Is This Humanity's First Planetary Emergency?

The reports of a number of leading scientists show a new level of concern about the possibility of global warming producing planetwide upheaval in the lifetimes of today's children.

Please don't shoot the messenger. Those of us who cover global warming already have enough to think about as we consider some of the latest assessments coming from established scientists.

And it's important to mention at the outset that most of these scientists say there may still be a chance for humanity to avoid the worst if we get our global act together immediately -- though they do say we are in for at least some very rough times.

This is also necessarily a psychology story. No two people receiving potentially bad news will greet it with exactly the same medley of natural denials and particular ignorance of probabilities, say psychologists. Each reader (and writer) must deal in his or her own way.

Peter Cox, a climate expert at the Center for Ecology and Hydrology in England, is quoted in the Guardian as saying, "The Scientific agenda has moved from improving the predictions to thinking about what are the chances of something awful happening."

Something awful happening?

Sounds bad. But it is also the impression of this reporter (I've focused almost exclusively on global warming for nearly 20 months now) that new attention is being paid by many of the scientists specializing in climate change to the probabilities of Earth being at or near a tipping point that would lead to planetwide upsets to life and civilization, even within this century.

These are phrases that we need to take in small doses.

Let me pass along a few of the most worrisome.

Most pessimistic sounding so far is the preeminent British scientist James Lovelock, one of the founders of modern Earth-systems science and creator of what is called the Gaia hypothesis -- an insight that has led many scientists to study the relationship between Earth's living biological communities (all the plants and animals) and the nonliving elements, such as the waters and the atmosphere.

Lovelock, now in his vigorous mid-80s, has just published a book in Britain titled "The Revenge of Gaia," in which he explains his belief that global warming has passed the "point of no return."

Lovelock believes that the United States, China, India and Europe will not cut greenhouse gas emissions sharply within the next 10 years -- which a number of climate scientists say they must if we are to prevent enormous disruption and suffering.

So, Lovelock argues, the only responsible action for governments to take now is to make plans to keep civilization going as long as possible, looking prudently forward to the time -- he suspects it's within this century -- when drought and famine have unsettled many governments, when international trade is greatly reduced and (one of his more disturbing images) those hearty humans who have managed to survive are among the few "breeding pairs" left at the polar regions, the only places he believes might still be tolerable for human beings.

What are professional journalists to do with assessments and images like that?

The instinct of a few has been to scoff and call them alarmist.

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