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Part 4: A Gathering Storm

YOWUSA.COM, 23-September-04
Dale Caruso

Abrupt Climate ChangeFor decades the debate has raged over Global warming. First it was environmentalists and their cadre of scientists that sound the warning that is man continued to ignore the problem of pollution of the Earth, then the consequences would be dire indeed.

I am sure by now you are aware of the concerns they raised and to be frank were ignored. Governments of industrialized nations argued with their scientists that the evidence though perhaps compelling was incomplete, flawed, or just plain misleading. The less notable nations didn't bother to join in at all, instead preferring to quietly remain in the shadows of this debate and continue to wantonly pollute as they attempted to gain economic stature at most any price.

As for the public, of any nation, most of us seemed quite content to just continue on continuing. Buying our SUVs, practicing only the most superficial forms of environmental responsibility. Afer all, there was not consensus of opinion, so while we knew that we were moving down a reckless path toward major problems, the time for concern seemed decades away, if at all.

Surely science would provide answers to resolve this problem if it were ever to become a problem. Surely someone would tell us what to do.

Often the problem with our collective hearing is that it is highly selective and we tend to only hear that which will cause us no pain or problem.

Well the truth is now this, we have hit the snooze button once too often, if there was a moment in time when, had we listened, humanity could have made a difference, that moment has passed.

Heed this well ...

"Governments and consumers in the United States and worldwide should take immediate steps to reduce the threat of global warming and to prepare for a future in which coastal flooding, reduced crop yields and elevated rates of climate-related illness are all but certain."

There could have been no clearer message to have emerged from a conference of top U.S. scientists attending a meeting organized by AAAS (American Academy for the Advancement of Science and its journal, Science, held June 15th, 2004 in Washington D.C. The climate researchers argued that while some policy experts and sectors of the public dispute the risk, there is in fact no cause for doubt: The world is significantly warmer today than it was a century ago—and it's getting warmer. Without action now, they warned, the impact could be devastating.

Just how devastating? Consider this, not a prediction, a possibility, not some output of an advanced computer model, rather simply a statement of fact ... of what IS happening now. "As the Earth warms, ice sheets are melting and sea levels are rising--island and river-delta communities already are vanishing beneath the waves. Native Inuit fishermen are falling through thinning Arctic ice they've traversed many times before. And according to the World Health Organization, "In recent decades, climate change claimed some 150,000 lives in 2000 and sickened many others, especially elderly people and very young children."

According to Harvard geochemistry Professor Daniel Schrag, "We are performing an experiment at a planetary scale that hasn't been done for millions of years," Schrag said. "This should not be a partisan issue," he added. "We cannot wait for a catastrophe to appear before we act because by then it would be too late. The next few decades will determine our path for the next century."

He likened the situation to the Titanic after it hit the iceberg.

"So if you're standing at the back of the Titanic, you're thinking, 'Oh, I'm going up, we can't be sinking'."

At this conference, influential researchers, including Nobel Laureate in Chemistry Sherwood Rowland of the University of California-Irvine, shared their latest findings and best temperature projections, in this way, taking some first steps toward responding to a 9 January Science article by Sir David King, the United Kingdom's chief scientific adviser, which challenged America to better control greenhouse gases.

Many experts at the conference suggested that the onus is on the U.S.--and most importantly, the American public--to makes changes that will reduce the nation's disproportionate impact on the world environment. "You hope that somehow people will understand that we have got to do something now," Joyce Penner, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Michigan, told Reuters in an interview. "Some people get it -- some people are driving hybrids. But there is a problem with the American public."

The authoritative Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), established by the World Meteorological Organization and the United Nations Environment Program, has estimated that, between 1900 and 2100, temperatures will rise between 1.4 and 5.8 degrees Celsius (2.5 to 10.4 F). In the past century, the IPCC has reported, temperatures have increased between 0.2 and 0.6 degrees C-or, an increase of about 1 degree F to date, with most of the warming happening over the most recent decades.

Scientists generally agree that temperatures are rising as a result of human activities such as fossil-fuel burning, which releases carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping greenhouse gases. This warming has caused glacial melting and subsequent increases in sea levels worldwide of up to 20 centimeters, or 7.8 inches.

Nobel Laureate Sherwood Rowland said it's not just carbon dioxide concentrations that are rising.

"The levels of other greenhouse gases--water vapor, methane, nitrous oxide and ozone--are rising too," he said.

