NEW YORK--Our parents and grandparents fell down on the job.
"The politicians in Copenhagen have the power to shape history's judgment on this generation: one that saw a challenge and rose to it, or one so stupid that we saw calamity coming but did nothing to avert it." A concise summary of how the world sees this week's United Nations climate change conference, courtesy of the editorial board of the United Kingdom newspaper The Guardian.
The paper continued: "In scientific journals, the question is no longer whether humans are to blame, but how little time we have got left to limit the damage," wrote the Guardian's editors. The implication is that time is short, that there's still time to stave off environmental disaster.
"Quietly in public, loudly in private, climate scientists everywhere are saying the same thing: It's over," reported George Monblot in the Guardian from Copenhagen. "The years in which more than 2 degrees C [above average temperatures at the start of the Industrial Revolution] of global warming could have been prevented have passed, the opportunities squandered by denial and delay. On current trajectories, we'll be lucky to get away with 4 degrees C. Mitigation [limiting greenhouse gas pollution] has failed; now we must adapt to what nature sends our way. If we can."
Leading scientists like James Hansen say the maximum safe upper level for the concentration of CO2 particles in air is 350 parts per million. We're currently at 387. According to a study recently cited in Time magazine, we could ban automobiles and the internal combustion engine and abolish all industrial production, worldwide, and it would still take at least 900 years for CO2 levels to drop back below the 350 ppm tipping point.
Ocean levels will rise an average of at least 6 to 16 feet by 2100. The northern half of Antarctica's giant Wilkins ice shelf has begun breaking off; it will be gone within a few years. In the highest mountains in and around the Himalayas, millennia-old glaciers have vanished in the last decade, causing water shortages for hundreds of millions of people in the cities of China, Central and South Asia.
"People have imagined that if we stopped emitting carbon dioxide that the climate would go back to normal in 100 years or 200 years," said Susan Solomon, a climate scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. "What we're showing here is that's not right. It's essentially an irreversible change that will last for more than 1,000 years."
The idyllic global climate that has prevailed for the last 10,000 years is changing. Catastrophe no longer looms, it's upon us. For example, the polar ice cap is doomed. Summer ice will vanish within 20 years; winter ice will be gone by 2085. Nothing can be done to stop it. It doesn't matter whether the United States and other countries reduce CO2 gas production by 30, 50 or 80 percent.
The ice sheets are going. Thousands of animal species will live in zoos or not at all. Giant storms will rage, famine will spread, drought will be ubiquitous.
It is almost certainly too late to save ourselves. Recycling and reducing CO2 output amounts to mere politeness. It's a nice gesture. But it won't make any difference.