The Global Warming Crisis

We are in the midst of a global experiment on Earth's climate - what's at stake are the systems that support life. Scientists are warning us: the time to act is now.
ian froome global warming crisi.jpg

Image by Ian Froome / Unsplash

 Two years ago, hikers found hundreds of seal pups dying of starvation on the beaches of northern California. Investigators concluded the pups were starving because the fish on which they feed were driven to depths beyond the range of the young seals by warming surface waters. Last July's intense heat wave in the Northeastern United States accelerated demands for air conditioning, causing blackouts and brownouts around the country. In Oswego, New York, home of the Fitzpatrick nuclear power plant, electrical service was cut back - but for a different reason. Atmospheric heating had made the surface water of Lake Ontario so warm it was no longer able to provide the requisite cooling for the power plant.

In the spring of 1998, when the storks were returning to northern Europe after wintering in Africa, they encountered a bizarre weather pattern. Northern Germany and Poland were caught in the grip of an extended spell of drought and frost. Their migratory instincts confounded, the storks turned back and began flying in wide circles over Turkey and the Balkans - until hundreds dropped out of the sky, dead from exhaustion.

Last June, the small, uninhabited South Pacific islands of Tebua Tarawa and Abanuea disappeared under rising sea levels. Researchers at the South Pacific Regional Environment Program said they feared that the nearby inhabited islands of Kiribati and Tuvalu would disappear as well. Disaster planners began to relocate residents to other, less vulnerable islands in the region.

These are some of the little signs of climate change.

There are medium-sized and large signs as well. They include last summer's drought in the mid-Atlantic and Northeastern US - one of the worst in history; last summer's heat wave that killed more than 270 people in the Northeast; and the fires last summer that consumed one million acres in Nevada. They also include the Texas-sized Hurricane Floyd, whose severity was fueled by unusually warm surface waters in the Atlantic. Given the fact that warming has increased atmospheric humidity by 10 percent over the last 20 years - accelerating the evaporation of surface waters and expanding the air to hold more water - it is not surprising that the nearly $1 billion in damages came primarily from the relentless rains that Floyd dropped over North Carolina and New Jersey.

Then there are the large-sized changes.

The southeastern half of the Greenland ice sheet - an expanse of land-bound ice second in size only to Antarctica - is thinning at an unprecedented rate, up to three feet a year.

Ocean surface waters in the eastern Pacific warmed by 2-3 degrees Fahrenheit since the early 1970s, triggering a 70 percent decline in the population of zooplankton which, in turn, is jeopardizing the survival of several species of fish and large numbers of seabirds.

In Monterey Bay, California, ocean warming caused a turnover in the population of marine life, driving cold-water fish northward as warm-water fish and sea animals moved in to populate the area. At the same time, atmospheric warming has propelled whole populations of butterflies from the mountains of Mexico to the hills of Vancouver, as they relocated north to escape the warming of their traditional habitats.

Warming has also been detected in the deep oceans. That is causing the break up of Antarctic ice shelves - another piece of the Larsen Ice Shelf the size of Connecticut broke off in March 1998. It appears that same ocean warming, together with rising air temperatures in Antarctica, will also double in the next century. (Our current level of 360 parts per million (ppm) of CO2 is already higher than at any time during the past 400,000 years.) An intermediate concentration of 450 ppm, which most experts regard as inevitable within the next 70 years, correlates with an increase in the global temperature of 3 to 7 Fahrenheit. By contrast, the last Ice Age was only 5 to 9 degrees Fahrenheit colder than our current climate. Each year, we are pumping nearly seven billion tons of heat-trapping carbon into our atmosphere whose outer extent is only about 12 miles overhead.

As a consequence, the 11 hottest years in recorded history have occurred since 1980. The period from 1991 to 1995 constitutes the hottest five-year period on record. 1998 just replaced 1997 as the hottest year in recorded history. The decade of the 1990s is the hottest in this millennium. The planet is heating at a faster rate than at any time in the last 10,000 years.

Extreme weather

Even more evident than the increase in temperature is the increase in extreme weather events - and the growing destabilization of the global climate. To cite a few examples from the last few years:

In 1997, we saw:

  • major damage from a succession of ice and rain storms in the Pacific Northwest in January;
  • the heaviest rains in 30 years in Bolivia in February which destroyed half that country's crops;
  • record flooding in March along the Ohio River;
  • in Portugal, the worst winter drought in 150 years, which destroyed 70 percent of the country's winter cereal crops;
  • epic April flooding of the Red River in North Dakota and Manitoba;
  • a torrential rainfall in Manila in May that left 120,000 people homeless;
  • the worst drought in 100 years in Chile, followed by torrential downpours which dumped six months worth of rain in a week;
  • the worst flooding in a century along the Oder River in Poland and the Czech Republic;
  • 2,500 dead and missing in Southeast Asia as a result of Typhoon Linda in early November, a storm which Vietnamese officials called the "calamity of the century";
  • 2,000 people killed and 200,000 made homeless in Somalia and Ethiopia by the worst flooding in memory in early December;
  • Moscow's coldest December in 115 years which followed the warmest December in Moscow's history the previous year;
  • my own Boston weather in which a 60-degree Easter Sunday was followed two days later by a 30-inch snowstorm - the third largest snowfall in Boston's history.