He went on to say that,

"Water vapor is not produced by human activities in significant enough amounts to worry about,"

Even so, he noted,

"...if human-related activity changes the temperature of the ocean, then water vapor increases."

In addition,    

"Methane concentrations increased from 300 parts per million in 1958 to 380 ppm in April 2004, Carbon dioxide concentrations were 280 ppm in 1800 and 380 ppm in 1980. Concentrations of nitrous oxide and tropospheric ozone are going up as well."

"A century ago, Rowland said, only a handful of cities worldwide claimed a population of over 1 million. Today, there are more than 50 cities with multi-million populations. "Having large cities, and many motorized cities today, is an important reason why tropospheric ozone is on the rise." 

But still the debate lingers

Some scientists have disputed the pessimistic climate-change forecasts, and the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush has cited concerns about the models that predict dramatic climate change and the perilous consequences. White House science adviser John H. Marburger III earlier this year defended Bush's policy and rejected critics' claims that the administration is in denial about global warming. For example, he said, Bush acknowledged in 2001 that the concentration "of greenhouse gases, especially CO2, have increased substantially since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution."

The scientists at Tuesday's climate conference acknowledged that questions remain about climate-forecasting models. And, they said, there will always be uncertainty about exactly what may happen and precisely how various factors exert an influence.

However, the panelists also agreed that accurate predictions can be made over the long term--and that greenhouse gases released as a result of human activity are a major change agent. In fact, they said, the models are more likely making conservative predictions rather than generous ones.

Gerald A. Meehl, a research scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research stated, "We have seen a huge increase in the capabilities of these models. They do quite well in simulating global temperature evolution and extremes."

According to Michael Oppenheimer, professor of geosciences and international affairs at Princeton University, models project that if Greenland temperatures rise by another 3 degrees C, complete melting of the Greenland ice sheet would eventually result.

"If the West Antarctic ice sheet becomes unstable, global sea level would rise about 5 meters and as much as seven meters if the Greenland ice sheet melts,"

Oppenheimer said.    

"Although the sea level rise would largely occur in later centuries, these outcomes could be set in place within the current century."

For its part, Bob Hopkins, spokesman for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, said the administration has taken steps, including devoting $4 billion to climate change science and technology programs. The Commerce Department is also speeding up deployment of technology to measure atmospheric aerosols and carbon.

"The administration takes this issue very seriously and the president has laid out an aggressive plan to address climate change," he said.

Donald Kennedy, editor of Science magazine, called climate change "the most serious issue" we face and said the scientific community must "make a clear expression" on the subject.

The academics emphasized that if international leaders do not act soon, they will not have the option of reversing global warming. David S. Battisti, who teaches at the University of Washington, said it is "a huge risk" not to curb greenhouse gases.

You have to start doing things now," he said. "To undo it or stop it is not possible."

Researchers, including Chris Field of the Carnegie Institution, said scientists have begun to detect evidence that various species are having to adjust to global warming. Hundreds of species have moved to cooler regions, Field said, and agricultural yields are declining.

"We're seeing the least-competitive species in the ecosystem being winnowed out,"

he said.

If pushed hard enough, this sensitivity is going to blossom into profound problems."

Meanwhile, across the Potomac in Arlington, Virginia

The very same day that scientists were holding their press conference concerning the need for immediate action to head off major global warming, across town, the Pew Center on Global Climate Change was releasing A new Pew Center report, Coping with Global Climate Change: The Role of Adaptation in the United States, by William Easterling of Pennsylvania State University, Brian Hurd of New Mexico State University, and Joel Smith of Stratus Consulting Inc. In their report, they discuss the importance of adapting to climate change, the options available for adaptation, and the challenges of implementing them in the United States.

They maintain that the time for mitigating the consequences of global warming have passed and while it is important to take action to reverse the tend of negatively impacting our environment, it is critical that we begin to examine and adopt polices and procedures to adapt to these changes that are already taking place.

According to Eileen Claussen, President of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, "Unfortunately, we're already past the point where climate change can be prevented entirely, Now we need a two-pronged approach that combines reductions in greenhouse gas emissions with policies that will help us adapt to the climate change that is going to occur."

The report warns that adaptation will not be an easy or cost-free process. Despite the challenges, however, the authors feel that the capacity of the U.S. economy to adapt to climate change is high, because of the broad range of resources (including wealth, technology and information) that can be directed at the problem.

"But the longer we delay," cautioned Claussen,  "the greater the cost will be."

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