The new IPCC climate change report makes it official: We are flirting with self-destruction

And that's a conservative reading of the data

Pollution, 1970
(Image credit: (AP Photo))

The latest International Panel on Climate Change report is out, this one on the threats that climate change poses to human society (read the summary here). Like all reports from the United Nations panel, this one is pretty conservative. There are thousands of scientists involved, and so the organization is naturally drawn to lowest-common-denominator statements that won't cause lengthy disputes.

Nevertheless, also like every IPCC report, this one has some bracing stuff. Here's just a small sample:

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That sounds bad, but it's just the tip of the iceberg, so to speak. The IPCC didn't look much at worst-case scenarios — e.g., the kind where we merely maintain the status quo on emissions, which is what humanity as a whole has been doing since the last IPCC report in 2007. It would be easy to get lost in the statistical and scientific minutiae, but the bottom line is simple and easy to understand: absent very near-term and highly aggressive action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, world civilization will face serious and quite possibly existential threats.

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But what is perhaps most alarming of all is not the specific predictions of rising seas, collapsing water supplies, melting Arctic ice cap, and mass extinctions. It's what those events imply about our society's capability for self-preservation. This isn't a normal pollution story, in which some people get rich poisoning the disorganized majority; it's a story in which the pollution is so bad that it threatens even the polluters themselves.

In other words, we're not solely watching a bunch of corporate sociopaths become obscenely wealthy from pillaging the collective commons — we're watching our civilization flirt with suicide.

Time out to pour yourself a stiff drink. Better? Okay, good.

Our self-immolation is what the IPCC is trying to prevent, which is why the organization, despite the excessive hedging and qualifications, remains one of the best humanity has ever created. It represents international science, organized through grinding effort, carefully leveraging its immense credibility built up over the centuries in the service of protecting society.

Despite the enormous length of this climate report, neither the science involved nor the policy solutions here are terribly complicated. Eighty percent of all extant carbon reserves must be kept in the ground. Worldwide cap-and-trade, a carbon tax, and even EPA-style regulations could probably accomplish this (though the latter would not be the best option). Getting over the political barriers to action is by far the more difficult task.

And it's difficult because hugely profitable carbon-mining companies base their wealth and their future profits on those carbon reserves, and most of that will have to be expropriated. But it's important to remember what's at stake here — and for that, at least, we have the IPCC to thank.

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