A warming warning

Northern Illinois University geology professor Reed Scherer in front of a map of Antartica in his office ahead of his group's coming Antartic trip in DeKalb, Illinois, on November 8, 2012. Scherer and a handful of his students are leaving to study the frozen continent where temperatures hover around 5 degrees Fahrenheit and 90 mph winds create massive snowdrifts and whiteouts.
Abel Uribe | MCT
Northern Illinois University geology professor Reed Scherer in front of a map of Antartica in his office ahead of his group's coming Antartic trip in DeKalb, Illinois, on November 8, 2012. Scherer and a handful of his students are leaving to study the frozen continent where temperatures hover around 5 degrees Fahrenheit and 90 mph winds create massive snowdrifts and whiteouts.
Posted Sept. 02, 2013, at 2:37 p.m.

Soon, the international arbiter of the scientific consensus on global warming will release its latest evaluation of the state of the research. A few will dismiss the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s findings as overwrought alarmism. But a draft leaked to reporters recently indicates that, for most people, the report will serve as another stern warning about the risks of continuing to pump carbon dioxide into the air.

The scientists are set to claim that the increasing amount of greenhouse gases that humans have emitted into the atmosphere has almost certainly been the chief driver of the warming of the planet over the past half-century, a finding to which they ascribe 95 percent confidence. That’s the level of likelihood researchers typically consider robust enough to justify drawing very strong conclusions.

The amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the IPCC notes, has shot up by 40 percent since 1750, with concentrations of the gas now increasing at a faster rate than at any time in the last 22,000 years. The past three decades were probably the hottest in 800 years. Within this century, the draft report reckons, the average world temperature will increase between 2 and 7 degrees Fahrenheit.

The draft is appropriately careful when discussing global warming’s effects. The sea is rising faster in recent years than before. Climate change probably has caused more extreme weather events, such as heat waves. But, as Reuters points out, the report doesn’t insist on a connection between warming and intense tropical cyclones, for example.

The IPCC admits that it doesn’t have a sure answer to a vexing question: Why has warming slowed a bit in the past decade or so? With medium confidence, the draft suggests that the explanation lies in a mix of natural variations and things such as the oceans absorbing more heat or more volcano debris reflecting sunlight back into space. It’s also possible, the scientists admit, that the planet’s sensitivity to greenhouse emissions is lower than middle-of-the-road projections.

Those inevitable uncertainties are all the more reason for governments, starting with the United States’, to head off the ample risks of continuing to release huge amounts of greenhouse gases into the air and to set about it with speed and ambition.

The Washington Post (Aug. 27)

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