Unavoidable Climate Change: We've Passed the Point of No Return

How bad it gets depends on how much longer we fail to act and how much longer Congress and others hide behind ignorance, political ideology and religion to deny reality.

It's too late. The world has missed the opportunity to avoid serious, damaging human-induced climate change. For a variety of reasons ranging from ignorance to political ideology to commercial self-interest to inertia to intentional misrepresentations and misdirections on the part of a small number of committed climate deniers, the United States and the rest of the world have waited too long to act to cut the emissions of damaging greenhouse gas pollutants. We are now committed to irreversible long-term and inevitably damaging consequences ranging from rapidly rising sea levels, far greater heat stress and damages, disappearing glaciers and snowpack, more flooding and droughts, and far, far more.

For over two decades, there have only been a few people and groups that have argued against climate change, and very few of these have done so in good faith (though there is no denying that they've been effective). Sometimes they have tried to hide behind scientific "uncertainty" to mask their anti-climate-change arguments. But the fundamental science has long been irrefutable, and so recently, we've seen all pretense of caring about science thrown out the door by elected officials such as Congressman John Shimkus (vice chairman of the Republican Party's Congressional campaign committee and vying to become chair of the influential House Energy and Commerce Committee), who simply rejects climate change by turning to the Bibleto refute the science or as justification to ignore it.

"The earth will end only when God declares it's time to be over. Man will not destroy this earth," Shimkus said. "I believe that's the infallible word of God, and that's the way it's going to be for his creation."

Here, in a nutshell, is the best argument against global climate change:

There isn't one.

No scientific body of national or international standing rejects the findings that humans are changing the climate. Indeed, every single legitimate scientific organization and society that works on atmospheric, climatological, meteorological, geological, hydrological, ecological, physical, chemical, and biological sciences supports the scientific findings of human-induced climate change. All of them. Here are a few examples.

For reasons well described by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway in their book Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming, the media has also failed to distinguish between correct and incorrect, because it is far easier simply to describe this as a debate between equals. Like the argument about the health consequences of tobacco, it is inevitable that reality will ultimately win over fantasy and that the truth about the seriousness of climate change will become widely accepted. But as I argue above, that inevitability will come too late, leading to another inevitability: unavoidable, severe climate impacts to all of us (or to coming generations).

Worse, the misrepresentations continue. At Wednesday's Congressional climate hearingof the House Committee on Science and Technology, some of the nation's top climate scientists once again (as they have over and over for decades) explained to a few Congressmen about the nature of climate change, while climate-confusers such as Patrick Michaels(a perennial fixture in the decades-long effort of the fossil fuel industry and conservative "think tanks" to confuse Congress and the public about the science of climate change), came up with novel (but alas, scientifically discredited) arguments about why humans are not largely responsible for changing the climate. As a journal articlenoted a few years ago, in a funny, albeit dry academic style: "...the observations upon which PM [Patrick Michaels] draws his case are not good enough to bear the weight of the argument he wishes to make."

The new Congress will almost certainly see more science pushed out by ideology and hearings characterized by cherry-picking of witnesses and selective use of climate deniers rather than mainstream scientists.

As a result, in twenty more years, the Earth will be even hotter, sea levels will be higher and rising faster, water and food resources will be increasingly stressed, extinction rates will accelerate, and our forced expenditures for climate adaptation will be far, far greater than they would otherwise have been.


For example, at the request of three separate California state agencies, the Pacific Institute recently completed a

comprehensive assessment of the vulnerabilities of the California coast to accelerating sea-level rise

(using scenarios of sea-level rise that may turn out to be far too low). There is already over $100 billion in infrastructure (housing, airports, wastewater treatment plants, schools, hospitals, roads, power plants) and a population of nearly 500,000 people at risk of increased coastal flooding, and we estimated that adaptation costs just to protect existing infrastructure will run around $15 billion, plus high annual costs to maintain these protections. Other major areas and populations simply cannot be realistically protected and will have to be abandoned, with people forced to move over time. And this is just one small piece of the coming threats for one small part of the country. How bad it ultimately gets depends on how much longer we fail to act and how much longer Congress and others hide behind ignorance, political ideology, and religion to deny the reality of climate change.

Dr. Peter Gleick is president of the Pacific Institute, an internationally recognized water expert and a MacArthur Fellow. This post originally appeared in Gleick's City Brights blog at SFGate.
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