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The soothsayer report on the climate


In his tragic-hero play, “Hamlet,” recently performed at ETSU, Shakespeare confronts us with the notion of power for action and problem solving, through knowledge and foresight, that seems extraordinarily relevant today.

In the play, Hamlet’s friend Horatio, facing the ghost of the murdered king, demands of him: “If thou art privy to thy country’s fate, which, happily, foreknowing may avoid – O, speak!”

The United Nations climate panel has spoken, authoritatively in a special report, to what will be humanity’s fate if greenhouse gas emissions and temperature increase, under climate change, are not halted.

It assesses the impacts which foreknowledge will help us avoid if the world keeps the increase in global average temperature to 1.5 rather than 2 degree Celsius above pre-industrial level.

In Paris in 2015, the nations of the world had agreed to hold global warming to at most 2 degrees but, fearing submergence danger for many small island nations, to aim for 1.5 degrees. They also asked for a special consensus report in 2018. This would analyze the ongoing risks, based on the peer-reviewed scientific literature, and compare the projected climate-change impacts under 1.5 and 2.0 degree warming scenarios.

The report, painting a grim view of the future, came out in early October. Without decisive action now, many millions of human lives could be at stake, the scientists warn. Nearly all coral reefs – the spawning grounds for most ocean fisheries – would die. On land, through more widespread and frequent heat waves, drought and flooding, farming would be strongly affected and the world’s food supply become drastically less secure.

Indeed, major warming impacts are being experienced the world over even now, when global temperature rise stands at 1 degree, such as the last years’ super intense hurricanes and typhoons, extended heatwaves and wildfires. They are among scientists’ growing concerns given that, if global greenhouse gas emissions aren’t drastically and quickly halted – some even sucked out of the atmosphere – the warming effects of today will more than triple.

The Union of Concerned Scientists’ Peter Frumhoff states about the (IPCC) report that “at 1.5 degrees of warming further climate impacts will be devastating and at 2 degrees they would be calamitous.” After decades of idling, meeting even the lower target “will require bringing carbon emissions to net zero by mid-century and dramatically reducing emissions of other heat-trapping gases. It calls for transforming our energy economy and transitioning away from fossil fuels by greatly ramping up energy efficiency and embracing renewables.”

Putting a price on the carbon emissions, the report also states, would be central for getting global warming under control. It would be part of our rescue from a disastrous future toward which, otherwise, we are heading. The choice is technically available to us and long recommended by economists, including by this year’s Nobel Prize recipient William Nordhaus. The Citizens Climate Lobby proposes it for national legislation.

The rescue won’t be “happy” or easy, but, with foreknowledge of impending fate, as Shakespeare has Horatio exclaim, it is still possible. We must listen and rise to the task.