Dangers of climate change less distant every day

Published 6:45 am Saturday, November 18, 2017


Contributing columnist

Climate change activists designated Tuesday as a “day of action” — a time for state and local leaders in business and government and other concerned citizens to register their continuing commitment to goals of the Paris Agreement as the 23rd United Nations Conference on Climate Change moves through its second and final week in Bonn, Germany. The U.S. Climate Alliance, a coalition of governors from 14 states and Puerto Rico, plus newly committed governors from nine states and the mayor of Washington, D.C., were among those in support.

Email newsletter signup

How timely! With the recent addition of Syria to the Paris Agreement, the U. S. now stands isolated as the lone holdout after President Trump’s withdrawal. As he issues an order to undo the Clean Water Rule and promises to “zero out federal research and development” for green energy, his climate-denying head of the EPA, Scott Pruitt, muzzles two EPA scientists from presenting their climate change research at a conference, cuts staff and dismantles the Clean Power Plan (for a transition to clean energy and limitation on carbon pollution).  

Nevertheless, a contrary government report entitled the Climate Science Special Report was released on Nov. 3. In it, the nation’s top scientists acknowledge that climate change is here and now and predominantly caused by human activity, especially the emission of greenhouse gases. The hundreds of scientists who prepared it used 1,500 scientific studies and reports to conclude: “For the warming over the last century, there is no convincing alternative explanation supported by the extent of observational evidence.”

Despite the conflicting views of President Trump and several of his appointees, there was no interference from policymakers,  and the White House Office of Science and Technology signed off on it.

The report contains no policy recommendations, but the inference is clear. The reduction of greenhouse gases is essential and urgent. And the experiential basis for the urgency has shifted more to the already from the likely long-term.

An example of distant disaster prognostication comes from a climate scientist writing in Scientific American, who was part of a study that concluded that there is a 1 in 20 chance that, by 2100, the earth’s average temperature will rise more than 5 degrees Celsius above industrial levels. In that event, most of the world’s population would be subjected to extreme heat and heat-producing bacteria, making 20 percent of Earth’s species extinct.

The scientist asks, “How many of us would choose to buckle our grandchildren to an airplane seat if we knew there was as much as a one in 20 chance of the plane crashing?” This appeal to caution is based on a dire projection with 1 in 20 odds and sets a goal for carbon neutrality in 2050, which is more stringent than Paris.

Still another recent projection of the distant and dire variety has Miami disappearing by the end of the century with its residents having joined tens of millions of people who will be climate refugees after being flooded or burned out of their homes. In this scenario, rising ocean levels will be followed, if present trends continue, by massive starvation, plagues, disease, perpetual war and economic collapse. The suffering will, of course, fall disproportionately on the already disadvantaged. Again the dire projection is distant, and the continuation of present trends is assumed.

In the face of the predicted horrors, people can choose to remain in denial or despair of being able to affect such consequences of continuing business as usual — or undergo a seismic change in attitude.   

Increasingly, the argument runs to what is already happening to food, air, water and diseases, to Americans that are already sickening and dying. Extreme weather events, we are told, are now more frequent and intense because of climate change. Higher sea levels, warmer oceans and more moisture in the air made hurricanes Sandy, Harvey, Irma and then Maria worse.  Since 2011, extreme weather events have cost $675 billion ($2,000 for every American), and without policy change, heat-related deaths and coastal damage will continue to rise.

On Oct. 30, the British medical journal The Lancet published a report detailing the extraordinary impact that climate change has already had on world-wide health.  It cites the spread of infectious diseases; greater exposure to air pollution and heat waves; and drastic reduction of labor productivity.

The already-evident damage has already undercut the gains of modern medicine and technology. Past reports had spoken of potential effects; now the effects on physical and mental health are demonstrable and actual. Statistics are included for the fall in labor productivity, the spread of mosquito-borne dengue fever, worsening allergies due to longer exposure to ragweed and more.

So the “Already” is increasing, catching up with the projected “Not Yet.” But those who have the most invested in business as usual are often best able to protect themselves from the ravages wrought by effects of climate change.

If we equate success with consumption and short-term return on investment rather than sustainability and planetary health, we are quick to dismiss or downplay what could call for a modification in our life styles. We can call coincidence or partisan politics what the so-called prophets of doom might call a creeping, burgeoning disaster.  

This month, this week, even this day we are getting wake-up calls about planetary peril, environmental protection and economic and political priorities. If we fail to set the alarm by shutting out warmings we don’t want to hear, if we hit the snooze button to delay coming to grips with the warming trends, then we can maintain our patterns of consumption. But we risk dying because of those patterns, or putting our children and grandchildren on life support.

Jon Foley, executive director of the California Academy of Sciences, also tweets about climate change—as follows: “This is now a moral crisis more than a scientific one.”