Leading climate change scientists from around the world published this week in Nature Climate Change a statement about the long-term impacts of our short-term policymaking. In light of all the celebration of the political good will embodied in the Paris Agreement, this statement is a profound reality check. From the abstract (with my bolding of text):
Most of the policy debate surrounding the actions needed to mitigate and adapt to anthropogenic climate change has been framed by observations of the past 150 years as well as climate and sea-level projections for the twenty-first century. The focus on this 250-year window, however, obscures some of the most profound problems associated with climate change. Here, we argue that the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, a period during which the overwhelming majority of human-caused carbon emissions are likely to occur, need to be placed into a long-term context that includes the past 20 millennia, when the last Ice Age ended and human civilization developed, and the next ten millennia, over which time the projected impacts of anthropogenic climate change will grow and persist. This long-term perspective illustrates that policy decisions made in the next few years to decades will have profound impacts on global climate, ecosystems and human societies — not just for this century, but for the next ten millennia and beyond.
“It’s a statement of worry,” Raymond Pierrehumbert, an Oxford University geoscientist and one of the statement’s 22 authors, is quoted saying in the Washington Post. “And actually, most of us who have worked both on paleoclimate and the future have been terrified by the idea of doubling or quadrupling CO2 right from the get-go.”
So what should we worry about? Sea level rise above all else. This NASA video helps us really see (via a line graph superimposed on images of receding land ice) how quickly its glaciers have melted in just 10 years time.
The Post ends on the increased capacity we humans have to calculate the long term impacts of our pollution with a high measure of precision, even if we’re a little slow on the uptake. “All of this coming together means that a conversation about increasingly long-range forecasts, and about the millennial scale consequences of today’s greenhouse gas emissions, is growing within the scientific world. The question remains whether a similar conversation will finally take hold in the public and political one.”
Welcome to the Anthropocene.