Among the silliest arguments against the reality of global warming are anecdotal reports that “our weather here has been colder than usual,” or “it’s snowing way earlier than most years,” or “look at all this rain!”
Any person with a brain knows that: a) local anecdotal evidence means almost nothing, especially when it can be easily contradicted; b) a single season or a single year is not nearly enough time to suggest that a trend does or doesn’t exist; and c) the existence of generalized global warming does not mean it will always get warmer everywhere—rather, it means we can anticipate (and in fact already are witnessing) more drastic swings in weather, including stronger heat waves, longer droughts, heavier deluges, more brutal blizzards, and so on.
Some people prefer the terms ‘climate change’ and/or ‘climate chaos’ instead of global warming, partly because they are more descriptive but also because they are less likely to provoke mindless rebuttals. Indeed, climate chaos is what we’re seeing, and in a big way. To say that global warming is a future problem is seriously misleading. It’s here now and it’s doing major damage to environments, animal populations, and human life at this very moment.
In honor of Blog Action Day—October 15, 2009—this entry will catalog some of the worst impacts of climate change that are happening now and that can only be expected to worsen in the near future unless we, as a world community, are able to take serious steps toward reducing carbon output.
As mentioned above, global warming does not mean simply higher temperatures, but mostly more extreme weather. And this is not only a prediction for the future, but a description of the present.
A study conducted jointly last year by the University of Miami (U.S.) and the University of Reading (U.K.) provided the first observational evidence to confirm the link between a warmer climate and more powerful rainstorms:
One of the most serious challenges humanity will face in response to global warming is adapting to changes in extreme weather events. Of utmost concern is that heavy rainstorms will become more common and more intense in a warmer climate due to the increased moisture available for condensation. More intense rain events increase the risk of flooding and can have substantial societal and economic impacts.
The report, “Atmospheric Warming and the Amplification of Precipitation Extremes,” published in Science, found that both observations and models indicated an increase in heavy rainstorms in response to a warmer climate. However, the observed amplification of rainfall extremes was found to be substantially larger in the observations than what is predicted by current models. [emphasis added]
“A warmer atmosphere contains larger amounts of moisture which boosts the intensity of heavy downpours,” said Dr. Brian J. Soden, associate professor at the University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine & Atmospheric Science.
More rain in the tropics and elsewhere, but also longer, deeper, more devastating droughts in Australia, Africa, and parts of the United States, including Texas, Arizona, and southern California. America’s Great Plains—the “breadbasket” region—is especially threatened.
Meanwhile, ice is melting fast in Greenland, in the Himalayas, and in the Arctic:
The North Pole will turn into an open sea during summer within a decade, according to data released Wednesday by a team of explorers who trekked through the Arctic for three months.
The Catlin Arctic Survey team, led by explorer Pen Hadow, measured the thickness of the ice as it sledged and hiked through the northern part of the Beaufort Sea in the north Pole earlier this year during a research project. Their findings show that most of the ice in the region is first-year ice that is only around 1.8 meters (six feet) deep and will melt next summer. The region has traditionally contained, thicker multiyear ice which does not melt as rapidly.
Martin Sommerkorn of the World Wildlife Fund said the Arctic sea holds a central position in the earth’s climate system. “Such a loss of Arctic sea ice cover has recently been assessed to set in motion powerful climate feedbacks which will have an impact far beyond the Arctic itself,” he said.
He added: “This could lead to flooding affecting one-quarter of the world’s population, substantial increases in greenhouse gas emissions from massive carbon pools and extreme global weather changes.”
In the Himalayas, the proverbial canary in the coalmine turns out to be something slightly less poetic—an ugly black house fly, at an altitude never seen before:
Earlier this year Dawa Steven Sherpa was resting at Everest base camp when he and his companions heard something buzzing. “What the heck is that?” asked the young Nepali climber. They searched and found a big black house fly, something unimaginable just a few years ago when no insect could have survived at 5,360 metres.
“It’s happened twice this year—the Himalayas are warming up and changing fast,” says Dawa, who only took up climbing seriously in 2006, but in a few years has climbed Everest twice as well as two 8,000m peaks in Tibet.
“What I do is climb. It’s a family business. And what we see is the Himalayan glaciers melting. It’s not a seasonal thing any more. It’s rapid. It’s so apparent.
