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

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The periodic reports of the U.N.’s International Panel on Climate Change are lapsing into self-parody.

This is your last warning, they say. Get a move on. Don’t sit idly by. Fix the problem now.

We mean it!

I am continually amazed that the IPCC scientists don’t throw up their collective hands in disgust at humanity’s inability to awaken from its slumbers and stop issuing reports altogether.

Instead they keep holding out faint glimmers of hope and encouragement that just maybe, maybe, maybe we will rise to occasion. I can’t help but wonder if that’s just because, well, any other message is inconceivable.

Opinion Columnist

Nicholas Goldberg

Nicholas Goldberg served 11 years as editor of the editorial page and is a former editor of the Op-Ed page and Sunday Opinion section.

According to the panel’s newest report, released Monday, the world is right on track to blow past the critically important goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, or 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit — a target set nearly a decade ago in the Paris climate agreement. If we fail to hold warming to that level, scientists have long said, it will no longer be possible to avoid many of the more dire consequences of climate change.

There’s no big secret about the parade of catastrophes that will follow if emissions continue to rise unabated: more out-of-control storms, dangerous heat waves, harrowing floods, raging fires and other “extreme events unprecedented in the observational record.”

And that’s 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. Conflict and war will result from heightened competition for minerals resources and water. Economies will collapse.

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

Yet people around the world have mostly responded like children holding their fingers in their ears and yelling, “Nyah nyah nyah,” to drown out bad news. We have wrung our hands but changed our behavior in only incremental ways. We’ve taken actions that might have made a difference 25 years ago but are now too little, too late, after decades of stubborn, irresponsible neglect, denial and passivity.

You don’t have to be crazy anymore to climb on a soapbox and proclaim that the end of the world is nigh. As far as I can tell from the brightest scientific minds in the world (even if I don’t understand all the technical details, I have faith in the process that led them to their conclusions), only sweeping, transformational change in the way we live and work can avert disaster.

Only plunging massive amounts of money into the problem and adopting broad behavioral changes can protect us. Ending our reliance on coal, gas, oil and other fossil fuels needs to be accelerated because we’re running out of time and alternatives.

There’s been some movement to be sure, which accounts for the IPCC’s glimmer of hope. Clean-energy technology has progressed. Although overall carbon emissions continue to rise, the rate of growth has slowed. The use of renewable energy has expanded, just not enough. The United States, for the moment, has returned to the Paris climate agreement fold.

But the solutions aren’t big enough to address the problem.

Why have we been unable to respond appropriately?

Neuroscientists, psychologists and scholars of human behavior have tried to answer those questions. Harvard psychology professor Daniel Gilbert argues that we react instinctively to protect ourselves if a baseball is hurtling toward our heads, but we are not biologically wired to prepare for big, slow-moving threats.

Here in the United States, our democratic political system is ill-suited to deliver policies that require sacrifice and pain today in exchange for future gain; politicians who support such strategies get booted from office.

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

Although climate change is a slow-moving and often imperceptible threat, that doesn’t mean it’s not imminent. It is not a faraway crisis coming for our grandchildren’s grandchildren. It is barreling toward us right now. In fact, it’s upon us.

Yet we consistently fail to meet the challenge.

Scientists have been aware since the late 19th century that adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere could raise global temperatures. Half a century ago, melting ice in Antarctica had already been documented. By the 1970s, Exxon Mobil understood its own role in the ocean warming and the melting of polar ice. The first international conference to address climate change was held in Stockholm 50 years ago.

When I saw the story about the most recent IPCC report, I nearly ignored it, because just like everyone else, I’ve read it a million times — and written it a thousand times. I knew it would frighten me, make me feel powerless.

That’s why such reports can seem counterproductive: People grow inured. They compartmentalize. They get depressed, vow not to bring children into the world.

Or they flip to the sports pages, tell themselves other news is more urgent: six people shot to death in Sacramento; Ukrainians massacred as Russian soldiers pulled out of Bucha; the Grammy highlights.

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

@Nick_Goldberg





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