp down on -- if not shut down -- affluent and consumptive lifestyles around the world. It turns out our freewheeling days weren't free at all.

On the other hand, Revkin's comment calling this a "legacy issue" is profound. It's done. Our legacy is before us. Now we can see that we've already left a legacy for centuries, most of it done since 1950, when the American economy began its 60-70 year spree, deadset on multinational corporate greed and this sprawling juggernaut of development and imperialism. Any policies the U.S. government can muster at this point will be mere window dressing.

Not that we shouldn't try, even if dressing the windows is all we do. At least a sliver of our legacy will be that some in the future can look back and see that some of us in Toronto in 1988 and in Kyoto in 1997 and around the world in 2007 tried something to swim upstream against the incessant tides of human nature.


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