Column: The end of the world is coming, even if you’ve heard it all before

The periodic reports of the UN’s International Panel on Climate Change indulge in self-parody.

This is your final warning, they say. Hurry up. Don’t sit idle. Fix the problem now.

We mean business!

I am continually amazed that the IPCC scientists do not throw up their collective hands in disgust at humanity’s inability to wake from its slumber and stop publishing reports altogether.

Instead they hold out a faint glimmer of hope and encouragement that maybe, maybe, maybe we’ll rise to the occasion. I can’t help but wonder if that’s just because any other message is unthinkable.

Stipple style portrait illustration by Nicholas Goldberg

opinion columnist

Nicholas Goldberg

Nicholas Goldberg was the editorial page editor for 11 years and is a former editor of the Op-Ed page and the Sunday Opinion column.

According to the panel’s latest report, released Monday, the world is on track to surpass the all-important goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, or 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit — a goal that set out in the Paris Climate Agreement almost a decade ago. Unless we manage to keep warming at this level, scientists have long argued, it will become impossible to avoid many of the worse consequences of climate change.

There’s no great mystery about the parade of disasters that will ensue if emissions continue to rise unabated: more runaway storms, dangerous heat waves, devastating floods, raging fires and other “extreme events unprecedented in the observational record.”

And that is just the beginning. Water scarcity and heat will lead to food shortages and malnutrition. Changing agricultural patterns will force mass migrations of tens of millions of people. Conflicts and wars will result from increased competition for natural resources and water. Economies will collapse.

This is the stuff of apocalyptic books and catastrophic sci-fi movies.

But people around the world have mostly reacted like children, putting their fingers in their ears and yelling “Nyah nyah nyah” to drown out bad news. We wrestled our hands, but only gradually changed our behavior. We have taken actions that might have made a difference 25 years ago, but are too little now, too late, after decades of persistent, irresponsible neglect, denial and passivity.

You no longer have to be crazy to climb on a soapbox and announce that the end of the world is near. As far as I can tell from the brightest scientific minds in the world (although I don’t understand all the technical details, I have faith in the process that led them to their conclusions), only sweeping, transformative changes have changed the way we do things living and working can avert a catastrophe.

Just pouring massive amounts of money into the problem and making sweeping behavior changes can protect us. Ending our dependence on coal, gas, oil and other fossil fuels must be accelerated as we are running out of time and alternatives.

Certainly something has happened that gives the IPCC a glimmer of hope. Clean energy technology has advanced. Although overall carbon emissions continue to rise, the rate of growth has slowed. The use of renewable energy has been expanded, just not enough. The United States has returned to the Paris climate agreement for the time being.

But the solutions are not big enough to address the problem.

Why couldn’t we respond appropriately?

Neuroscientists, psychologists, and behavioral scientists have attempted to answer these questions. Harvard psychology professor Daniel Gilbert argues that we instinctively react to protect ourselves when a baseball is headed for our heads, but we’re not biologically programmed to prepare for large, slow-moving threats.

Here in the United States, our democratic political system is inadequate to implement policies that require sacrifice and pain today in exchange for future gain; Politicians who support such strategies are thrown out of office.

Our economic system rewards corporate behavior that maximizes short-term gains for shareholders, rather than long-term plans for a better, more stable world.

Although climate change is a slow and often imperceptible threat, that doesn’t mean it isn’t imminent. It is not a distant crisis coming upon the grandchildren of our grandchildren. It’s racing towards us. In fact, it’s up to us.

But we consistently fail to master the challenge.

Scientists have known since the late 19th century that adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere could increase global temperatures. Melting ice in Antarctica had already been documented half a century ago. In the 1970s, Exxon Mobil recognized its own role in warming the oceans and melting polar ice. The first international conference on climate change took place in Stockholm 50 years ago.

When I saw the story about the latest IPCC report I almost ignored it because like everyone else I’ve read it a million times – and written it a thousand times. I knew it would startle me, make me feel powerless.

This is why such reports can have a counterproductive effect: people get used to it. you subdivide. They become depressed, swear not to bear children.

Or they flip to the sports pages and tell themselves other news is more urgent: six people shot in Sacramento; Ukrainians massacred as Russian soldiers withdraw from Bucha; the Grammy Highlights.

But let’s not kid ourselves. We can click past the IPCC report, but the facts remain. Serious problems are coming and we’re not doing nearly enough to stop them.

@Nick_Goldberg Column: The end of the world is coming, even if you’ve heard it all before

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