Celebrate climate action — but do not let your guard down

Inflation Reduction Act
Greg Nash
Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) signs the Inflation Reduction Act during an enrollment ceremony on Friday, August 12, 2022.

Now that the most consequential climate legislation of this century has passed the Senate, the House of Representatives and has been sent to President Biden for the well-deserved honor of his signing, it is time to take stock.

The images of climate impacts around the country and the world are snapshots of how climate change has altered the natural, economic and human environments up to a particular point in time — like today. These are snapshots that have been influenced not only by the climate system and the social science of climate action, but also the personal health and geopolitical circumstances that dominate our daily lives.

Moving forward from this momentous moment, American scientists need to recommit themselves to communicating the nuances and imperatives of climate risk and climate action based on what we know, what we are striving to know, and how humans, their governments and their businesses might respond. The United States is taking an aggressive step, but there is more to do.

In this regard, scientists’ success in protecting humanity has always depended on growing its stature as reliable and honest sources of the science and downstream analysis. Ultimate success depends, however, on individuals growing their personal capacities to receive and process complicated messages even as they strive to live in an increasingly complex world.

The best way that experts and influence makers can help move us forward is to suggest a way to organize our collective thoughts. A simple simile (remember 10th grade English) comes to mind: Climate is to weather as history is to headlines.

These are instructive words, more so than the much more common: In climate, history is no longer a precursor to either the present or the future. 

Both are true, but the first really speaks to context that can be foreseen with respect to the next years and decades.

Scientific snapshots of climate impacts are like historians’ snapshots of humanity’s evolution. They are contingent on specific climatic, social and political-economic circumstances. They depend on underlying trends that can be deciphered from backward-looking analyses, but they need not be harbingers of what the future might hold. The future bears the burden of unpredictable and enormous consequential breaks in climatic, social or political-economic systems that would mean that “all bets are off.” We cannot project when or where, but climate science can work on how and why. 

In the meantime, as the planet moves forward, society needs to continue to accept not only honest analyses of historical trends. It must also be informed by lessons learned from Europe in 1939 or Ukraine in 2022 — and elsewhere. Humanity must now suspect that something might break and cause enormous harm around the world, and it must prepare for the contingencies.

Much studied historical episodes are examples of so called “tipping points,” and they are the historical analogs of not-implausible climate futures that could define critical and comparable hazards for humanity as the planet moves forward along measurable trendlines with which we cannot become comfortable. Examples of risk include the rapid and collapse of the Thwaites ice sheet in Antarctica or the discontinuous collapse of rainforest ecosystems in the Amazon. But science has already identified 15 or so other possibilities. To be sure, these events are now low likelihood possibilities for any particular year. But they can have enormous and cascading consequences whose likelihoods approach certainty as the century progresses. They are, in other words, sources of high risk that cannot be ignored. 

There you have it. The Inflation Reduction Act is not a solution. If the truth be told, there are no solutions. But society has been taught by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to organize its thoughts around likelihood and consequence. Abating greenhouse gas emissions affects likelihoods (not without cost). Adaptation can affect consequence (also not without cost). With any combination, residual damages will remain and could explode.

As we move forward together knowing that there is more work to be done, societies must begin to accept that the climate system, just like the geo-political global system, holds the potential to blow our world in very short order.

So, be careful and attentive, but also be very cautious. 

Gary Yohe, Ph.D., is the Huffington Foundation professor of Economics and Environmental Studies, Emeritus at Wesleyan University.

Tags Biden climate action Climate change climate science Fossil fuels Gary Yohe Inflation Reduction Act Science
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