The next year, 1998, began with an extraordinary ice storm which immobilized parts of northern New England and Quebec for a month. That year brought us the fires in Brazil and Mexico (in which, for the first time, rainforests caught fire) as well as Florida. It triggered killer heat waves in Texas, the Middle East, and India, where some 5,000 people died of heat effects. It produced Mexico's worst drought in 70 years; flooding in China that left 14 million people homeless; the worst flooding in the history of Bangladesh, which left some 30 million people homeless; and the 9,000 casualties in Central America from Hurricane Mitch, the strongest Atlantic tropical storm in 200 years.

While these examples are anecdotal, they are precisely the kinds of extreme weather events the current generation of computer models project as the early stages of global warming.

Financially, the consequences are visible in the rising disaster relief costs to government and escalating losses to the world's property insurers. During the 1980s, those insurance losses due to extreme weather events averaged $2 billion a year; in the 1990s they are averaging $12 billion a year. In fact, the $89 billion in losses to extreme events in 1998 alone exceeds the total losses for the entire decade of the 1980s. In July, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reported that in the last 20 years, the US alone has absorbed 42 extreme weather events that resulted in losses exceeding $1 billion each. As the insurance giant, Munich Re, recently reported: "The general trend towards ever-increasing numbers of catastrophes with ever-increasing costs is continuing." And the head of the Re-insurance Association of America has said that unless something is done to stabilize the climate, it could well bankrupt the industry.

Politically, there is a strong totalitarian threat to climate change. It is easiest to see in some of the world's poor countries whose ecosystems are as fragile as their traditions of democracy. It is not difficult to foresee governments resorting to permanent states of martial law in the face of food shortages, floods, droughts, incursions of environmental refugees and epidemics of infectious disease.

By way of example, in late 1997, Papua New Guinea was beset by a long spell of drought and frost. After four months of this anomalous weather, more than 700,000 people left their homes and began wandering the countryside in search of food, water and warmth. The government proclaimed it a disaster which it was incapable of managing. Fortunately, countries like Australia came to the aid of Papua New Guinea, so a totalitarian response was averted. But it is a compelling illustration of the political potential of increasing climatic instability.

Earlier this year, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies predicted a surge in super catastrophes from extreme events, especially in developing nations. With the combination of global warming and poverty, you have a new scale of catastrophe, said Dr. Astrid Heiberg, President of the International Federation. The report noted that in 1998, natural disasters created more refugees than wars and conflict. Drought, declining soil fertility, flooding and deforestation drove 25 million environmental refugees from their land and into the already vulnerable squatter communities of fast-growing cities.

Climatic instability also holds anti-democratic potentials for the countries of the North. It will disrupt foreign markets, causing substantial job losses. It will impair the flow of industrial commodities from abroad. It could lead to domestic food shortages, with associated black-market crime. It could also lead to the militarization of disaster relief forces. It is telling that the Central Intelligence Agency is assessing the potentials for political destabilization from climate-related disruptions.

The skeptics

For many years, the public relations apparatus of big coal and big oil has argued that global warming was nonexistent. Since 1991, the fossil fuel lobby has spent many millions of dollars to persuade the public, the media and policy makers that global warming is a non-issue. That propaganda campaign - especially as it was articulated by a tiny handful of scientists called "greenhouse skeptics" (many of whom received large amounts of undisclosed funding from fossil fuel interests) - centered on the claim that climate change was not scientifically proven. More recently, as the science has become too robust to deny, oil and coal interests have argued either that global warming is good for us, since it will enhance plant growth, or else that it is of no consequence because the anticipated temperature changes will be relatively slight.

The arguments fly in the face of what we know about the planet.

The claim advanced by the carbon lobby that global warming will allow us to grow more food in the far north to feed an expanding population overlooks two elements. The first is the insects. Even a slight increase in warming will trigger an explosion of crop-destroying and disease-spreading insects. The second is that if the average global temperature increases by another half degree, it might promote some plant growth in the far north. But it would devastate crops in the tropical regions where most of the world's poor and hungry people live. It would cause large drop-offs in the rice yields of Southeast Asia, the wheat yields in India, and food crop growth in the tropics generally.

