The path our planet has taken in its trip through time has reached an ominous fork, one path leading to climate disaster, the other to climate calm. The world must immediately go all out to stop its fossil-fuel CO2 emissions or face disastrous climate conditions. I believe that the extreme worldwide weather events we are now witnessing provide a sufficient demonstration that the atmospheric and ocean warming we are measuring is just the beginning of a path we do not want to take.
It is not just the increasing heat in the atmosphere that the world’s CO2 emissions are producing, it is the great concern climate scientists have that feedback mechanisms will accelerate the warming to the point that planet Earth will soon become hostile to human civilization! In other words, the earth is approaching dangerous tipping points. One such tipping point or feedback is developing in the arctic where sea ice is disappearing rapidly. Ice reflects sunlight (high albedo) whereas ice-free water absorbs sunlight (low albedo) and therefore warms the water. Consequently, warmer Arctic Ocean water melts more ice and this feedback cycle quickly melts all the ice. Scientists measuring this ice melt realize that it is happening much faster than their theories have predicted probably because their climate models do not include this albedo effect from ocean ice melt.
Warmer waters of the North Atlantic and Arctic Ocean are probably also contributing to the huge loss of Greenland’s ice that is a big factor in ocean rise all over the globe. If all of Greenland’s ice melts then oceans would rise over 100 feet; but partial melting may cause a 5-foot rise by 2100. Another key feedback is the observed melting of frozen arctic peat bogs and tundra with attendant release of stored methane, another greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere. This mechanism has just begun to take hold but if it expands there are enough frozen methane containing deposits to warm the Earth by many degrees.
Our atmosphere contains 392 parts per million (ppm) of CO2 and the concentration is increasing by 2 ppm per year. Our leading climate scientist, NASA’s Dr. James Hansen, says that if the concentration reaches 450 ppm, he worries that feedback mechanisms will take over the Earth’s climate and we will not be able to prevent the massive warming that will result. Note that in the past half-million years, according to Hansen and other scientists, the CO2 concentration has never exceeded 300 ppm. Mankind and civilization have developed under climate conditions determined by much lower CO2 in the air and lower temperatures than we now have.
In Obama’s recent State of the Union address, he called this America’s Sputnik moment. He proposed that by 2035, we obtain 80% of our energy from clean technologies, that is, non-CO2 emitting technologies. He said our economic security depends on it.
Global warming is not new to science or to our national leaders. I am indebted to Dr. Bill Becker, executive director of the Presidential Climate Action Project at Boulder, Colorado, for the following history and quotes:
In 1964, the National Academy of Sciences issued a study that recognized the possibility of “inadvertent weather modification” caused by the burning of fossil fuels. In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson’s Science Advisory Committee warned him that by the year 2000, there would be 25% more CO2 in the atmosphere. In the words of the Committee, the continued use of fossil fuels “will modify the heat balance of the atmosphere to such an extent that marked changes in climate, not controllable through local or even national efforts, could occur.”
Later that year, President Johnson issued a special message to Congress. “This generation has altered the composition of the atmosphere on a global scale,” he said, “through a steady increase in carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels.”
The National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 leaves no doubt that it is the federal government’s responsibility to help the nation mitigate climate change. In that act, Congress declared the federal government should “use all practicable means to the end that the Nation may fulfill the responsibilities of each generation as trustee of the environment for succeeding generations.”
Our National Research Council issued two additional reports on global climate change in the 1970’s. And in 1978, the director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Dr. Robert White, wrote that “industrial wastes, such as carbon dioxide released during the burning of fossil fuels, can have consequences for climate that pose a considerable threat to future societies and he warned the economic and social impacts could be “ominous”.
The National Climate Program Act of 1978 leaves no doubt about climate change. In that act, Congress said: “Weather and climate change affect food production, energy use, land use, water resources and other factors vital to national security and human welfare.”
By 1979, our most respected scientists had become even more certain about this threat. The National Research Council at the National Academy of Sciences issued this conclusion: “The close linkage between man’s welfare and the climate regime within which his society has evolved suggests that such climatic changes would have a profound impact on human society.”
The growing body of climate science also led to congressional passage of the National Energy Policy Act of 1988, with the intention of reducing greenhouse gas emissions as quickly as possible. In 1992, with the advice and consent of the United States Senate, President George H.W. Bush signed the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, a treaty that obligates developed nations like ours to “take the lead in combating climate change and the adverse effects thereof”. Like other international treaties approved by a two-thirds vote of the Senate and by the President, the Framework Convention has the force of law. It remains in effect today.
Congress also has been unequivocal in recognizing the dynamic benefits of clean energy. In Title 42, Chapter 152 of the U.S. Code, Congress said: “…increased energy production from domestic renewable resources would attract substantial new investments in energy infrastructure, create economic growth, develop new jobs for the citizens of the United States and increase the income for farm, ranch, and forestry in the rural regions of the United States.”
