The latest warnings contained in the October 8 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) included stating the world has less than 12 years to drastically alter course to avoid the worst impacts of human-caused global warming, and that nothing less than keeping all fossil fuels in the ground is the solution to avoid future calamities.
If these have you frightened or despondent, experts responding to the report have a potentially unwelcome message for your already over-burdened heart and mind: It's very likely even worse than you're being told.
After the report’s publication, there were headlines like: “We have 12 years to act on climate change before the world as we know it is lost. How much more urgent can it get?”; “Science pronounces its verdict: World to be doomed at 2°C, less dangerous at 1.5°C”; and “A major new climate report slams the door on wishful thinking”.
But as Jamie Henn, co-founder of international climate action group 350.org, tweeted on October 9 that the “scariest thing about the IPCC Report” is the fact that “it's the watered down, consensus version. The latest science is much, much, much more terrifying”.
Henn was actually responding to Penn State University climate scientist Michael Mann, who was pushing back against those criticising the IPCC report as too “alarmist” in its declarations and warnings.
“If anything,” Mann declared, “it is the opposite. Once again, with their latest report, they have been overly conservative (ie. erring on the side of understating/underestimating the problem.)”
There is much scientific data backing up the claim. As Henn and Mann both indicate, the IPCC report is based on the consensus view of the hundreds of scientists who make up the IPCC. It has been consistently true that some of the most recent (and increasingly worrying) scientific findings have not yet found enough support to make it into these major reports, which rely on near-unanimous agreement.
Speaking to The Guardian in the wake of the latest IPCC report, Durwood Zaelke, founder of the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development, said it “fails to focus on the weakest link in the climate chain: the self-reinforcing feedbacks which, if allowed to continue, will accelerate warming and risk cascading climate tipping points and runaway warming.”
Research published in August by Johan Rockström and his colleagues at the Stockholm Resilience Centre in Sweden found that it is precisely these feedback loops and tipping points that should most frighten and concern humanity.
While nascent and not conclusive in its findings — two of the reasons you won't find it referenced in the IPCC report — the study warned that humanity may be just 1°C away from creating a series of dynamic feedback loops that could push the world into a climate scenario not seen since the dawn of the Helocene Period, nearly 12,000 years ago.
Quoted in the October 9 Guardian article about the dangers of ignoring potential tipping points, Nobel prize laureate Mario Molina, who shared the award for chemistry in 1995 for his work on ozone depletion, said: “The IPCC report demonstrates that it is still possible to keep the climate relatively safe, provided we muster an unprecedented level of cooperation, extraordinary speed and heroic scale of action.
“But even with its description of the increasing impacts that lie ahead, the IPCC understates a key risk: that self-reinforcing feedback loops could push the climate system into chaos before we have time to tame our energy system, and the other sources of climate pollution.”
The purpose of recognising the terrifying predictions is not to instil fear, however, climate campaigners and advocates for bold solutions say.
In a paper authored last year titled Leading the Public into Emergency Mode: A New Strategy for the Climate Movement, Margaret Klein Salamon writes that while a World War II-style mobilisation is needed to achieve the kind emission cuts and energy transformation that science now mandates, understanding the stakes does not necessarily mean being debilitated by that knowledge.
In an op-ed for Common Dreams, she said that “intense, but not paralyzing, fear combined with maximum hope can actually lead people and groups into a state of peak performance. We can rise to the challenge of our time and dedicate ourselves to become heroic messengers and change-makers.”
And as Rajiv Sicora, senior manager of research for The Leap, wrote to his group's supporters in an email on October 9: “This is not the time to turn away, whether in fear or in active denial of the facts.
“This is a time to use our fear as fuel: because the report also makes clear that the worst effects of global warming can still be prevented, and the urgency of transformative change should excite and empower all of us who are fighting for justice anyway.”
[Abridged from Common Dreams.]