The Amazon, parts of Australia, Indonesia, Siberia, California and even North Carolina are on fire. Southern France is inundated with flood waters. The permafrost in the Arctic Circle is melting, while travelers at Thanksgiving here in the U.S. faced the first “bomb cyclone” of the season. The devastating effects of global warming are not something we will see in the distant future. They are here. Now.
|Signs of life? No, wildfires in Australia seen from space (NASA).|
The United Nations annual climate conference is meeting this week in Madrid, (most) countries of the world confronting the ominous implications of scientific studies from all over the globe, summarized in the World Meteorological Organization’s annual state of the global climate report, issued Tuesday. In that document, spanning a decade of increasing global temperatures and more dramatic impacts, WMO Secretary General Petteri Taalas states bluntly, “Things are getting worse.” He adds, “The only solution is to get rid of fossil fuels in power production, industry and transportation.” *
Meanwhile, folks in the United States are still trying to absorb the implications of last year's National Climate Assessment, a collaborative document produced every four years by the combined efforts of over 300 scientists and analysts at NASA, NOAA, the Department of Defense and ten other agencies. The Federal report caused controversy when it was released a year ago without notice on Black Friday, a day when not even the most devoted environmental wonk would be scanning his or her news feed. The lead authors of the report themselves were given no advance warning of the change in release date; one scientist had to put Thanksgiving pie-baking on hold to do a quick read-through of the final report for the stealth launch. And no one knows, or will say, who ordered the quickie “Friday news dump.”
Still, the report was full of pertinent, if unwelcome, facts. After analyzing thousands of studies from every region of the country, the scientists concluded that, if unchecked, global warming will cost the United States economy billions of dollars per year and thousands of lives as well. Some effects will be devastating to communities in the short run—the loss of homes, businesses and crops; but many will be permanent—the extinction of species, for example, or the loss of fisheries, forests and coastlines.
The report pulls no punches in its conclusions, from its opening sentences: “Earth’s climate is now changing faster than at any point in the history of modern civilization, primarily as a result of human activities. The assumption that current and future climate conditions will resemble the recent past is no longer valid.”
We have all heard, in isolated news reports, the damning evidence pinpointed in the Assessment: the rise in temperature in the U.S alone of 1.8 Fahrenheit since 1901; the shrinkage of the Western mountain snowpack in the last 50 years; 16 of the 17 hottest years on record since 2000; droughts, floods, wildfires.
Other scientists have stated even a two-degree rise in temperature will result in irreversible changes in our environment. Tolerating a 3.6 rise will mean major sacrifice at all levels of society and significant new technologies. Nine degrees is unthinkable. Our planet would not survive it. The Earth would be as uninhabitable as Mars.***
The problem is that 2100 seems like an impossibly long time in the future for most folks. My grandchildren (and yours, if you have any) will be facing the nursing home by then, if they are still alive. But those climate changes won’t just happen in 2099. They will happen in 2020 and 2025 and 2030 and every year until 2100, gradually bringing more and worse disasters. We’ll very probably reach the point of no return (the “tipping point,” as scientists put it, the point where we can no longer reverse the damage) long before that distant date. Some scientists believe we have already passed that point.
An even greater obstacle to climate action is that the effects of global warming fall disproportionately on the poor and disadvantaged of any country. Wealthy members of society can be insulated from the worst of what happens outside their penthouses. But the working class fishermen of Tangier Island in Virginia and the Pacific Islanders of Kiribati, the African-American communities in the low-lying parishes of New Orleans and counties of Eastern North Carolina, the Inuit/First Nations villagers of Arctic Canada and Alaska, the Native American tribes of the desert Southwest, the monsoon victims in the Indian subcontinent, the displaced of all the world’s drought-stricken, flood-prone, resource-short, or famine-ravaged nations—all feel the impact of climate change already. Every day. Every season. They have no way to escape it or ignore it.
But when the farmers in our Midwest see a new Dust Bowl, we will all feel it. When major cities like New York, Galveston, New Orleans and Miami sink beneath the waves; when L.A., Seattle, Portland and even Atlanta are choked with the smoke of wildfires; when Chicago and Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. are frozen and impassable for weeks at a time, we may decide something should be done.
Then it may well be too late.
*Information provided from: “Climate Change Is Accelerating, Bringing World ‘Dangerously Close’ to Irreversible Change,” by Henry Fountain, The New York Times, December 4, 2019.
***Information provided from: The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming, by David Wallace-Wells, Tim Duggan Books, New York, 2019.