We don’t need to worry about global warming, some say, because it’s leveled off, plateaued, all but stopped cold in recent years. For the sake of conversation, let’s assume those people are right. Let’s disregard climate records that show average temperatures moving up or down from year to year but trending ever higher over a hundred or more years. Let’s focus on the last few years and imagine that things continue just like that, imagine a world in which warming has stopped for good, stopped right where it is. Problem is, even in that world, warming hasn’t stopped cold. It’s stopped hot, and that’s bad.
According to NASA, “The ten warmest years in the 132-year record have all occurred since 1998. The last year that was cooler than average was 1976.” And those temperatures refer to the atmosphere. What about the oceans, which cover more than two-thirds of Earth? Have they experienced a plateau of warming? Not according to a study published in Geophysical Research Letters, which found “more overall global warming in the past 15 years than the prior 15 years. This is because about 90% of overall global warming goes into heating the oceans, and the oceans have been warming dramatically.”
Our situation is often compared to that of a frog in a pot of water that is being heated. Supposedly, the frog is lulled into complacency because the temperature increase is gradual. It allows itself to be boiled alive. In real life experiments, frogs usually jump out of the pot before the water reaches lethal temperature. Humans, on the other hand, are the subject of an ongoing experiment in which the entire climate is being warmed. Polar ice caps, mountain glaciers, and arctic permafrost are all melting before their eyes. They have experienced weather extremes, from floods to droughts. The timing of seasons is changing. Plants, animals, and insects are on the move in response to climate change. Obviously, something big is happening, the scale is planetary, and the consequences are serious. It is of little solace to say that warming has stopped. The pot is already on the stove. It has reached cooking temperature. Are humans really content to just sit there — sweating, steaming, sizzling — until it is too late to do anything about it?
Those who are declaring victory over global warming would be premature, even in our imaginary scenario in which temperature increases had plateaued. But in the real world, with atmospheric and oceanic temperatures trending up, such people are suicidal.