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Too Little, Too Late?
By Ray Cunneff
October 9, 2015
I've been writing about our current climate situation since the 1970's. I just didn't think we'd be at this crossroads so soon.
Back then, climatologists could not predict which way it might go, freeze or boil, just that the evidence was mounting that human activity had the potential to de-stabilize the global climate and impact the environment with unpredictable results. But most thought that the critical "tipping points" might not occur until the year 2050 or so.
It was, and remains, a difficult case to make. Years ago, it seemed too distant, too speculative. With all the ongoing factors that affect climate - solar activity, volcanic activity, normal variation, naturally-occurring CO2 and methane - many found it difficult to grasp the possibility that, for the first time in Earth's 4.5 billion-year history, human activity could have introduced a new factor, a climate "wild card".
In the latter part of the 20th Century, the lack of absolute scientific certainty as to what empirical evidence implied was seen as "flawed science" and it's preliminary conclusions unduly alarmist. And it was, correctly, pointed out that any one of the aforementioned factors could change the climate trajectory dramatically.
There have always been extreme weather events, so pointing to a rising incidence and severity was not particularly persuasive. What should have been wake-up calls, Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy, both of which demonstrated just how fragile our coastal infrastructure truly is, are only now raising concerns among the skeptics.
In 2015, the international scientific consensus has become stronger and the empirical evidence more urgent. In the last year or so, we passed one of the critical "tipping points" of rising sea level, that it is no longer just melting sea ice (which does not raise sea level) but melting land ice (which does).
In spite of the melting ice, ocean temperatures continue to rise and sea level rise accelerates. And in spite of dodging a bullet from a direct hit by Hurricane Joaquin, South Carolina has just experienced what is described as a "thousand-year flood".
The drought here in California and consequent wildfires, the disruptions of food supply in the midwest due to flooding and a horrific tornado season, unseasonal temperature swings, have begun to accumulate in our collective consciousness. There is also an increasing awareness of how human activity has impacted our planetary environment.
But if our awareness, our ability to connect-the-dots, our distrust of scientific consensus interferes, perhaps it’s only empirical evidence that might finally get our full attention.
Scientific research indicates sea levels worldwide have been rising at a rate of 0.14 inches per year since the early 1990’s. Even at current rates, barring more recent indications of acceleration, we can expect the oceans to rise between 2.5 and 6.5 feet by 2100, enough to swamp many coastal cities and low-lying areas, leaving millions to a future of flooding, mass migrations, agricultural disruptions and almost inevitable conflicts over resources.
Each year, the Earth loses roughly 40 million acres of tropical rainforests, which now cover 6 percent of the planet’s surface, down from 14 percent. Humans have depleted 90 percent of all large fish in the world’s oceans. Each year, we lose as much as 50,000 species to extinction, a rate one thousand times greater than “normal background levels”. And more than half of all coral reefs, upon which 500 million people depend for survival, are dead, dying or endangered.
Climate change deniers often take the position that economic growth is only possible at the expense of the environment and that any action on climate or the environment would imperil growth, put the U.S. at an economic disadvantage and cost jobs. But history has proved repeatedly that it is a false premise and that the environment is the true engine of economic growth.
Many die-hard climate change skeptics have begun to reconsider, at the very least conceding that climate change is occurring even if they argue that little or nothing can be done about it. But on that last point, they may unfortunately be right.
By most evidence, we're way past the point of stopping climate change. It might have been a different story had we acted decades ago. But at this point, all we can do is try to mitigate its effects and adapt to an entirely new set of circumstances.
The near future will tell us whether it was too little, too late.