The Real Unknown of Climate Change: Our Behavior

Justin Gillis in The New York Times:

IceAs Hurricane Harvey bore down on the Texas coast, few people in that state seemed to understand the nature of the looming danger. The bulletins warned of rain falling in feet, not inches. Experts pleaded with the public to wake up. J. Marshall Shepherd, head of atmospheric sciences at the University of Georgia and a leading voice in American meteorology, wrote ahead of the storm that “the most dangerous aspect of this hurricane may be days of rainfall and associated flooding.” Now we know how events in Texas turned out. Dr. Shepherd and his colleagues have spent their careers issuing a larger warning, one that much of the public still chooses to ignore. I speak, of course, about the risks of climate change. Because of atmospheric emissions from human activity, the ocean waters from which Harvey drew its final burst of strength were much warmer than they ought to have been, most likely contributing to the intensity of the deluge. If the forecasts from our scientists are anywhere close to right, we have seen nothing yet. In their estimation, the most savage heat waves that we experience today will likely become routine in a matter of decades. The coastal inundation that has already begun will grow worse and worse, forcing millions of people to flee. The immense wave of refugees that we already see moving across continents may be just the beginning.

Scientists urged decades ago that we buy ourselves some insurance by cutting emissions. We yawned. Even today, when millions of people have awakened to the danger, tens of millions have not. So the political demand for change is still too weak to overcome the entrenched interests that want to block it. In Washington, progress on climate change has stalled. The administration has announced its intent to withdraw from the global Paris climate accord. And top Trump appointees insist that the causes of climate change are too uncertain and the scientific forecasts too unreliable to be a basis for action. This argument might have been halfway plausible 20 years ago – or, if you want to be generous, even 10 years ago. But today?

Today, salt water is inundating the coastal towns of the United States, to the point that they are starting to put giant rulers in the intersections so people can tell if it is safe to drive through. The city leaders are also posting “no wake” signs — not on canals but on the streets, to stop trucks from plowing through the water so fast as to send waves crashing into nearby homes. We all see the giant storms, more threatening than any in our lifetimes — and while scientists are not entirely comfortable yet drawing links between the power of these hurricanes and climate change, many people are coming to their own common-sense conclusions.

More here.