Back to the Future Like a Virgin With the IPCC

Do you know what was popular the last time the world had a cooler-than-average month? Ironically, the top movie was Back to the Future. The No. 1 song was "Like a Virgin" by Madonna. And David Letterman had just introduced for the first time his signature comedic vehicle, his Top Ten List. All back in February 1985. Ever since Letterman's Top Ten List began, each month has been warmer than the 20th century average, 342 consecutive months, more than 28 years. Our young people have only known a warmer world.

On Friday, September 27, the world's leading scientists once again took us back to the future, the future of an ever-warming world. And maybe this time we'll hear what they have to say as if "for the very first time" (as Madonna puts it), and take it to heart.

This particular back to the ever-warming future report was released by the Nobel Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the world's most authoritative body on the subject. In this instance it was their Summary for Policymakers (SPM) of the first volume (WG1) of the long-awaited 4-volume Fifth Assessment Report (AR5). As the name implies, this is the fifth time the IPCC has issued a thorough assessment of where things stand with climate change. The last 4-volume report, AR4, came back in 2007. So it has been a while. (They take the time to get it right, which can be frustrating for folks like me who work on the issue!)

Here are the highlights.

1. Human Activities Are the Problem

This basic conclusion was actually reached all the way back in 1995 with the second report. (Brad Plumer of Wonkblog has a nice, brief review of this history; as a personal aside, I just love Wonkblog.) Through the years the confidence has grown to where now it is determined to be a near-certainty. As the summary says:

"It is extremely likely [a 95 percent or greater chance] that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century."

(FYI, evangelical leaders affirmed this basic finding back in 2006 in the Evangelical Climate Initiative statement.)

Thus, for nearly 20 years the world's leading scientific experts have told us that human pollution from burning fossil fuels has created a situation where we are artificially heating up God's creation; we are giving the planet a fever. This latest IPCC report reaffirms this conclusion even more strongly, a 95 percent or greater chance that we're the problem. The good news, as the IPCC also affirms, is that we still have time to overcome global warming -- and with God's help, we can do so. We have the solutions; what we need is the will.

2. We Are Starting to Feel the Consequences

As this IPCC report highlights, each of the last three decades has been warmer than the last. The scientists have confirmed once again what we've seen on the news and experienced in our own backyards -- the weather is getting more extreme:
  • More heat waves (doubling their likelihood in some areas).
  • More violent storms.
  • Rising sea levels (and more quickly than previously thought).
  • More destructive storm surges (like in Hurricane Sandy).
  • Intensified floods and droughts.
  • More destructive wildfires.

Unfortunately, things are going to get worse and we must prepare for that; and if we don't do the right thing, even more dire consequences will result. This leads to my next point ...

3. We're The Solution -- But Time Is Running Out

If we're the problem, then we're also the solution. A scary thought? Yes. But also a hopeful one. The worst consequences are not inevitable. We can do things to avoid them, things that are good to do for lots of reasons.

And Christian faith reminds us of the most important thing to remember: we are not alone! God is with us, and He will help and guide us in overcoming climate change as He does with everything else.

It has long been recognized that a dangerous threshold we wouldn't want to cross is raising the temperature more than 2 degrees Celsius (or 3.6 degrees F) above what it was before the start of the Industrial Revolution, or 2C for short.

Now, for the first time, the IPCC has given us a "carbon budget"; they have quantified how much global warming pollution we can emit to have a reasonable chance of staying below 2C. To do so, we must not emit more than 1000 gigatonnes of carbon (GtC) since preindustrial times. As of 2011, we have used up over half of that budget, or 531 GtC. Unfortunately, our current rate of pollution would have us exceeding this budget in about 30 years.

Now you might be thinking, "What's the rush? When year 29 rolls around we'll get serious." Perfectly understandable.

Unfortunately, it can't work that way (and highlights a shortcoming of the "carbon budget" framing).

First off, this is a budget to stave off unprecedented damage; even the amount of pollution we have already emitted is causing harm, and the more we add, the more harm there will be. So the loving thing to do is start reducing as much as we can right now.

Second, how is it that we emit the pollution? We do so through power plants that last 50-plus years, vehicles that last 10 to 20 years, buildings that last 100-plus years. In other words, each time we invest in something that has a by-product of global warming pollution, we lock in those emissions for 10, 20, 50, 100-plus years. (That's unless we want to prematurely tear such investments down, which of course no one wants).

For several years now the International Energy Agency (IEA) has done a similar analysis to determine what needs to be done to avoid 2C and by when. Their conclusion is that worldwide carbon pollution needs to peak by 2017.

So, it may take us 30 years to blow through our budget before unprecedented damage occurs, but we will have exceeded our "carbon pollution investment budget," if you will, by around 2017.

Thus, by the end of this decade, if not sooner, we will have set our course and put ourselves on autopilot that in 30 year's time leads to a 2C world and beyond.

That is why the next several years are so crucial, why the loving and righteous path is the creation of sustainable economic progress via a clean energy revolution that creates jobs, cuts air and water pollution that hurts our kids and the unborn, and enhances both our economic and national security.

A better and safer world, free from the scourge of unprecedented climate change, is indeed possible, and God is leading the way and giving us the spiritual power necessary to prevail.

The Rev. Jim Ball, Ph.D., is author of Global Warming and the Risen LORD.