Facing Up to Climate Change : How Real Is It? How Bad Could It Get? What Should We do Now?

~ “When a man sits with a pretty girl for an hour, it seems like a minute. But let him sit on a hot stove for a minute – and it’s longer than any hour. That’s relativity.” ~ Albert Eistein, 1957

~ “I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita…’I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.’” ~ J. Robert Oppenheimer, 1945

~ “Forests keep disappearing, rivers dry up, wild life’s become extinct, the climate’s ruined and the land grows poorer and uglier by the day.” ~ Anton Chekhov , 1897.

~ “Greenhouse gases are accumulating in Earth’s atmosphere as a result of human activities, causing surface air temperatures and subsurface ocean temperatures to rise.” ~ National Academy of Sciences, 2003.

~ “It’s important to question whether global warming is even a problem for human existence. Thus far no one has seriously demonstrated any scientific proof that increased global temperatures would lead to the catastrophes predicted by alarmists. In fact, it appears that just the opposite is true: that increases in global temperatures may have a beneficial effect on how we live our lives..” ~ U.S. Senator James Inhofe (R-OK), 2003

~ “Global climate change presents us with unprecedented challenges. Since science can do no more than estimate a broad envelope of possible outcomes, from the benign to the catastrophic, society must approach the problem as one of risk assessment and management. Unfortunately, waiting much longer to see which way things go is not a viable option since it takes thousands of years for COmlevels to return to normal once emissions cease.” ~ Kerry Emanuel , 2012
Today, perhaps as never before, our climate seems to be in trouble. Climate change coupled with population growth could drastically alter and deteriorate the environment and life prospects for our grand-children and later generations.
For many Americans, as for New York City Mayor Bloomberg, Hurricane Sandy’s devastation last November was a world-changing wake-up call. Responding, in his second Inaugural Address early 2013, Pres. Obama emphatically renewed U.S. policy commitment to leading global action to avert the future devastation of our Planet threatened by climate change. Since then, we have had at least two strong reminders of how pressing is the need for global action now.
Two More Harbingers of Climate Change : First, the International Energy Agency (IEA) in its 2012 World Energy Outlook (WEO) reported the world has only a fast closing window of time – about five to ten years – to adopt strong new energy policies to mitigate climate change. Absent these, IEA says, a rise in global temperatures of over 2m this century will be inevitable. This would bring with it potentially devastating consequences for human life and the environment.
Then, just last week, scientists reported that the carbon emissions – generated by fossil fuels we burn to create energy for our homes, factories and transport – had achieved a dangerously new high of 400 parts per million (ppm) much sooner than expected. In other words, the global economy is spewing emissions into the Earth’s atmosphere faster than ever before. As the global recovery proceeds, faster economic growth is relying ever more – not less – upon on fossil fuels.
Science is generally agreed on the nature of the impacts climate change would likely have. But the scale of these – how much they will affect human life in future – is far less certain. In good part this is because much will depend upon how quickly and effectively actions are taken to limit them.
How Is Climate Change Impacting Us? : Already we see around us signs of the increasingly powerful impact of climate change upon the world we live in : ~ Extreme weather events, such as hurricanes, floods, droughts, are becoming ever more frequent and severe. Since 2000, there have been major hurricanes such as Sandy and Katrina – as well as others elsewhere in the world, notably South-East Asia. Ensuing floods have affected more coastal cities. Multi-year droughts have affected regions such as the U.S. South-West and Australia. ~ Air pollution has increased massively – most visibly in China, threatening human health on a large scale. ~ Glaciers are receding rapidly contributing to droughts and crop and food shortages. On current trends, the mountain glaciers of the Andes could disappear in eighty years, threatening millions of poor highland peoples with famine. Alarmingly, the Arctic and Antarctic ice sheets are thinning. And the Greenland glaciers are spawning icebergs faster than ever before.
~ Acidification of the oceans already threatens with total destruction in twenty years forty per cent of our seas’ coral reefs – home to the planet’s greatest diversity of animal and plant species.
