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.

Yet the growing number of serious journalists looking into the scientific consensus on the dangers of global warming do not scoff. Too many scientists from many front-rank institutions in many countries have confirmed the reality of a man-caused global warming now presenting clear and present dangers.

For 40 years now, the world's climate scientists have been locked in urgent debate about this matter. At first, few wanted to countenance the possibility of this warming coming on so fast as to cause imminent disruption in the 21st century.

That has changed.

Last year the chairman of the International Panel on Climate Change said that man's carbon emissions were reaching such concentration that "immediate and very deep cuts in the pollution are needed if humanity is to survive."

If humanity is to survive?

Serious scientists do not much enjoy agreeing with each other. They make their names by making discoveries to which other scientists react -- at first -- with a startled "No way!" followed by a period of initial disbelief and retesting of the new hypothesis, which they try to disprove but keep failing to and then eventually accept as the most powerful and accurate tool of prediction yet available.

That is what has happened over 40 years with the declarations that planet-changing global warming from man-made greenhouse gas emissions is upon us.

In 1988, preeminent American climate scientist James Hansen of NASA told Congress that man-made global warming was real and, he said, "changing the climate now."

No way, said many. But that has changed.

Hansen spends most of his time crunching numbers in computer climate models whose complexity would intimidate any journalist suffering from an irrational science phobia -- as opposed to the proper and skeptical journalistic respect journalists often show politicians and business leaders.

Journalists not afraid to let scientists explain themselves in the testing grounds of common sense language have heard Hansen speculate lately -- just speculate -- on the probabilities that Earth's warming may have reached or be perilously close to some sort of tipping point beyond which the warming is a runaway process.

For the record, in his latest publications Hansen calculates that we have 10 years in which to drastically cut greenhouse gas emissions if we are to avoid major upheaval that could well occur within the lifetimes of today's kids.

Hansen says that lately he is beginning to feel that a rise of any more than 1 degree Celsius (roughly 2 degrees Fahrenheit) in the average global temperature will mean we're on "a different planet."

That's why it's unsettling to read today that Britain's chief scientist, David King, has just told the BBC that he now calculates that the world is likely to suffer a rise of more than not 1 but 3 degrees Celsius.

He apparently bases this estimate on the belief, like Lovelock's, that no international action on greenhouse gas emission cuts will happen anywhere near soon enough.

As we've noted before on, the word "alarmist" is defined in the dictionary as "alarming others needlessly."

Regarding the few remaining voices in the United States press corps calling the claims of so many preeminent scientists alarmist, I continue, from time to time, to check out the facts and logic behind these journalists' claims and arguments, and, I am sorry to report, continue to find them without substance or even, in many cases, any clear logic.

Global warming is not a politics story (though greatly politicized); it is an event, and as such needs not so much a political sort of "balance" as a rigorous perspective -- as did, for example, the sudden explosion of Mount St. Helens in 1980 or the tsunami in Indonesia, except that global warming is far bigger and more complex than these events.

I could wish there were some other authorities we could listen to about this, other than the thousands of credible scientists in the United States and around the world who, after decades of skeptical examination and debate, now bring us alarming news.

But everything I'm finding so far suggests that would be only wishful thinking.