An optimist might want to raise a glass as 2011 winds down. U.S. troops will be out of Iraq by New Year's Eve. The global AIDS pandemic is ebbing. And the U.S. unemployment rate dropped by nearly half a percent in November.
But an optimist would have to totally ignore one really important number to maintain the cheer. That number is 11. It was tossed out by scientists and economists at the international climate talks that just ended in Durban, South Africa.
If we human beings continue to torch fossil fuels — oil, coal, natural gas — without any serious limitations in the next few decades, our planet could warm a full 11 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100. That was the message from the highly respected International Energy Agency in a report just released in Durban.
How much is 11 degrees of warming? For help, let's inventory the warming we've already seen on our planet. Already, the Arctic Ocean has lost 40 percent of its ice mass since the 1970s. Already, wildfires in the American West destroy six times more forest land per year than 40 years ago. Already, the biggest hurricanes come more frequently, and the city of Virginia Beach is starting to plan a methodical retreat from its shoreline due to sea-level rise. Already, Allstate insurance company won't issue any new homeowners policies in coastal Maryland and Virginia because of stronger storms.
And how much warming did it take to trigger all of the above? How much to trigger the extreme floods and droughts and heat waves from China to Australia to Texas that scientists say are connected to climate change?
Answer: 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit.
That's it: 1.4 degrees. Since the dawn of the Industrial Age in the 1700s, we've raised the global temperature 1.4 degrees, with most of that coming in the last 100 years. This rise alone has threatened tens of thousands of animal and plant species with extinction and made 2000-2009 the warmest decade in the past 125,000 years.
Now multiply by eight.
If 1.4 degrees gets us a soon-to-be-ice-free Arctic and nearly nonstop extreme weather worldwide, what will 11 degrees bring us?
Well, it's safe to say AIDS would be the least of our worries in such a world. We could even find a cure for AIDS — eliminate the disease completely — and it wouldn't matter in a world 11 degrees warmer. We could cure cancer itself and it wouldn't matter. Instead of good health, we'll have the nightmare of chronic food shortages, persistent new diseases like malaria and dengue fever spread across North America, and untold misery and death from heat waves in cities like St. Louis, where high temperatures could be well over 100 degrees 25 days every summer.
Withdrawal from Iraq? What does it matter? We could disband the Pentagon completely and end all wars everywhere, and it wouldn't matter with 11 degrees. We wouldn't have peace. Violence, instead, would be our daily fare: violent weather, violent ecological upheaval, violence to our civilization.
The economy? An envoy from God himself could bestow jobs on every worker and forgive all debt — from credit cards to the federal budget deficit. But it would be no good with 11 degrees. Wall Street will be under several feet of water, and our commercial infrastructure — harbors, bridges, airports, rails — will literally bake, erode, buckle and break.
Of course I'm not opposed to our nation's current efforts to end disease, reduce war and increase wealth. It's just that the policies don't make sense without a simultaneous national effort to avoid 11 degrees. We need that effort right now. Instead, despite endless warnings, we get House Republicans who still think global warming is a hoax and a Democratic president who, while better than all his predecessors on green energy, almost never even mentions the words climate change.
The International Energy Agency, which has been advising countries worldwide for nearly 40 years on energy and economic policies, reported in Durban that the world has five short years to begin a massive switch to clean energy and thus keep global warming in the manageable 3-to-4-degree range. If we fail at this over the next half decade, the world is "perfectly on track" for an 11-degree increase in temperature, a spokesperson said.
Failure, then, is not an option. But as another year winds down and another round of climate talks sputters, one wonders when we Americans will see past the lesser politics and challenges of our day-to-day world and focus on the only thing that really matters just down the road.