[Editor’s note: Normally, I wouldn’t kick off the new week with an article about climate change, but after penning “Little League” on Sunday, it would have been somewhat odd had I not addressed the landmark report from the UN released just 24 hours later, considering it underscored the thrust of that linked piece. With that, I bring you bad news.]
A major new report by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded “unequivocally” that humans have “warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land,” and that in all likelihood, the past decade was the warmest in at least 125,000 years.
“Each of the last four decades has been successively warmer than any decade that preceded it since 1850,” the report said.
At nearly 4,000 pages, it’s not a quick read. A few pages in, a subheading captures the gist of it. “Human-induced climate change is already affecting many weather and climate extremes in every region across the globe,” it said, adding that “evidence of observed changes in extremes such as heatwaves, heavy precipitation, droughts, and tropical cyclones, and, in particular, their attribution to human influence, has strengthened since [the last report].”
Carbon dioxide levels are the highest in two million years, methane and nitrous oxide levels the most elevated in at least 800,000 years.
Unfortunately, you don’t need scientists to tell you any of this. You can just go outside. Greece is on fire, for example. Over the weekend, photographer Konstantinos Tsakalidis captured a searing (figuratively and literally) image of an elderly woman gasping, hand on heart, as towering flames were poised to engulf her home on the island of Evia. Salt Lake City “boasted” the worst air of any major city on the planet late last week, thanks to smoke from fires in California, Oregon and Washington. In Germany, words like “tsunami” were bandied about last month, when traditional ways of describing river flooding failed to capture the enormity of a catastrophe so unthinkable that one Oxford physicist exclaimed: “I say this as a German: The idea that you could possibly die from weather is completely alien.”
Anyone similarly unacquainted with the notion that Mother Nature can kill will need to get used to that “alien” idea. “With every additional increment of global warming, changes in extremes continue to become larger,” the UN report warned. “Every additional 0.5°C of global warming causes clearly discernible increases in the intensity and frequency of hot extremes, including heatwaves (very likely), and heavy precipitation (high confidence), as well as agricultural and ecological droughts in some regions (high confidence).”
Over the weekend, in “Little League,” I gently (or, as “gentle” as one can be while alluding to a climatic apocalypse) suggested humans may not make it another two centuries without concerted action to avert preventable disasters of various sorts, weather events among them.
There’s more than a little irony in all of this. The desolation of the planet coincides with the Industrial Revolution, by many accounts the greatest leap forward in all of human history. Since the preindustrial era, humans have moved at what, historically speaking, counts as warp speed along the road to developing myriad technological and scientific miracles. Humanity likely isn’t that far removed (temporally) from breakthroughs that open the door to immortality and interstellar travel, among other long-sought innovations. But the very leap forward which paved the way for modernity also set in motion the dynamics poised to destroy us before we can achieve the goals implicit in so much of the research conducted around the world every day.
Much of blame rests with “deniers” of various sorts. When their motivations are readily discernible (e.g., monetary or political gain) one can at least explain their obstinance by reference to temptation. When no such motives are discernible, we’re left to ponder the same terrifying reality behind vaccine hesitancy: Millions upon millions of people are willing to die behind stupidity.
“Human influence on the climate is now an established fact,” the UN said Monday. “It is unequivocal that the increase of CO2, methane and nitrous oxide in the atmosphere over the industrial era is the result of human activities and that human influence is the principal driver of many changes observed across the atmosphere, ocean, cryosphere and biosphere.”
In short, we’re killing ourselves. In the most literal sense possible.
An article in The New York Times dated August 6 told the story of one Dominik Gieler, who lost his mother last month during Germany’s devastating floods. The last he heard from her was a WhatsApp message which read: “I won’t make it out of here.”
She was trapped by a rampaging river, and he was too. When he read his mother’s last words to him, he was “on the top floor of his own house with his wife and children after the gentle brook he had played in as a boy had turned into a 33-foot raging river.”
As The Times went on to say, “the river swallowed not just Mr. Gieler’s entire childhood home that July night but the ground it once stood on.” More than a week later, his mother’s body showed up five miles down that same river.