A Con­sen­sus on Cri­sis

A U.N. panel de­tails the dis­tress that global cli­mate change might cause hu­man so­ci­eties.

The Washington Post Sunday - - Letters -

GET­TING DIS­PARATE world gov­ern­ments to agree is like herd­ing cats. Get­ting dis­parate world gov­ern­ments to agree on the ef­fects of cli­mate change is like teach­ing cats to sit, shake hands and roll over. That is why the new re­port from the U.N. In­ter­gov­ern­men­tal Panel on Cli­mate Change (IPCC) is note­wor­thy — and sober­ing. Af­ter heavy re­view from gov­ern­ment rep­re­sen­ta­tives, it is not a rad­i­cal doc­u­ment. But it rep­re­sents a fun­da­men­tal in­ter­na­tional con­sen­sus on cli­mate change that has de­vel­oped in the past few years. And its con­clu­sions are more than wor­ry­ing.

Droughts. Ris­ing seas. Over­flow­ing rivers. Mass ex­tinc­tion. Mal­nu­tri­tion. Dis­ease. The re­port, which fo­cuses on “changes in the nat­u­ral and hu­man en­vi­ron­ment,” pre­dicts all of th­ese ef­fects with high con­fi­dence if world tem­per­a­tures rise even a few de­grees and world gov­ern­ments do lit­tle to mit­i­gate the con­se­quences. Cit­i­zens of de­vel­oped coun­tries with the ca­pa­bil­i­ties to adapt to the pos­si­bly dev­as­tat­ing en­vi­ron­men­tal changes won’t have it as bad, of course, and some ar­eas might even pros­per un­der warmer con­di­tions, the re­port noted. But ev­ery re­gion will face neg­a­tive con­se­quences, es­pe­cially if warm­ing con­tin­ues un­abated and the ef­fects mag­nify. An in­crease of 4 de­grees Cel­sius (7 de­grees Fahren­heit), the re­port projects, could re­sult in a de­crease of up to 5 per­cent of av­er­age global gross do­mes­tic prod­uct.

By 2020, wa­ter short­ages might harm as many as 250 mil­lion peo­ple in Africa, and cer­tain agri­cul­ture yields on the con­ti­nent might fall by 50 per­cent. In Asia, de­creased avail­abil­ity of fresh wa­ter might ef­fect more than a bil­lion peo­ple by the 2050s. Some ar­eas of Europe are pro­jected to lose up to 60 per­cent of their species by 2080. The re­port pre­dicts re­duced snow­packs in the Amer­i­can West, lead­ing to even worse wa­ter sup­ply prob­lems in South­west­ern states, while “pests, dis­eases and fires” will plague Amer­i­can forests.

It is tempt­ing to read the IPCC’s doc­u­ment and con­clude that all world gov­ern­ments need to do is pre­pare for heat waves, wa­ter short­ages, flood­ing, or in­creased in­ci­dence of di­ar­rheal and car­diores­pi­ra­tory dis­ease. But the re­port makes clear that al­though prepa­ra­tion will be key to de­creas­ing the bur­den of global warm­ing on hu­man so­ci­eties, an un­mit­i­gated in­crease in world tem­per­a­ture would “be likely to ex­ceed the ca­pac­ity of nat­u­ral, man­aged and hu­man sys­tems to adapt.” The re­port is also not ex­haus­tive in de­tail­ing the pos­si­ble ef­fects of global warm­ing, only list­ing those that sci­en­tists now know have a high prob­a­bil­ity of oc­cur­ring.

All of which should per­suade Amer­i­can pol­i­cy­mak­ers to be­gin reg­u­lat­ing car­bon emis­sions, ma­jor agents of global warm­ing. Last week, the Supreme Court all but or­dered the En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency to do so, in­di­cat­ing that it could de­cline to reg­u­late green­house gases (as it has done so far) only if the agency shows that they do not con­trib­ute to cli­mate change or if the EPA gives a good rea­son for not mak­ing that de­ter­mi­na­tion. Given the strength of the in­ter­na­tional con­sen­sus on the science of cli­mate change, the Bush EPA will have a hard time do­ing ei­ther. Mean­while, Cal­i­for­nia has al­ready pro­posed deep cuts in per­mis­si­ble ve­hi­cle emis­sions that re­quire, and should promptly re­ceive, an EPA waiver. Other states are sign­ing on. Th­ese ef­forts should con­tinue in state­houses across the coun­try.

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