A warming world

On July 25, the USDA added 76 additional counties in six states as drought disaster areas. This brings the total of drought disaster counties to 1369 across the country for the 2012 growing season. Over two dozen large wildfires were burning by the end of that week. June broke or tied 3,215 high-temperature records across the United States, following the warmest May on record for the Northern Hemisphere. June was the 327th consecutive month in which the temperature of the entire globe exceeded the 20th-century average. The odds of this happening by chance, according to climate scientists, is one in 3.7 x 10 to the 99th power (that’s 37 followed by 98 zeros…a really really big number). Those odds make winning the lottery look like a sure bet. Climate records are being broken around the globe.

A couple of weeks ago, Greenland’s Petermann glacier calved. The chunk of ice that floated away as a result was 46 square miles, an area about the size of Fargo, according to scientists at the National Aeronotics and Space Administration (NASA). Apparently this happens with some regularity. The scientists noted this calving because the same glacier calved off another iceberg twice that size only two years ago. The people at NASA who keep their eyes on the activities of polar ice were even more shocked when, last week, nearly the entire blanket of ice that covers Greenland suddenly started melting. It happened so fast that at first they thought their computers had malfunctioned.

Those who study climate and weather continue to be hesitant to directly attribute any of these weather events to earth’s warming. Those who believe humans are contributing to earth’s increasing carbon dioxide levels and the resulting greenhouse effect are afraid to make assertions that would be difficult to prove. Those who refuse to believe that our energy use could change the planet’s climate or who don’t believe there is any need to try to alter those changes, simply call these events weather.

Dr. James Hansen, a scientist at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies likens weather events to rolling a dice. Extreme weather, like any particular number on a pair of dice, will occur with random frequency. Hansen describes global warming to dice that are loaded or weighted on one side so that a particular number is rolled more often. Global warming increases the odds that extreme weather events will occur more frequently. His research indicates that rolling the loaded dice will bring more flooding, extreme wind, lightening, drought and ever increasing heat waves. There will still be cold winters, rainy springs and cool summers, but the trend to extremes will steadily increase.

Most scientists now agree that our warming globe is caused by our burning ancient carbon sources and releasing carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere. The increase in these gasses creates a blanket over the earth which allows the sun’s light and heat in, but doesn’t allow energy to escape back out into space. To some extent earth’s warming has been mitigated by fine particles of soot, dust and other pollutants, both naturally occurring and man-made, that act like a shade cover on a greenhouse, reducing the amount of sun light which reaches the earth. These aerosols, unfortunately, only last a short time, whereas much of the carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses we have released stay in the atmosphere for thousands of years.

For decades scientists have warned that we needed to find sources of energy that didn’t  take carbon from prehistoric stores deep in the earth if we wanted our relatively stable climate to stay that way. Early in the twenty-first century, a global temperature rise of two degrees Celsius was set as the maximum increase that would avoid widespread devastation as a result of melting polar ice, rising sea levels, acidification of the oceans, violent storms and spreading droughts. Now Hansen is quoted as saying “two degrees of warming is actually a prescription for long-term disaster.”

We have already burned two thirds of the carbon needed to produce those two degrees rise in global temperature since that recommendation was set. While we have made a few efforts to reduce our GHG emissions, we have not taken the warnings seriously.

It will take more than changing our light bulbs to make the changes necessary to slow climate change to a level which makes adaptation to a warmer world possible. It will political and economic forces to change how we fuel our lives. We cannot rely on the fossil fuels industries to change their ways. Their immediate profitability is dependent on being able to dig up, pump out and burn all the reserves they hold in the ground. Most carbon-based energy companies have abandoned their feeble attempts at alternative energy efforts, closing their solar and wind divisions. If the world’s oil, coal and natural gas companies are allowed to burn all their reserves, the earth will warm well beyond the scientists’ goal of two degrees increase. Denying them access to their reserves will have serious economic impacts, both to the companies themselves, but to the rest of us as well.

In a study published in 1981 in the journal “Science,” Dr. James Hansen and his colleagues said, “In light of historical evidence that it takes several decades to complete a major change in fuel use, this makes large climate change almost inevitable. However, the degree of warming will depend strongly on the energy growth rate and choice of fuels for the next century.”

It seems he was overly optimistic about how quickly those changes in politics and economics would take place.

The earth, however, is a remarkable creation. Nature hates a vacuum and the environment will always seek an equilibrium. Science is based on equations. Both sides of an equation have to be equal. Global warming will not destroy the earth. It will change the earth and it will change our lives and the lives of everything and everyone who follow us. The question is, “What will be the balancing changes on the other side of the equation?” Will North Dakota become a desert or a tropical paradise? Will coastal cities be covered with water from rising oceans? Will agricultural production increase with rising carbon dioxide or will yields collapse from drought and increasing insect pests and new diseases? Will we have time to develop technologies which allow us to adapt or will we ignore the problem until it is too late? Who will be the winners and who will be the losers? The answers will only be known for sure when it is too late to change the outcome.

I hope my grandchildren find out that Dr. Hansen’s warnings were wrong.
Copyright © 2012 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains

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One thought on “A warming world

  1. Chuck Prentice

    Hello –
    Do you know about the organization Citizens Climate Lobby? I’m a volunteer with CCL in Minnesota, and we are trying to find people in North Dakota who’d be interested in creating chapters of CCL in ND. You can see info about CCL at http://www.citizensclimatelobby.org.

    Chuck Prentice

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