Climate Change – it’s all the buzz these days. The phrase is filling up the airways, and with all the heated discussions, impassioned speeches, and downright arguments – it’s easy to lose track of what’s actually happening to our planet.
So let’s start with some facts:
- Climate is not the same as weather. The eastern US may have gotten absurdly cold in 2014, but Alaska and Australia were having record heat waves. Climate is the long-term trend of weather patterns in an area, so a few hot or cold days does not indicate a change. Rather, more extreme weather events and a shift in average temperatures, rainfall, etc. are much stronger indicators of a shift in climate. For a great illustration of the difference, watch the brilliant Neil deGrasse Tyson explain it on his show Cosmos.
- There is an immense scientific consensus (~97%) that climate change is occurring, and that it is influenced by human activities. John Oliver does a great bit on this. The scientific community uses a wide variety of data to look for patterns in climate; the main ones are geological formations in caves, tree rings, soil samples, and ice cores. Each of these – the layers of rock within caves, the rings of ancient trees, and the air bubbles trapped deep within glaciers – can indicate what the climate was like in the distant past. Depending on how much rainfall there was, what the temperatures were like, and the chemistry of the air, the rocks, trees, and glaciers would grow at a different rate, and in various patterns.
The beauty of all of this is that much of this data has synced up, or confirmed that in certain stretches of time the earth experienced periods of warming or cooling, with correlating rises and falls of sea levels and changes in atmospheric green house gas (GHG) levels. By looking at the patterns of the past, climatologists have developed models to extrapolate into the future, and thereby provide recommendations on potential affects. I think it is best to heed their warnings…
- Changes are happening now. Climate change isn’t something of the distant future that we should save our grandchildren from, it’s already occurring. According to NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Adimistration (NOAA), the 10 hottest years have occurred since 2000, of the 134 years record. Consequently, the sea levels are rising. Over the past century, the global sea level has risen 10-20 cm, with the last 20 years being nearly double the rate of the previous 80. As a result, many coastal cities like Venice are experiencing severe flooding, and small island nations – especially the Philippines – are losing ground by the day.
Photo of a woman in Venice’s St. Mark’s Square – by Luigi Costantini, Associated Press. Published November 13, 2012 on National Geographic’s “Daily News.”
Part of this is thermal expansion – as the oceans heat up, they expand. The other major contributor is melting glaciers and ice caps. Greenland, Antarctica, and most of the glaciers around the world are melting at an accelerated rate. The downside to this is that as they melt, there is less white snow to reflect sunlight, which causes further warming.
That’s pretty startling, considering that 44% of the world’s population lives within 150 km of the coast. The World Bank estimates that these highly populous cities are among the most at-risk for flooding damage: 1) Guangzhou, 2) Miami, 3) New York, 4) New Orleans, 5) Mumbai, 6) Nagoya, 7) Tampa, 8) Boston, 9) Shenzen, and 10) Osaka. One look at a world map will show you just how many of the world’s major cities are at risk for sea level rise.
- Climate change has real implications on all of our lives. This is not something for scientific journals and political talk shows. Climate influences nearly every aspect of the world. The economy booms when the weather is nice. Tourism thrives in calm climates. Severe weather impacts people’s ability to get to work, school, or even drive home (Atlanta’s “Snowpocalypse” taught us that). Droughts and water shortages cause increases in food prices, and famine at worst.
Humans aren’t the only ones affected either. Higher temperatures and carbon dioxide levels cause ocean acidification, which bleaches coral reefs and dissolves the shells of shellfish. Hurricanes, typhoons, tornadoes, and wildfires all have direct implications to warmer weather, and they have each been increasing in number and severity in recent years. Plants and animals, especially in the tropics, are migrating to higher elevations as temperatures increase, and the rate of extinction is rising.
But it’s not all doom and gloom. We can slow these trends, largely by reducing our collective global greenhouse gas emissions. By renovating our local energy economies to clean, renewable energies (e.g. solar, wind, hydroelectric, tidal, and geothermal) we could account for 26% of the current global GHG emissions. Fuel efficient transportation would reduce another 13%. The great thing is that technologies already exist which can dramatically transform each sector. Sustainable agriculture and forestry practices would reduce emissions by another 15-30%. New landfills exist that capture methane, which can be used as a fuel instead of released into the atmosphere as a potent GHG. Similar methods for waste-water treatment exist as well.
We need second Green Revolution – one for a sustainable planet. We can put people to work building a stronger, more efficient infrastructure. We can develop new technologies, incentivize creative solutions to these problems. We can build a culture of long-term health, over the quick, cheap, and disposable. It will take some changes to our current lifestyles, and a lot of collective buy-in. But together, the future is bright as an LED bulb.
Featured photo: Sea ice on the Bering Sea, St. Matthew Island, Alaska, USA – by Kevin Schafer, World Wildlife Fund. http://www.wwf.org.uk/what_we_do/tackling_climate_change/#actions