Scientists tend to err on the side of being ultra-conservative. It’s built into the system. Their work is always being reviewed and picked apart by other scientists, so they don’t want to be caught out making claims that they can’t fully support.
Nor do most scientists want to be seen as advocates. They prefer to see themselves as purveyors of information, not of opinion – especially when it comes to hot-button topics like climate change.
All of which is why the latest report from the prestigious American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) is turning heads. Bottom line: This report is a giant alarm call.
Not that it says anything we don’t already know. Instead, it simply lays out a broad consensus of the facts as we know them, and in plain language – no scientific gobbledygook. For example:
Levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are rising. Temperatures are going up. Springs are arriving earlier. Ice sheets are melting. Sea level is rising.
The patterns of rainfall and drought are changing. Heat waves are getting worse, as is extreme precipitation.
The oceans are acidifying.
It’s all still worded very conservatively. For example, the AAAS puts a ceiling on global temperatures increasing by 8 degrees F. by the end of the century, while there’s actually a growing consensus that it could be a massively more catastrophic 21 degrees. And there’s no suggestion that we’ve already gone way over the big tipping points – just that we’re in danger of doing so and we need to pull back as soon as possible.
To explain this danger, a video invites us to imagine a cyclist needing to slow down to avoid going over the cliff.
In another series of videos, AAAS scientists explain the basics in the areas of:
- How climate change works.
- How to put the brakes on it and how to plan for what’s happening.
- What’s happening in the oceans (“I’ve been in this field for a while, and I’m seeing changes that I could never have imagined”).
- What’s meant by a “tipping point” and by “abrupt climate change” – when that one last straw goes down and an entire ecosystem collapses.
- Why it’s not a matter of whether you “believe” in climate change. Understanding what’s happening is not a belief system.
The videos are all worth watching.
And the bottom lines of the AAAS’s conclusions:
… “Earth’s climate is on a path to warm beyond the range of what has been experienced over the past millions of years.”
… There will be “massively disruptive consequences to societies and ecosystems: as global temperatures rise.”
… There is a real risk that “one or more critical parts of the Earth’s climate system will experience abrupt, unpredictable and potentially irreversible changes.”
… “As emissions continue and warming increases, the risk increases.”
Here’s the website, which has the headlines and the videos. And here’s the full report – not very long and deliberately made as easy as possible to digest. (Just bear in mind that AAAS is always going to err on the side of being cautious and conservative.)
So, in light of this unusually alarming call-to-action from the scientific community (AAAS has a membership of about 121,000), how can we expect our fearless leaders in Congress to respond?
Last week, a group of 30 senators, mostly Democrats, held an all-night session to voice some concerns. It was an informal session, not held during business hours, and with absolutely no legislation in mind. That would be “premature”, one of them explained. (And when exactly would it no longer be premature to take some action?)
Other senators, mostly Republican, called it a “political stunt.”
Meanwhile, the ice sheets kept melting, the coral reefs continued to die, and more of the great tropical forests were cut down to make space for cattle and palm oil plantations.