Ignoring Paul Revere

09/28/2013 10:29 am ET | Updated Nov 28, 2013

The latest findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change tell us what we've been told several times before, except with a greater degree of certainty. Climate change is real and we had better stop burning carbon soon if we want to avoid a future in which we suffer in biblical proportions.

The IPCC is like a doctor who gives us a checkup every few years. Time after time, the diagnosis is the same except more certain and the prognosis is the same except more urgent. We are the patients who either refuse to believe it, or believe it and refuse to stop the behavior that makes us sick. The majority of us, it seems, would rather listen to beer commercials than the news because the news is getting pretty bad.

The latest report from this largest of all scientific enterprises is said to be conservative in its findings. Yet, its conclusions are not reassuring. "Warming of the climate system is unequivocal," the scientists report, "and since the 1950s, many of the observed changes are unprecedented over decades to millennia." To be more specific:

• "The atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide (CO2), methane, and nitrous oxide have increased to levels unprecedented in at least the last 800,000 years."

• "Human influence on the climate system is clear... Human influence has been detected in warming of the atmosphere and the ocean, in changes in the global water cycle, in reductions in snow and ice, in global mean sea level rise, and in changes in some climate extremes... It is extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century."

• "Continued emissions of greenhouse gases will cause further warming and changes in all components of the climate system. Limiting climate change will require substantial and sustained reductions of greenhouse gas emissions."

Which means substantial and sustained reductions in our use of fossil fuels.

What will the impacts be? The IPCC concludes that the "likely" changes in this early part of the 21st century will be more hot days and nights, more heavy rains like those that Colorado just experienced, and rising sea levels that make coastal storms more destructive.

Yet if the recent past is an indication of the future, deniers will fixate on the word "likely", because "likely" in the language of the layman doesn't mean "certain". Scientists don't speak in the language of certainty: to them, 95% certainty means "you can take it to the bank".

The IPCC says we must wean ourselves from fossil fuels in the next 30-40 years if we want to avoid the worst. To the denier, it means that even if climate change were real, we don't have to worry about for a while. But what the science really tells us is that every year we continue consuming oil, coal and natural gas is a year of damage we can't take back - a year in which we've locked ourselves and our children into a future in which today's "biblical" weather disasters become more and more common.

To get our heads around this, a few more metaphors come to mind:

• We are the alcoholic who takes comfort in the fact that his liver disease has not yet reached end-state, so he can keep drinking awhile longer.

• We are the CEOs of our own lives, thinking about the next quarter or the next election, but not about the future that we are shaping now and that, in the scheme of things, is right around the corner.

• Our future is a tropical storm that's heading this way fast, already messing with our weather while it builds into a hurricane that is likely to be the most destructive we've ever known.

• The experts of the IPCC, and other scientists, too, have been our Paul Revere. We are the good citizens who decide every time he rides through town that Paul is an alarmist; we can roll over and go back to sleep.

If a word to the wise is sufficient, it is increasingly obvious that we, as a society, are not very wise. Instead, we seem to be the "hollow men" that T.S. Eliot described nearly 90 years ago, when he wrote (parenthetical addition mine):

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
(at least as we have known it)
Not with bang, but a whimper