“Look at the walls and slopes of the Khumbu glacier [which flows 1.5 miles down from an icefall on the southern flanks of Everest]. “You can see a clear line where the black rock becomes white. That’s where it’s been exposed to the sun. That means metres of thick ice have melted in just a few decades,” he says.
The most heart-wrenching impacts of global warming may come when it’s realized that the shrinking of all those Himalayan glaciers also means a potentially catastrophic loss of drinking, bathing, and agricultural water for many of the world’s poorest people.
A deadly confluence of events—global warming and overpopulation—severely threatens the livelihoods of millions of subsistence farmers in India. As their numbers swell and their need for food, and for water to grow the food, continue to rise inexorably, that trend runs headfirst into severely declining water sources, both from the rivers of India, and the Tibetan glaciers that feed them, and from disappearing groundwater:
The data revealed that groundwater under northern India and its surroundings is being extracted exceptionally fast. Tiwari and colleagues calculate that between 2002 and 2008 an average of 54 cubic kilometres—enough to fill more than 21 million Olympic swimming pools—was lost every year. Boreholes in the region show the water table is dropping by around 10 centimetres a year.
Agriculture is the primary culprit, says John Wahr of the University of Colorado at Boulder. If the trend isn’t reversed soon, the 600 million people living in the region could face severe water shortages in the next few years.
So, what must we do? It’s obvious that our overuse of fossil fuels and our inability to contain population growth have brought us to the brink of an enormous world disaster. The problem is so severe, in fact, that even if we were to somehow miraculously stop putting more carbon in the air today—meaning that every gas-fueled car, every diesel-fueled bus or train, every jet-fueled airliner, and every coal-burning power plant shuts down immediately—that still would not be enough to curtail the continuing rises in atmospheric CO2 and other greenhouse gases due to carbon cycle feedback effects.
Basically, as David Letterman puts it so succinctly, we are “dead meat.” All we can do now is try to limit the damage; we can’t avoid it altogether.
Our great challenge, however, once we agree that something must be done, and done soon, is deciding exactly what we should do.
Given that the IEET is dedicated to understanding and promoting technological solutions that can help us overcome human problems, it might be expected that we would avidly endorse one or more of the many ‘geoengineering’ solutions being proposed to deal with climate change. But the key word in the name of our organization is Ethics. Our mission is not just to be a cheerleader for emerging technologies, it is to work hard for ethical use of those technologies.
In the case of global warming, it is not at all clear that any of the big ideas for planet-scale engineering to “manage” the climate would actually be a wise choice. We simply don’t know enough yet about potential side effects, about unintended consequences, about the daunting complexity of interactions within climate systems.
One popular geoengineering proposal, that of fertilizing the oceans with iron, has been thoroughly examined and found wanting:
Adding iron to the ocean is not an effective way to fight climate change, and we don’t need further research to establish that, say Aaron Strong, Sallie Chisholm, Charles Miller and John Cullen.
In the face of seemingly accelerating climate change, some have proposed tackling the problem with geoengineering: intentionally altering the planet’s physical or biological systems to counteract global warming. One such strategy — fertilizing the oceans with iron to stimulate phytoplankton blooms, absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and export carbon to the deep sea — should be abandoned.
That’s from the scientific journal Nature, and climate change expert Joseph Romm has coupled those findings with additional research that questions the effectiveness of other proposals like pumping massive amounts of aerosols into the atmosphere, also evidently a bad idea. Moreover, the very concept of geoengineering is being hijacked by deniers of climate change in order to buy time for their clients, the oil and gas industry, to keep making money while destroying our future. Don’t worry, they claim, there’s no need to stop extracting and burning fossil fuels now, because soon-to-appear magical technologies will make everything better. It’s all okay!
Actually, it’s not. Sad to say, but in this case technology is far more part of the problem than the solution. Unbridled use of powerful 18th and 19th century technologies to exploit natural resources is what got us into this mess in the first place. Getting out of it—or at least getting through it with hopefully minimal damage—will require communication, persuasion, and politics.
For now, the most important and significant changes we can make include things like promoting energy efficiency, moving quickly to hybrid and electric cars, wind power, geothermal power, and more. Accomplishing all that will take human cooperation and commitment at levels greater perhaps than anything we’ve ever seen before. But it’s the ethical choice.