Rising Tide

In 1988, Al Gore was a U.S. senator from Tennessee with presidential aspirations. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was a loosely knit group of several hundred scientists working under the auspices of the United Nations.

Al’s initial foray into presidential politics did not go well–his campaign expired halfway through the primaries. The IPCC’s debut on the global stage also was tepid: the group mumbled something about a new phenomenon called global warming and speculated that maybe, just maybe, humans had something to do with accelerating it. Exxon swallowed Mobil, belched, and the IPCC eggheads shut up and retreated to their academic sanctuaries.

Fast-forward to 2007, when the second acts for a new-and-improved Gore and his friends at the IPCC played to rave reviews. Gore, denied the presidency by a handful of confused voters in Palm Beach, FL and five members of the Supreme Court, converted a Powerpoint presentation on climate change into a global crusade. He was rewarded with the Nobel Peace Prize, which was jointly bestowed on the IPCC. (We’re not sure how cleaning up the environment is related to world peace, but since the prize is named for the inventor of dynamite, it probably doesn’t have to make sense.)

The IPCC’s 2007 report on climate change was a bit more assertive than its 1988 pronouncement, but not by much. The 2007 report found “unequivocal” evidence of warming, but equivocated on responsibility, stating the chances were “at least 90 percent” that human activities were a major cause of a 41-percent rise in greenhouse gases since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. The 2007 report declined to speculate on the potential impact of climate change–it included no estimate for the potential rise in sea levels.

The Nobel Prize garnered a lot of attention for the 2007 report. For a few months, it looked like the world’s largest carbon-emitters might actually come together and agree to replace the outdated Kyoto protocol with much tougher greenhouse gas restrictions, perhaps even a global tax on carbon (in the form of a cap-and-trade market).  These hopes evaporated like a cloud of smokestack vapor in September 2008 when the global financial system collapsed. Concerns about climate change took a back-row seat as the world struggled to restart its economic engines.

This week, the IPCC cleared its throat and prepared to deliver the fifth report on climate change it has produced since 1988. A draft of the report, leaked to Reuters and The New York Times, says the panel now is “95 percent certain” that human activity is the cause of most of the increase in global temperatures in recent decades.

Before you yawn, here’s the big news: the 2013 report also is said to reveal the “oh, by the way” that was left out of previous IPCC reports–if the current rate of warming continues, the polar ice caps will disappear and the oceans will rise by about three feet by the end of this century.

If the IPCC eggheads decide to let it all hang out, they may point out that the disappearance of land ice will only be the tip of the proverbial iceberg (a metaphor that probably should disappear): climate change also will produce extreme heat waves, a global epidemic of wildfires, difficulty growing food and massive changes in plant and animal life, probably including a wave of extinctions.

This doomsday language about worst-case scenarios probably will be expunged from the final 2013 report when it is released in Stockholm in September after some intense closed-door negotiations between the courageous IPCC members.

The report will not tell us it’s too late to stop this looming catastrophe. Presumably, we’ll have to wait another five years for this dismal pronouncement, when IPCC emerges in 2017 and tells us their certainty on human-caused global warming has increased to 98.5 percent and that climate-change has become a self-sustaining phenomenon. The 1.5 percent of skeptics remaining in their midst will be exposed as chiropractors who were pretending to be climate-change scientists.

If you don’t think climate change is on the verge of becoming self-sustaining, consider this:

The U.S. Energy Information Agency forecasts that global energy consumption will grow by 56 percent between now and 2040; about 80 percent of this energy demand will be satisfied by fossil fuels. Meanwhile, the arctic permafrost—known to Green Bay Packer fans as “the frozen tundra”—already is showing signs of melting, producing huge methane bubbles in Russia. There are gigatons of methane trapped in the tundra, and methane is even more effective than carbon dioxide in trapping heat in the atmosphere.

There’s no point in waiting until 2017 to consider the ramifications. In fact, a report issued this week by a group of coastal engineering researchers at the University of Southhampton in the U.K. helps put things in perspective.

The British study says the combination of climate change, population growth and increased economic development activity in emerging economies will increase flood losses in major coastal cities globally to nine times their current levels by 2050. The study estimates present and future flood losses in 136 of the world’s largest coastal cities (including New York, Miami, New Orleans and Tampa in the U.S.). The British scientists found that current flood defenses have been designed for past conditions (i.e. “100-year” storms) and therefore are totally inadequate to deal with even a moderate rise in sea levels.

In order to meet the impending threat, the 136 coastal cities will need to cumulatively spend an estimated $50 billion per year between now and 2050 to erect sea barriers and improve their flood-management systems. The report says the three U.S. cities with the highest flood risk are New York, Miami and New Orleans. The countries with the greatest risk from coastal urban flooding include–wait for it–China and the United States, the two top emitters of greenhouse gases.

If you’re reading this from your lounge chair on the beach, consider yourself warned:

You’ve got 87 years—give or take a decade–to pack up the umbrella, pails, shovels, sun-block lotion and coolers, and head for high ground. Don’t forget the beer.