In short, our national leaders over the last half-century not only have recognized our obligation to address global climate disruption, they have codified that obligation in the law of the land. But very little action has resulted. Why? The major reason is the enormous political power of our fossil-fuel industries wielded through expensive lobbying, campaign money, and media propaganda.
Many people, including American politicians, seem to believe we have ample time to address global warming, that future generations can fix it. It may seem that the harsh weather we experienced last winter in the U.S. and the snow this winter is proof the global atmosphere is not warming. It may seem that a few degrees of atmospheric warming can’t possibly matter; after all, we experience bigger random temperature changes than that all the time.
But the overwhelming majority of the world’s scientists tell us differently. A few degrees of atmospheric average temperature change is the difference between an ice age and a tropical planet. Scientists at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Colorado have concluded that some of global warming’s adverse effects are here now and are irreversible, locked in for centuries.
Scientists advise us that a few aberrations in weather are not proof of climate change, that climate change is revealed only in long-term sustained weather patterns. Those new patterns now are becoming apparent. It is not significant that last year was one of the warmest since global records began. However, it is significant that the last decade was the warmest in history. And that decade was warmer than the previous decade that, in turn, was warmer than the decade before and warmer than the decade before that!
Weather events consistent with climate change are evident for all to see. Climate warming causes extreme precipitation events year-round because the warmer oceans evaporate much more moisture into the air. The world has 4% more moisture in its atmosphere now than 50 years ago.Last year there were devastating floods in China and in Pakistan that put a fifth of that nation under water, killing nearly 2,000 people and affecting 20 million more.
We saw videos of unprecedented flooding in Australia where waters climbed 30 feet above flood level and forced 200,000 people to evacuate their homes. Brazil also has had extremely large rain storms causing terrible mudslides recently. There have been terrible floods in Sri Lanka, Philippines, and southern Africa as well. Here in the United States, Tennessee experienced flooding so severe last May that it was called “Tennessee’s Katrina”.
Last July in Greece, wildfires engulfed rural land around Athens, a sequel to the fires that killed more than 50 people in 2007 and reached “biblical proportions” in August 2009. Last August, more than 550 fires raged out of control across Russia’s steppes, bogs and forests, creating a 1,000-mile-wide smoke plume that could be seen from space. The fires killed more than 50 people and destroyed thousands of homes. Forest fires continue to be a severe problem in the Rocky Mountains of North America due to the plague of bark beetles killing millions of acres of pine trees; the larvae of these beetles are now over-wintering due to higher winter temperatures.
Heat records were set in 19 countries in 2010, the highest number on record for a single year. Record heat was blamed for killing 5,600 people in Russia. Carbon monoxide levels rose to 6.5 times the allowable level in Moscow and the city’s daily death rate doubled. Temperatures reached 105 ºF in Beijing, 126.7 ºF in Kuwait, 111 ºF in Riyadh, and 129 ºF in Mohenjo-daro, Pakistan, the highest atmospheric temperature ever recorded in Asia! As a result of these heat waves, wheat crops were reduced all over the globe.
Here in the U.S. temperatures broke 100 ºF in New York and Philadelphia, while Los Angeles recorded an all-time record of 113 ºF in September. In Houston, August was the hottest month in the city’s history.
The world’s leading reinsurance company, Munich Re, reported that 950 natural catastrophes took place in 2010, the highest number since the record was set in 1980. Nearly 300,000 people died from natural disasters of all types during the year; economic losses reached $130 billion, nearly triple the losses in 2009. Munich Re concluded that last year’s extreme weather events “provide further indications of advancing climate change.”
To summarize, we stand at the crossroad of two futures. One road leads to increasing misery, disruption, and damage, with escalating economic and military insecurity, food production problems, forest fires, and severe flooding of low lands and cities. I call this the “business as usual” road, except the emissions we have already put into the atmosphere guarantee that business as usual is really no longer an option, whichever road we take. Dr. Joseph Romm aptly entitled his latest book on global warming, “Come Hell and High Water: Global Warming – the Solution and the Politics – and What We Should Do.” The British Royal Society has just published a special report that details their “hellish vision” of 7°F (4°C) world which we may face in the 2060s! They summarize the extreme problems facing the world as follows:
"In such a 4°C world, the limits for human adaptation are likely to be exceeded in many parts of the world, while the limits for adaptation for natural systems would largely be exceeded throughout the world."
The second road takes us back to a much more benign climate only by eliminating CO2 emissions, chiefly by stopping fossil fuel burning. The issue today is whether we will trigger tipping points, feedbacks that cause climate change to accelerate beyond our control. The second road is still open, if we choose it quickly.
Let me be clear: What the U.S. and other nations have lacked for the last half-century is sufficient political will, not technology, to solve the climate warming challenge. The time to exert that political will is now; there is no more time to waste. This is not a position I have reached because of my political orientation or my philosophy of government; it is the conclusion of science, the result of physics, my specialty.
Phil Eisner writes about environmental issues. He is a resident of Summit, NJ.
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