A man is falling from the 80th story of a skyscraper. As he passes the 37th floor an office worker opens a window and shouts, "How are you doing?" The falling man replies, "So far, so good."
That about sums up the massive failure of collective imagination that is responsible for our painfully slow and timid response to the single greatest threat to our existence since the invention of the atomic bomb. The hard landing we face will be harder and sooner than almost anyone outside the scientific community imagines.
It is still possible to soften the blow, at least to some extent. But time is desperately short. According to a paper being published in today's edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the damaging effects of climate change are essentially irreversible. Even if carbon emissions were to cease now, temperatures would remain elevated for at least a thousand years.
The paper’s lead author, Susan Solomon, a leader of the International Panel on Climate Change and one of the world's best known researchers on the subject, noted that global warming has been slowed by the ocean, because water absorbs a lot of energy. But that good effect will not only wane over time, the ocean will help keep the planet warmer by giving off its accumulated heat to the air.
Solomon's paper concludes that if CO2 is allowed to peak at 450-600 parts per million, [as it is expected to do by mid-century] the results would include persistent decreases in dry-season rainfall that are comparable to the 1930s North American Dust Bowl in zones including southern Europe, northern Africa, southwestern North America, southern Africa and western Australia.
What should we make of that information? Should we conclude that it is too late to do anything, throw up our hands and say, "We give up?"
On the contrary. All the more reason to act decisively, and soon. When we know that the effects our actions cannot be undone, we need to be especially careful about what we do.
Kevin Trenberth, head of climate analysis at the National Center for Atmospheric Research summed it up like this: "The policy relevance is clear: We need to act sooner ... because by the time the public and policymakers really realize the changes are here it is far too late to do anything about it. In fact, as the authors point out, it is already too late for some effects."
Yes, the Obama administration is starting to take some significant steps. But it is still too little and too slow. Gentle readers, do not be sheep. Speak up. Act up. Write letters. Make phone calls. Demand action before the hard pavement of reality breaks our fall.