Editorials | Environmental
|Global Warming Coming on Rapidly, Scientists Say|
Sherwood Ross - PVNN
November 19, 2010
“By overwhelming consensus, the scientific community agrees that climate change is real. Greenhouse gases have increased markedly as a result of human activities and now far exceed pre-industrial values."
So says Rajendra Pachauri, Chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, of Geneva, Switzerland. His remarks bear a warning for each of us and for future generations as well. In a speech to the United Nations Summit on Climate Change in Sept., 2009, Pachauri said warming has already resulted “in an increase in the frequency, intensity and duration of floods, droughts and heat waves.”
|Climate authorities say that the rise in sea levels from the melting ice sheets would flood seaboard cities and put hundreds of millions of refugees in motion seeking shelter in northerly climates to find relief from the heat.|
By year 2020 in Africa, he added, “between 75 and 250 million people are projected to be exposed to water stress due to climate change and in some countries yields from rain-fed agriculture could be reduced by up to 50%.” One estimate by the Pentagon puts the number of climate refugees by mid-century at 750-million. What's more, if the planet continues to grow warmer “in the absence of mitigation policies,” Pachauri says it could lead to:
• Possible elimination of the Greenland ice sheet and a resulting rise in sea level of about seven meters (23 feet) as well as the possible disappearance of sea ice generally by the latter part of this century. Other authorities note there is far more ice in the Antarctic than in Greenland that is in danger of melting.
• An increase in the frequency of heat waves and heavy precipitation.
• An increase in tropical cyclone intensity.
• A decrease in water resources due to climate change in semi-arid areas such as the western United States, southern Africa and northeastern Brazil.
• An increased risk of extinction for 20 to 30 percent of Earth's species.
Climate authorities say that the rise in sea levels from the melting ice sheets would flood seaboard cities and put hundreds of millions of refugees in motion seeking shelter in northerly climates to find relief from the heat.
Globally, the area affected by drought has been increasing since the 1970s. At the same time, precipitation has increased significantly in eastern parts of North and South America, northern Europe and northern and central Asia, whereas it declined in the Sahel, the Mediterranean, southern Africa and parts of south Asia, Pachauri says. In recent years, for example, the water level of Lake Powell (it covers portions of Utah and Arizona) has dropped so far that the waterfalls and canyons drowned when Glen Canyon Dam was built are visible again. Meanwhile, in February, 2008, hydrologists reported that at current rates of decline, Lake Mead, behind Hoover Dam, on the Arizona-Nevada border, could be entirely dry in 10 years. In the span from 2000 to 2009, the lake lost half of its water. In 2008, the Scripps Institute of Oceanography issued a paper titled, "When will Lake Mead go dry?" and concluded there was a 50-50 chance that day could dawn as early as 2021. "Today, we are at or beyond the sustainable limit of the Colorado system,” concluded the paper’s authors. “The alternative to reasoned solutions to this coming water crisis is a major societal and economic disruption in the desert southwest; something that will affect each of us living in the region.”
Bill McKibben, author, activist, and founder of 350.org, an organization dedicated to saving the planet from runaway warming caused by carbon dioxide and other emissions, says that the rise in temperatures has been accelerating and that massive, immediate response is urgent. His organization derives its name from climate scientist James Hansen's contention that any atmospheric concentration of CO2 (carbon dioxide) above 350 parts per million was unsafe, Wikipedia notes. Hansen said, "if humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on Earth is adapted, paleoclimate evidence and ongoing climate change suggest that CO2 will need to be reduced from its current 385 ppm to at most 350 ppm, but likely less than that."
McKibben observed, “That's strong language. It's stronger still when you realize we're already well about 350 parts per million now, and rising two parts per million per year.” At the moment, he says, temperature increase is being driven mostly by carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. It's an inevitable byproduct of fossil fuel combustion and you get a lot of it. As it accumulates it raises the temperature, but it's not the only gas that does that. There are other things that go into the atmosphere that can also perform this greenhouse function, and one of them is methane, natural gas. A professor at Middlebury College, Vt., McKibben is the author of “The End of Nature”(Random House) and other works.
“We now face the very real danger that if carbon raises the temperature of the planet, the permafrost in the arctic will begin to melt,” he said. “Stored beneath that permafrost are large quantities of methane, (CH4), and if that melts and begins to spew into the atmosphere, then at a certain point there will be nothing we can do to slow down this reaction. Even if, at that point, if Congress decided to park every car and turn off every power plant there already would have been enough carbon in the atmosphere to really initiate this melting of the north, and with it this release of methane gas, and that's one of the real fault lines we want to try to avoid.”
McKibben says the signs of global warming are widely visible in the U.S. today. These include (1) a heavy increase in precipitation in New England and the Mid-Atlantic states; (2) the increased frequency of “100-year storms” which now come in a lot of places every couple of years; (3) the death of large forested areas across the U.S. and Canada “from beetles and things that are no longer kept in check by cold weather;” (4) the spread of mosquito-borne dengue fever, already affecting parts of Texas. He predicted massive crop failures as yields decline 30- to 50-percent by century's end as basic crops such as corn, rice, and wheat shrivel in the heat. “We know now that if you put a certain quantity of carbon in the atmosphere it produces a certain increase in temperature and it does it whether you want it or not.” He says the human race has so far raised the temperature about 1% Celsius, or 1.3% Fahrenheit globally averaged. “We expect if we don't get things under control very quickly, unfortunately, we're going to see another three, four, five degrees (increase) in the course of this century.” He warns, “The melting of the Arctic in the summer of 2007 was an ominous sign. It happened well ahead of schedule (of scientific expectations) and it should give us great pause. There are a number of other physical features that are displaying the same kind of flux, rapid melt of glaciers and rapid acidification of the oceans being two prominent examples.”
