The window is closing to “secure a livable future” if we don’t act now on climate change, according to the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Robert Lempert is principal researcher at the Rand Corp., a nonpartisan nonprofit public policy think tank. He is a coordinating lead author for the IPCC report “Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability,” which included 270 authors from 67 countries.
Kate MacArthur: The IPCC warns that we’re running out of time to act on climate. How much time do we have before things really go south?
Robert Lempert: The time scales that the report talks about are in the order of 10 or 20 years where we have a window of opportunity to try to curve towards a much more livable and sustainable future than the path where we currently seem to be on.
MacArthur: That's a generation. What could the average person experience if this situation doesn't improve?
Lempert: There's this language people use, sticking labels such as a one-in-100- or one-in-500-year event on some of these extreme events. And we're starting to have those events every year. So, a world in which you're hit by a lot more extreme events, be it heat, storms, drought, and then increased difficulty in getting the food and water you need. And then the nature that we rely on both for physical services, from flood control to food to holding down insects, to just the joy that people get from being out in nature. Those things we will lose as well. Many communities will get displaced. There'll be a lot more forced migration, either because places are inundated or the crops or the livelihoods that people relied on, they can no longer do.
MacArthur: What we can do now to adapt?
Lempert: The high-level thing is that communities across the U.S. and the world ought to have climate adaptation plans where you look at the specific risks for your community. Among the more specific things that are useful to do is to adjust our building codes, our zoning, our land use for future climate as opposed to past climate. When we do all those things, sometimes we're using historical records from the 1960s and the climate is already way different, and it's going to be even different still in 10, 20, 30 years.
MacArthur: What do you say to people who say this will work itself out or it’s cyclical?
Lempert: The first answer to people who doubt is, yeah, that's true. But it worked itself out in the past with mass extinctions, people being swept away from the places they were living and so forth. A little bit more sophisticated argument is, “Well, can't we just adapt to climate change?” The answer is yes, you can adapt to climate change but within limits. And in some places, we are very far from the limits. In other places, we've already exceeded the limits. And there are just certain natural and human systems which are already beyond saving. That's the situation we want to avoid increasing over time.
MacArthur: Our research shows that Americans are among the least moved globally by the threat of climate change. How do you get them on board?
Lempert: As people start to see the effects of climate change, they do start to take it more seriously. There is real value in “depoliticking” the language. You see people talking about resilience or climate variability as opposed to climate change. The other big thing is to really focus on the solutions, and renewable energy is very popular among Americans of all political stripes.
MacArthur: Who should be responsible for mitigating climate effects, whether it's people, companies or governments?
Lempert: Dealing with climate change is really an all-hands-on-deck challenge. The most effective solutions are collaborations among many, many groups. So, in that sense, it’s not who's responsible. It's who can fix the problem. But it depends on how you connect those two things in your mind. A big advance in climate science over the last five or so years has been the whole science of attribution, which is the scientific term for saying how well can we connect or assign a particular event — a flood, a fire, a drought — to climate change and hence proportion out that responsibility to those countries and groups that have caused the emissions that create climate change. The ability to do this sort of attribution is starting to reach a stage where you can imagine people saying, “OK, this flood destroyed my house, and it was 50% or 90% due to climate change,” and assigning responsibility accordingly. So, we may see more of that.