Are we there yet, at the precipice, that is?

Posted on April 22, 2014 by Michael Rodburg

Apart from a relatively mild editorial in the New York Times, the April 13, 2014 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warning that despite global efforts, greenhouse gas emissions actually grew more quickly in the first decade of the 21st century than in each of the three previous decades, was greeted, let us say, rather tepidly. In essence, the IPCC report declared that meeting the consensus goal limit of two degrees Celsius of global warming by mid-century would require mitigation measures on an enormous scale which, if not begun within the next decade, would become prohibitively expensive thereafter. As the New York Times put it, this is “the world’s last best chance to get a grip on a problem that . . . could spin out of control.” 

Humankind’s track record for global cooperation on any scale is not good. When was the last time world peace broke out, or global poverty became a worldwide priority? The 2008 re-make of the 1951 classic film, The Day the Earth Stood Still, illustrates the problem. In the original movie, the alien civilization sent police robots to stop human aggression and nuclear weapons from spreading beyond Earth; in the re-make, the alien civilization decided that our species would have to be eliminated lest it destroy one of the rare planets in the universe capable of enormous biodiversity. In pleading with the alien for another chance, Professor Barnhardt says, “But it’s only on the brink that people find the will to change.  Only at the precipice do we evolve.” And, of course, eventually and after a pretty flashy show of power and destruction, the alien rescinds the death sentence, agreeing with the Professor that at the precipice, humans can change.

Are we there yet? At the precipice? Hard to know. As Seth Jaffe pointed out in his April 14, 2014 post, global giant ExxonMobil has recognized the reality of climate change, but doubts there is sufficient global will to do much about it.  On the other hand, the American Physical Society warmed the hearts of climate change skeptics in appointing three like-minded scientists to its panel on public affairs. I tend to agree with that great fictional academic, Professor Barnhardt; it will take something that all humankind recognizes as the clear and unmistakable hallmark of the precipice before we collectively put on the brakes. In the meantime, we muddle through to the next opportunity, the 21st Conference of the Parties in Paris in December 2014, the first such summit meeting on climate change since Rio in 1992.