Interviewed by law professor Kurt Olson on the Comcast SportsNet show “Educational Forum,” produced by the Massachusetts School of Law at Andover, McKibben warned of the necessity of prompt action against global warming. “I think the next few years will tell the tale. If we're not able to get real control of this problem pretty soon, then our odds of really slowing it down diminish dramatically. It's going to be a hundred year fight in the best of cases. But we better win some pretty big victories in the next few years or that hundred year fight is going to be a rout (for us).” The “Educational Forum” interview with McKibben will be broadcast Sunday, November 21st at 11 A.M. Eastern time.
The world's temperature has been “very stable for the ten thousand years of human civilization,” McKibben said. “It's varied by well less than a degree centigrade globally averaged because carbon levels in the atmosphere have been relatively stable at 275 parts per million, plus or minus a little bit, until the beginning of the industrial revolution.” He stressed that the human race cannot afford a temperature jump that would raise sea levels as “most of our big cities are built along the sea and those that aren't are often in the tropics built high enough up the sides of mountains that they used to be resistant to malaria. Mosquitoes couldn't ever winter there because of the cold. That's no longer true.” At the same time, McKibben says, we “should also save a tear or two for the rest of DNA that we're likely to take down with us in the process. We were born into a very beautiful, intricate world with deep communion with species of all kinds on all sides and we're wiping a lot of them out.”
In his own state of Vermont, McKibben said, as in the rest of New England, there has been “a dramatic increase in heavy precipitation.” He explains it this way: “Warm air holds more water vapor than cold. And hence we get more drought in those arid areas where that water's evaporating. But once it's up in the air it's going to come down and so around here we get real gulley washers. My town, Ripton, had the two largest rain storms ever the summer before last that managed to wash out our roads and cut us off from the rest of the world. The governor had to fly in in a helicopter. And this is in a town with mostly intact forest that should be able to survive normal rainfall. But this isn't normal rainfall. This is something new, and in some sense, artificial.” McKibben goes on to point out that “Engineers are having a much more difficult time because the hundred year storm, the hundred year flood, seems to be coming in a lot of places every couple of years. And that's testing design parameters of bridges, road, sewer systems, whatever.”
Asked if abandoning the fossil fuels that are contributing to the greenhouse effect would cause large numbers of layoffs, McKibben replied, “We're not employing that many people in the carbon industry. Coal mining has been so automated that it's shrunk to a very small number of people.” He notes further, “Most of the fossil fuel that we use comes from other places so the people we're employing tend to be Saudi Arabians, about whom I think we should not worry too much about their economic future.” On the other hand, he says, “We stand the prospect of creating large numbers of new jobs as we make a real significant energy transition, which is very good news. It's one of the few (areas) you can think of that might drive the economy going forward in a really powerful way. It represents a large part of our economy, and that transition will create lots and lots of opportunities.” The author/activist says a major task is to make existing housing stock more efficient by “Stuffing the walls with insulation, putting solar panels on the top, and on and on and on. You're unlikely to ship your house to China in order to get it insulated. That's work that has to be done here, close to home. By it's nature it's creating work and I would much rather be spending our natural resources on that than just handing them over in a check every month to the princes of Saudi Arabia.”
McKibben's organization coordinated 5,200 simultaneous rallies on Oct. 24th, 2009, in 181 countries, managing in the process to convince about 120 governments to adopt the 350 target. Unfortunately, the largest nation states contributing to global warming - the U.S. and China - ”weren't yet ready to deal with what that science meant, and the kind of cuts in emissions in things that we'd require,” he said. “So Copenhagen (the United Nations Climate Change Conference 2009 held that December), in many ways ended in failure. But as far as movements go, we finally have one” and it's a big global movement, he adds, so “we continue to press forward at 350.org.” He noted that Cable News Network termed the date the most widespread day of political action in the planet's history and Foreign Policy magazine praised it as the largest coordinated global rally of any kind. McKibben called for replacing fossil fuel energy with “concentrated solar power and concentrated wind” energy. He called for initiatives to develop such power sources locally, rather than at a distance from the consumer, to avoid transportation costs. Recent work from the Institute of Local Self Reliance, he said, makes it clear that nearly every state could generate the power it needs within its borders.
McKibben said the Congress has not yet taken any meaningful action on global warming, adding that it will come “the day we attach a price to carbon. So far we haven't done that. He goes on to say, “I think the most likely plan is now what we're calling Cap and Dividend, which in effect puts a tax on carbon and then takes that money and funnels it directly back to consumers. Basically, it lets them own the sky instead of Exxon-Mobil. That's a good plan and it has some political legs, maybe, (anyway) we'll see.”
The Massachusetts School of Law at Andover, producers of “Educational Forum,” is purposefully dedicated to providing a rigorous, quality education to students from minority, immigrant, and low-income households who would not otherwise be able to afford to enter the legal profession. Through its publications and broadcast productions it presents information on topics of vital interest to the public.
Sherwood Ross is a media consultant to MSLAW. He formerly worked for the Chicago Daily News and wire services and currently operates a public relations firm for good causes. Reach him at sherwoodross10(at)gmail.com.