The Earth’s temperature is rising – by almost 1m since 1970. But unlike earlier warming periods, this trend is not regional but world-wide, and therefore most likely caused mainly by human activity. IEA says global emissions rose by 2.5% annually during 2000-10, and over 3% in 2011. Over sixty per cent of global emissions are generated in emerging markets – notably China, the Middle East. But these are still relatively small and can only grow more rapidly in future, under current policies.
The Stakes : What Would Unabated Climate Change Do ? : Many scientists – notably in the U.N. Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change (2007 Nobel Prize winner) – and other organizations – like IEA – have done detailed research to assess the likely impacts of unchanged policies and unabated climate change upon our long term future. Their projections are far from precise and show a broad range of possible outcomes. This has given an opening to climate change naysayers especially on the political right in the U.S.A. – such as U.S. Senator Inhofe (cited above). However, even the low-end – or least damaging – anticipated impacts are quite alarming : ~ With current fossil-fuel use policies across the world, global temperatures would rise by 5-6m by the year 2100. With full implementation of new climate policies already committed to by major countries, global temperatures would still rise by 3-4m by 2100. Only timely and full adoption – before 2022 – of far-reaching energy policy changes, switching to low-carbon and renewable energy sources, would keep global temperatures from increasing by over 2.5m by 2100.
Why Most of Us Would Not Like it Hotter : According to the IPCC and other scientists, even the lower end global temperature rises (by only 2-2.5m by 2100) will have major adverse impacts. These include greater water shortages and droughts, wildfires, flood and storm damage, resulting in much greater loss of life, health problems, loss of crops, food shortages, and loss of as much as one-third of all animal and plant species. Such problems could multiply almost exponentially with global temperature rises over 3-4m, and could reach devastating levels over 5m. Over 3.5m rise could destroy up to one third of global coastal wetlands. Over 4.5m rise could shrink the global economy and lead to melting of the West Antarctic ice sheets. Some northern hemisphere regions – notably parts of North America – might benefit from slightly warmer climate in terms of energy use and crops. But this would be more than offset by devastating impacts in terms of disease and famine among already poor populations of the southern hemisphere. Food and resource insecurity globally could spark widespread political unrest.
How to Stay Cooler , More Prosperous and Safer : According to the IEA, to keep open the time window for maintaining global temperature increase below 2m by 2100, emission abatement measures need to be adopted exceeding those already voluntarily agreed by individual nations. These include reduced electricity use, energy efficiency savings in buildings and homes, and later in transport. Beyond this, even more far-reaching actions are needed : massive increase in low-carbon fuel use, especially renewables (hydro-power, solar, wind, bio-energy), and nuclear power; as well as carbon capture and sequestration (CCS). Critical to the success of this would be setting carbon pricing policies – nationally initially, but preferably globally – to support a strong shift away from fossil fuels and to control emissions of harmful gases such as methane. The good news is that technologies already exist that can contribute strongly with sufficient government policy support to make them viable in the global energy market.
The Need for Action Now : As climatologist (and global warming skeptic) Kerry Emanuel says (quoted above), despite the broad level of uncertainty in climate change outcomes, the potential impacts could be so devastating to human life and society and in such a short time-frame we would not have the ability to effectively adjust. Despite the repeated efforts of politically influential naysayers and vested interests in the fossil fuels industries, as humans we do not have the luxury of time on our side. To minimize the risks of far-reaching devastation major policy changes in support of climate change abatement are needed urgently. To be fully effective, these need to be global in scope, rather than mere ad hoc national policies that might conflict or undermine each other. The recent collapse of the European Union’s carbon pricing market underscores the risks of this.
I, for one, hope that our political leaders will overcome their qualms – as well as the vested interests – and move forward boldly with the energy and climate policies the world needs. In April 2011, a motion acknowledging that climate change is predominantly caused by human activity was voted down by the U.S. House of Representatives. Let us hope that more enlightened views will prevail there in the near future. The road ahead will not be easy. But it is a vital one for our future.

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