Editorial: UN report marshals overwhelming evidence of climate change and its impact

Monday, April 07, 2014
The United Nations this week released the most solid evidence available about the reality of our warming globe: “Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability,” a 30-volume report based on 12,000 peer-reviewed scientific studies.

It’s a wake-up call, but that phrase may frustrate anyone who has been paying attention.

Scientists have been warning about the detrimental impact of greenhouse gases since the late 19th century. It was debated with from the 1950s through the 1970s whether our planet would be warming or cooling due to pollution and the planet’s natural climate cycle. But in 1988 Columbia University professor James Hansen threw down the scientific gauntlet when he testified before Congress that human pollution had already negatively affected Earth’s climate and would continue to do so.

The larger scientific community and society took notice. The World Conference on the Changing Atmosphere: Implications for Global Security was called after Hansen’s landmark testimony and about 100 scientists agreed changes had to be made. Emissions needed to be reduced by 20 percent of the 1988 level by 2005 to stem diminishing food and fresh water supplies, global health problems and the decline of certain animal and plant species, they argued. By and large, those changes didn’t happen. Global emissions increased by about 1.5 times from 1990 through 2008, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

We’ve heard these wake-up calls before and humanity has collectively decided to keep hitting the snooze button. We can’t doze through this crisis.

In the U.S., though Secretary of State John Kerry delivered an impassioned address this winter on the problem, climate change is regarded by most in government as a low priority, and by many in business as a threat to the bottom line. That must change.

In 2013, only 34 percent of Americans felt climate change should be a top priority for Congress, according to the Pew Research Center. The same study found that an astounding 26 percent of people in the U.S. think there is no solid evidence that the Earth has gotten warmer over the past two decades. For the record, the globe’s temperature has, overall, been increasing since the 1990s, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. In 1990, the average global temperature on land was 33 degrees Fahrenheit. In 2013, it was 33.8 degrees Fahrenheit. This may not seem like much, but a small change in global temperature can have a huge impact on human life, regardless of why that change took place.

Just 13 years into this new century, we’ve already seen some of the devastation a changing climate can deliver: heat waves in Europe, wildfires in the United States, droughts in Australia and deadly flooding in Thailand, the new UN report states. And the dangers are only going to get worse if climate change goes unchecked, the report’s authors say. Some places will have too much water, others not enough. The price of food will rise as availability declines. Climate change will worsen problems such as poverty and sickness.

Massachusetts has taken commendable steps in battling climate change, with a plan to cut emissions by 25 percent of their 1990 level by 2020. By setting emission standards and providing opportunities for businesses and the public to invest in green energy, the state has cut emissions by 10 percent of the 1990 level in the past six years. The state also has a committee dedicated to adapting the Bay State to the inevitable impacts of climate change: a rising sea level, hotter overall temperatures and rare but severe weather events.

Anyone who thinks this isn’t happening needs to disengage from conspiracy theorists who call climate change a global scam created by hundreds of the world’s top scientists to trick the public into investing in green energy solutions and cut emissions.

One hundred nations have embraced the truth of the UN report. The evidence is overwhelmingly on the side of scientists warning that climate change will have a profound and disastrous impact on human life. We cannot afford to sleepwalk through climate change any longer.