Catastrophic Climate Change

Our planet is getting dangerously hotter, and we humans are the ones making it so. For the last 200 years or so, we have been using more of the earth’s stored carbon in the form of coal, oil, and gas than at any time in the planet’s history. This use of carbon-rich stores has generated and flushed into the earth’s atmosphere a sharply increased quantity of gases, primarily carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide. These greenhouse gases have increased the extent to which the sun’s heat remains in the atmosphere.

Scientists have warned for decades that our continued production of greenhouse gases would have disastrous effects on the earth’s climate unless we acted decisively to reduce them. Their voices were drowned out, particularly in the U.S., by a clever well-financed, handful of businesses and scientists who systematically quoted each other and curried favor from a lazy and complacent media. This campaign, financed most visibly by ExxonMobil but supported as well by by many utility companies and energy companies, created the mistaken impression in the public mind – persisting today – that the scientific community is divided as to whether the earth’s increasing temperature is attributable to human activity. Now we know they played us for fools and (apparently) got away with it.

It is now too late to avoid the disasters that will result from catastrophic climate change. At  this point, all we can do is to act to reduce those disasters to the extent possible, to predict where and how they will occur, and to plan our response. As with all the other solutions we advocate here on LetTheSunWork, the solutions must be compassionate, sustainable, and local.

For at least 10,000 years, even through the Medieval Warm Period and the later Little Ice Age, the earth’s mean temperature hasn’t varied more than two degrees Fahrenheit. Suddenly scientists are talking realistically of increases of 4-10 degrees Fahrenheit. If you’re still one of those who thinks this is no big deal, get over it. Humans have never dealt with anything like this. And although most nations (except China and the US) have adopted the Kyoto Protocol, it doesn’t appear that we humans are going to muster the courage to make any effective response to climate change.

Here are the things we know, according to the consensus of the scientific community as expressed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change:

  1. Greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide) have increased as a result of human activities since 1750 (when we started burning coal) and now are far in excess of any values observable over the last 650,000 years.
  2. The emission of greenhouse gases increased 70% between 1970 and 2004.
  3. 11 of the last 12 years rank among the 12 warmest years since 1850.
  4. The earth is getting hotter, as evidenced by hotter global average air and ocean temperatures, widespread melting of snow and ice, and rising global average sea level.
  5. There is high agreement and much evidence that if we leave current measures in place to control greenhouse gases, global emissions of greenhouse gases will continue to increase over the next several decades.
  6. If this happens, we will see greater warming and greater impact.
  7. Continued warming of the earth’s air and oceans could result in consequences that are abrupt and irreversible. For example, the recent rapid loss of polar ice now makes it possible that a sea level rise of many meters could happen on century time scales rather than millennial time scales.
  8. There is medium confidence that 20-30% of species assessed so far are likely to be at risk of extinction if global average warming is in the range of 1.5-2.5°C. As global average temperature increases in the range of 3.5°C, model projections suggest significant extinctions (40-70%) around the globe.
  9. It is now possible to know what this means for policymakers. To avoid wiping out about a quarter of the species now living, humanity must halt the growth in its emissions of greenhouse gases within seven years and reduce emissions virtually to zero within four decades.
  10. There is high agreement and much evidence of substantial economic potential for mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions over the coming decades that could offset the projected growth of emissions or reduce emissions below current levels.

You’ll find less information here on LetTheSunWerk about catastrophic climate change than about some of the other challenges we humans face, because the subject is already thoroughly reported and analyzed elsewhere. Thanks to Al Gore, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and a host of others, almost everyone who reads knows now about the risk of catastrophic climate change, although they are likely to know it by its much gentler label “global warming.” As a quick indication of the pervasiveness of the climate change issue in the media, as of November of 2007, for every mention of the term peak oil, there were about 70 mentions of the term “global warming, even though peak oil will hit the industrialized world harder, meaner, and faster than climate change will.

Here are some resources:

And if you want to explore the arguments of those who cling to the notion that this is all “just the natural cycle of the earth’s climate,” check these out:

And here’s a nice set of pages on Grist, How To Talk To a Global Warming Skeptic, addressing each argument of the skeptics individually.

There’s no scientific question left about the phenomenon of catastrophic climate change and the fact that we humans are the principal cause. The only questions involve how quickly the various consequences of our mistakes will be arriving, and where and how severely they will affect us.