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Scientists' Climate Talk Switches from Future to Present

Unless you are one of those people who eagerly digest every new scientific report about global climate change, you may have missed a disturbing development in the march of global warming, revealed in science’s use of the English language.

Not long ago, most climate scientists stuck to the future tense when they talked about the impacts of global warming. Now, they are using the present tense – and using it more and more often. Not long ago, the damages they talked about involved Greenland and the glaciers and the polar ice caps. Now, they tell us the damages have arrived in the United States.

In other words, climate change isn’t just a problem for our kids anymore. It’s here and now and getting personal.

What concerns climate scientists today is not only that the adverse impacts are showing up faster than they expected; it’s that political leaders are moving slower than they should. Climate scientists from around the world will meet next month in Copenhagen “to warn the world’s politicians they are being too timid in their response to global warming,” according to The Guardian.

They’ll also introduce information to update the 2007 Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), whose findings now are considered conservative and “wishy washy” by many in the science community, in light of more recent research and its more extreme conclusions. As Michael Lemonick reports in Yale Environment 360:

Since (2007), new reports have continued to pour in from all over the world, and climate modelers have continued to feed them into their supercomputers. And while a full accounting will have to wait for the next IPCC report, which is already being assembled (but which will not go to the printer until 2014), the news is not encouraging.

The new reports, many of them documented in an October 2008 paper by the World Wildlife Fund, include estimates that sea level rise may be triple what scientists projected just two years ago; that we should start preparing for an average atmospheric temperature rise of 4 degrees celsius, twice the level the European Union defines as “dangerous”; that the Arctic Circle may be ice-free 20 years ahead of the most pessimistic IPCC projections; that carbon dioxide emissions are accelerating faster than expected; and that some of these adverse impacts already are locked and irreversible for the next 1,000 years.

Last year, the United Nations invoked the present tense in its finding that “nine out of 10 disasters recorded are climate-related, while the number of disasters has doubled to more than 400 annually over the past two decades.” John Holmes, the Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, concluded:

Climate change is not some futuristic scenario, it’s happening today, and millions of people are already suffering the consequences.

I am blessed with several learned colleagues who tolerate my frequent questions about climate science. I asked one of them, Susan Joy Hassol, when the present tense began to appear in the scientific literature on climate damage. Susan would know. From her office in tiny Basalt, Colo., she is one of the chief writers and editors of reports that have emerged from major national and international climate assessments. Her response:

I’d estimate this (the present tense) began to show up about 5 years ago or so and has been growing each year since. When we published the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment in 2004, we used the word “now” quite a bit, emphasizing that science had moved from being mainly future projections to including current observations of climate changes and impacts. The difference is also apparent between the IPCC 2001 and 2007 reports.

The science clearly moved in recent years from only being able to attribute the observed global temperature rise to human activity, to being able to establish causal links between human activities and changes in snowpack, seasonal timing of runoff, changes in minimum and maximum temperatures, ocean temperature changes in hurricane formation regions, and so on.

What about impacts in the United States? Hasn’t the present tense appeared here, too, although somewhat later? Hassol's reply:

I’d say you are correct that the attribution of impacts in the U.S. to human-induced climate change has been later in coming, mainly happening in 2008. …There are still some people who think that there is nothing in observed change or impacts that can be clearly attributed to human-induced climate change – that it is still primarily a problem for the future, not the present. I believe they are wrong and that the recent science supports my belief. As you say, it is here and now, personal and local, and growing.

Back in 2005, the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies convened scores of experts in Colorado to analyze the gap between what scientists were saying and what the public was willing to do. Dan Abbasi, then associate dean, wrote the conference report and this conclusion:

The problem of climate change is almost perfectly designed to test the limits of any modern society’s capacity for response – one might even call it the “perfect problem” for its uniquely daunting confluence of forces.

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