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Time's running out for climate-change denial

Governments must wake up to the inevitable impacts of pollution sooner rather than later

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 04 January, 2015, 7:54am
UPDATED : Sunday, 04 January, 2015, 7:54am
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From a strictly logical perspective, it’s hard to understand how we can be doing so little to slow global warming.

If we take action to slow it, the worst-case scenario involves draconian government regulations that trigger an economic recession. If we don’t, the worst-case scenario involves an economic recession too, but also a host of other global and societal catastrophes.

There are lots of options to slow global warming that don’t involve drastic government regulation, and that can even be beneficial for the economy. If we decide that we’ve gone too far in cutting carbon pollution, it’s relatively easy to scale back government policies.

On the other hand, evidence from past climate-change events indicates that triggering tipping points pushing the climate into a dramatically different state is a real possibility. Unlike government policies, as the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report noted, many climate-change impacts will be irreversible.

In other words, if we take too much action to curb climate change, the worst-case scenario is easily avoided. If we don’t take enough action, we may not be able to avoid some of the worst consequences.

Of course there’s a wide spectrum of possible actions and outcomes between the extremes. However, the more action we take to reduce carbon pollution, the fewer harmful climate-change consequences we’ll trigger.

Support for climate action is broad and growing.

The US military views it as a serious threat. The Pope is rumoured to be planning a major effort to encourage an international agreement on climate policy targets this year. A growing number of faith groups support action, viewing it as an issue of stewardship.

More climate scientists are beginning to speak up. At the autumn American Geophysical Union conference, I spoke in a great session to a room full of about 200 climate scientist eager to learn about effective science communication.

And more policymakers are starting to listen to them. The presidents of the two largest carbon-polluting countries – China and the US – recently agreed to curb their emissions, and a couple of Republicans in the House of Representatives recently voiced concerns about climate change.

So far, most of those US House Republicans have been unwilling to do anything to slow global warming, and in fact have tried to undermine President Barack Obama’s efforts to tackle the problem.

However, the Environmental Protection Agency’s greenhouse gas regulations are here to stay.

Extreme weather events will only become more intense, and tackling climate change is becoming a generational issue.

More than 60 per cent of Republicans under the age of 50 support government action to cut carbon pollution. Conservative policymakers in the US, Australia and Canada are among the last major holdouts obstructing action to curb climate change, but in the face of physical reality and growing public will, that’s not a sustainable political position.

The longer they hold out and the more carbon pollution we pump into the atmosphere, the greater the risks of dangerous climate consequences.

Climate action is inevitable, but the clock is ticking.

Dana Nuccitelli is an environmental scientist at a private consulting firm in Sacramento, California

The Guardian