Climate is the elephant in skeptics' room
Code red for humanity. That's how UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has described the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's Working Group 1 Report issued earlier this week. "This report must sound a death knell for coal and fossil fuels, before they destroy our planet," he asserted.
The IPCC, in its 3,900-page report, makes many things clear. Sadly, there is not much good news in those pages. The report prepared by the IPCC, the top climate science panel of the United Nations, laments that escape from human-caused climate change is no longer possible.
The sixth assessment climate report since the formation of the IPCC in 1998, however, gives global leaders the most accurate information and data on climate change before the crucial UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland, in October-November, so they can get down to brass tacks and collectively decide to change the course of global development by embracing green energy and saying no to fossil fuels.
There are five key takeaways in the report. First, it unequivocally states that humans are responsible for warming the atmosphere, land and the oceans. Worse, global surface temperature has warmed faster since 1970 than in any other 50-year period, with warming also reaching ocean depths below 2,000 meters.
The report says human activities have impacted global precipitation (rain and snow), too. True, some regions have become wetter, which many climate skeptics say is good for the planet. But global warming has also made some regions drier, apart from increasing the numbers of extreme weather events such as unusually heavy downpours, devastating floods, severe cyclones, extended droughts, uncontrollable wildfires, and fast melting ice sheets and glaciers.
Second, the concentrations of atmospheric carbon dioxide today are not only higher but also increasing faster than ever before. For instance, the rate at which atmospheric CO2 has increased since the Industrial Revolution is at least 10 times faster than during the last 800,000 years. And not surprisingly, about 85 percent of those CO2 emissions have come from burning fossil fuels, with 15 percent coming from land use change, such as deforestation and soil degradation.
Third, extreme weather events have become more intense and frequent across the world since 1950. The report says hot extremes like the unprecedentedly hot Australian summer of 2012-13 are the result of human activities.
Fourth, oceans are hotter and rising faster, and have become more acidic, because they absorb 91 percent of the energy from the increased greenhouse gas emissions. This has led to ocean warming and more marine heatwaves, which cause the mass death of marine life, including corals from bleaching.
Unfortunately, even if the world restricts warming to 1.5-2 C, as required by the Paris Agreement, marine heatwaves will become four times more frequent by the end of the century. And melting ice sheets and glaciers, along with the expansion of the ocean as it warms, have led to a global mean sea level rise of 0.2 meters between 1901 and 2018. More important, the speed of sea level rise is accelerating－1.3 millimeters a year from 1901 to 1971, 1.9 mm a year from 1971 to 2006, and 3.7 mm a year from 2006 to 2018.
And fifth, many climate-induced changes are already irreversible. The report states that even if the Earth's climate is stabilized soon, some climate change-induced damage could not be reversed even in millenniums. Also, glaciers across the world have been melting since 1950 and will continue to do so for decades even after global temperature is stabilized.
The Earth's surface temperature will continue to rise at least until 2050 under all emissions scenarios the climate scientists studied, the report says. As a result, the global temperature rise could exceed the 1.5 C warming limit by the early 2030s.
However, the report also says that to stabilize the climate, CO2 emissions must reach net-zero, and other greenhouse gas emissions must decline significantly by 2050.
This has prompted some climate skeptics to say climate change activists have spun a narrative to predict doomsday, and the UN has a history of claiming catastrophe is just around the corner. Some climate deniers say the IPCC report doesn't warn against a catastrophe even if we choose to not reduce emissions. According to them, blind economic development will make humans hundreds of times better off than what they are today and therefore more capable of adapting to the climate-induced changes and overcoming the challenges by the end of this century.
The problem is, no one knows what the Earth would be like in the next eight decades if business as usual continues. Will there be any more natural resources left for humankind to explore, let alone exploit? Of course, the rich, who the climate skeptics possibly mean when they talk about humans, could be living in clean atmospheric bubbles. But that they already do, don't they?
What will happen to the billions of poor people? The climate skeptics have a ready answer: technology will be so advanced in the next few decades that it can take care of the problems faced by the poor.
The climate skeptics are past masters at using selective data, twisting them around, and coming up with imaginary solutions to real problems. Which reminds one of the ancient Indian parable of the Blind Men and an Elephant.
In short, six blind men decide to "know" an elephant by touch. The first touches the elephant's trunk and says "this is like a thick snake". For the second, who touches its ear, it's like a hand fan. The third touches its leg and says it's like a tree-trunk. For the fourth, who places his hand on the side of the elephant, it's like a wall. The fifth feels its tail and describes it as a rope. And the sixth says the elephant is like a spear after feeling its tusk.
The moral of the story is that humans, especially those with an agenda, tend to claim absolute truth based on their subjective experience and interest. This is exactly what climate skeptics also do. They tell you climate change, like an elephant, is a wall that will provide you with shade and protection and a fan that you can use to keep "cool" even in scorching weather.
Beware of such soothsayers, for they mean to lead you toward doom. And act now to save the planet.
The author is a senior editor with China Daily.