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The second argument by the carbon lobby is more intriguing - that a small bit of global warming won't amount to any significant consequences. What is remarkable about that argument is that to date, we have seen only a small degree of warming - about 1 degree Fahrenheit over the last 70 years.

Yet even that small amount of warming is melting glaciers, heating the deep oceans, altering El Niño patterns, promoting the spread of disease, accelerating sea level rise, and triggering more extensive droughts, more intense floods, and more severe storms.

New findings, moreover, indicate that the climate is changing much more quickly than scientists believed only a few years ago.

Tom Karl, chief scientist at the National Climatic Data Center, led a major research project which documented an increase in extreme weather events - including the fact that we are receiving substantially more of our rain and snow in intense, severe downpours than we did 20 years ago. When that study was published in 1995, Karl and his colleagues said they expected to see significant changes in extreme weather events in the next century. But they are seeing them now. The term hundred-year storm has no meaning any more, he said, noting that "we are now seeing hundred year storms every other year."

A study released in June by Dr. Tom M. L. Wigley for the Pew Center for Global Climate Change projected higher temperatures and faster rates of sea level rise than had previously been projected by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change - a body of more than 2,000 scientists from 100 countries reporting to the United Nations. The study by Wigley, a pre-eminent climate modeler who is senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, projected that by the end of the next century, the oceans will rise by 39 inches while Earth's temperature could rise as much as 7 degrees Fahrenheit. (Again, the last ice age was only 5 to 9 degrees Fahrenheit colder than the current climate.)

The predictions for life on the planet a hundred years from now are extremely depressing.

Dutch researchers project that at current rates of warming, mosquito-borne diseases will double in the tropics - and increase a hundredfold in the temperate regions by late next century.

A team of Japanese researchers reported last year that at current rates of warming, 40 percent of the world's forests will have died by the same time. This would turn much of the globe's forested land from a sink (which absorbs carbon dioxide) to a source (which releases CO2 into the atmosphere.)

Findings by researchers at NOAA predict megadroughts in the US near the end of the next century - while researchers at the US Geological Survey and the University of Toronto warn that such droughts could easily turn the wheat-growing areas of Kansas, Nebraska, and Oklahoma into deserts.

Scientists at Britain's Hadley Centre for Climate Change project that by late in the coming century, the number of people on the coast subject to flooding each year will rise from 5 million today to 100 million by 2050 and 200 million by 2080.

And a study by the Max Planck Institute in Germany projects that if nothing is done to slow the rate of warming, the world could easily enter a state of permanent El Niño conditions in another 50 years.

Ultimately, the most frightening scenario - and one that is the subject of increasing numbers of studies - involves what scientists call a Rapid Climate Change Event.

Many prehistoric changes in the climate have happened as abrupt shifts rather than gradual transitions. The climate system is so delicately balanced that small changes have triggered very large outcomes. Many of those changes have come from what scientists call feedback effects - in which responses to events lead, themselves, to even more instability. For instance, higher temperatures promote drought and wildfires that, in turn, can burn vast areas of forest, releasing more CO2, which would then accelerate the accumulation of greenhouse gases, leading, in turn, to more warming.

One of the most striking feedbacks took place about 10,000 years ago - and could, in the view of increasing numbers of researchers, repeat itself now - a climate snap that, paradoxically, plunged much of the world into a frozen, ice-covered state.

Near the end of the last Ice Age, there occurred a natural warming trend that increased the amount of snowmelt and precipitation in the far north. That infusion of fresh water diluted the saltiness of the North Atlantic. As a result of this dilution, the warming current (a.k.a the Gulf Stream) - which runs up the coast of North America, angles northeast across the Atlantic below Greenland and flows down the coast of Northern Europe - suddenly snapped and began to flow due east, from New York to Spain.

With that change in the warming current, a deep freeze descended over Northern Europe. The climate of Britain became like the climate of Greenland. And what most astonished scientists is this: according to readings from ancient ice cores, that change occurred within less than a decade.

A climate-friendly future

The solution is as simple as it is overwhelming. To allow our inflamed climate to restabilize requires emissions reductions of 70 percent. And that implies a rapid global energy transition to high-efficiency and renewable energy sources. Those sources exist today, and they are capable of providing all the energy we use and more.

The good news is that a worldwide effort to rewire the planet with climate-friendly energy sources would result in an enormous economic boom. It would create millions of jobs all over the world. It would begin to reverse the widening gap between the North and South. It would substantially expand the amount of wealth, equity and stability in the global economy.

Alternatively, if we do not act quickly and comprehensively, the continuing succession of floods, droughts, storms, disease epidemics and insurance losses will tear holes in the global economic fabric.

And the planet may well lose its capacity to support the highly complex and organized form of life we call civilization.

More: A Plan for Cooling the Planet 


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