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Wake up to global warming

We can no longer ignore what we’ve created

  • November 4, 2012

    November 4, 2012

  • November 4, 2012

Several years ago, a climate scientist speculated it would take a Category 5 hurricane striking New York City to awaken us to the reality of climate change. We now have witnessed a very large Category 1 hurricane (Sandy) hitting NYC.

Will we really need to wait for a Category 5 hurricane before we wake up?

Keeping us asleep may be our lack of understanding of climate sensitivity: the relationship between carbon emissions, global warming, and climate change. Our greenhouse gas emissions create a small change in global average temperature which results in enormous changes in climate.

The global average temperature has increased only 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit over the last century. This sounds like such a small change many skeptics dismiss it as insignificant, or perhaps beneficial. Yet look at the changes in our climate resulting from this small increase in average temperature: wildfires, floods, droughts, and strength of hurricanes, to name just a few, are all dramatically increasing.

Yet, because temperature rise is delayed by the ocean’s thermal inertia, another 1.1 degrees Fahrenheit is already inevitable, even if we stopped burning fossil fuels tomorrow. If so much has already changed with 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit, what will climate look like with another 1.1 degrees of warming; and what about 5 degrees by mid-century or perhaps 9 degrees or more by century’s end?

The costs in lives, infrastructure and property damage are adding up, tens of billions from Hurricane Sandy alone. Economists have told us that responding to global warming would cost 2 percent of global GDP. If two cents on the dollar is too much to pay for prevention, when will the costs of inaction become too high?

Some of us may awaken when we realize 9 degrees is equivalent to the difference between temperatures today and those in the depths of the last glacial period 21,000 years ago, when sea levels were 400 feet lower because so much water was locked up in vast ice sheets. Perhaps others of us will begin to rouse if we know the temperature by century’s end could be warmer than Earth has been for millions of years.

Even without global warming, Earth is experiencing its sixth major mass extinction event — due to human caused habitat destruction and resource over-exploitation. Scientists warn a biological tipping point is near; global warming threatens to accelerate this mass extinction event.

The United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Fourth Assessment Report (2007), states there is a 5 in 10 chance that 20-30 percent of plants and animals will be at risk of extinction if global temperatures rise by a total of 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, a warming we will not likely avoid, and perhaps 40-70 percent of species will be at risk if temperatures rise by 7.2 degrees, a warming we will avoid only with, not yet apparent, great urgency and effort. A recent World Bank report warns we could reach 7.2 degrees by 2060.

By the time we reach 3 degrees Fahrenheit, which is virtually certain within a decade or two if not sooner, widespread extinction of amphibians will have begun. By 4 degrees, all coral reefs will be undergoing bleaching. By 5.2 degrees major loss of tropical rainforests may occur, with their tremendous biodiversity and carbon dioxide absorbing/oxygen producing potential. By 7.2 degrees, all corals likely will be extinct along with the tremendous numbers of fish species which depend on them.

These are just a few examples of the global mass extinction we are choosing.

But some skeptics seem to think humanity will be just fine without the natural world. “We will just adapt!” Even if we could adapt, which we can’t, the time available is much too short. We could never provide all the services the natural world provides for free, and certainly not before the end of this century, or the next. We are not so clever or technologically advanced as to be able to live on a planet whose life is rapidly becoming extinct. But are we clever enough to prevent it from happening?

All the climate extremes that we have experienced in 2012 were not unexpected. We were warned they were coming. Likewise, we are warned the future will hold far greater climate extremes. The extreme weather events of 2012 will be seen by the next generation as normal. The European heat wave of 2003, which claimed 70,000 lives, will be a cool summer.

What we are doing follows simple causal relationships. Burning fossil fuels is causing carbon dioxide to be released into the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is causing Earth to warm. A warming Earth is causing extreme climate change. Extreme climate is causing environmental degradation. Environmental degradation is causing mass extinction. Mass extinction ….

When will we wake up to the reality we are creating? Will we awake up in time?

William Gran is a GCC adjunct instructor on global warming and climate change. He lives in Heath.

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