What will it take to alarm us about climate change?

Published 6:11 am Wednesday, November 21, 2018


Contributing columnist

The TV news coverage of the “megafires” in California should alarm any viewer. Paradise, California, has been turned into “hell on earth.”

Email newsletter signup

But we live a long way from California, and we don’t know how much the wildfires should be attributed to global warming (Gov. Brown and President Trump disagree about that). And even if climate change is a major factor, how much urgency should we feel about corrective measures here in Kentucky?

The United Nations report on climate change appeared on Oct. 8 and warned of climate catastrophe in 12 years unless major changes are made. Its position comes from the Nobel Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The 91 authors and review editors from 40 countries (using 6,000 scientific references) posit that a global temperature rise of l.5 degrees centigrade is the threshold that our planet cannot cross without incurring the destruction of ecosystems, the disappearance of some island nations and unpredictable changes of weather patterns.

We are already at 1 degree centigrade, and we are already looking at more extreme weather, rising sea levels, and diminishing arctic ice. We could pass the threshold as early as 2030. We could hit 2.7 degrees centigrade by 2040.

The report does offer a glimmer of hope to stave off disaster, but it won’t be easy. We would need to stop carbon-dioxide emissions completely by 2050 or pull more CO2 out of the atmosphere than we release. By 2050, we would need to get 70 percent of global electricity from renewable energy, and coal use would need to be phased out.

This prospect is made all the more daunting by the fact that many nations have regressed from the goals set by the 2015 Paris Agreement, from which, we should recall, President Trump has withdrawn us. 

Will the U.N. report convince enough people of our vulnerability and our need to get cracking on solutions? Don’t count on it. As matters now stand, a majority of Americans understand that climate change is happening, but they don’t feel vulnerable enough to do anything about it.

The IPCC report warns that people who are not yet feeling the effects of climate change will feel them soon, but that reality has not hit home for enough people. Next month, government delegates from around the world will meet in Poland to decide how to implement the Paris Agreement. They have a huge challenge; and the next chance is in 2023. 

There is even some good news that could reinforce our complacency.  On Nov. 6, the United Nations announced that the ozone layer is slowly healing and should be repaired by 2030 — a date to dread if present trends continue, according to the Oct. 8 report. The healing is occurring due to global cooperation to phase out ozone-depleting chemicals. This news could counter feelings of futility since it shows that human effort can thwart predicted disastrous effects, but it could also feed President Trump’s belief that global warming will change back contrary to the predictions of climate scientists with “their political agendas.” 

The president’s EPA has torn up the Obama-era plan to limit pollution from coal-fired power plants. It has removed the section on climate change on its web-site, promising an update, which has yet to appear. It also did not formally endorse the U.N. report in October.   

Another tolling of the alarm bell comes from the Goddard Institute for Space Studies via NASA.  The issue is rising arctic temperatures. For the last two years, Arctic temperatures have been the warmest on record. Of the nearly three dozen Arctic weather stations, at least fifteen register 10 degrees Fahrenheit above normal. The summer ice is melting decades earlier than expected and the predicted winter ice is the lowest on record. Climate scientists are stunned.

Although the arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet, only the local inhabitants notice immediately. In the long run, however, we will all be affected by rising sea levels, melting glaciers and ice caps, increased release of trapped carbon monoxide and methane gas into the atmosphere as permafrost thaws, more greenhouse gas emissions, less salinity in sea water, more extreme weather, and threats to arctic animal species. Nevertheless, we can, once again, enjoy temporary complacency in Kentucky.

Returning to the infernos on TV from the California megafires, we should recall that President Trump blames faulty forest management and not climate change for the crisis. Gov. Brown strongly disagrees about the role of climate change, and he has scientific backing. The largest fires in California history have happened since 2003, and the size of the fires has quadrupled since 1985, even though the number was diminished. There are ten times more forests burning now than in the 1980s.

Forest management strategies do merit a significant share of the blame.  Efforts to protect the timber rather than allow prescribed burns have left dry tinder boxes in the forested areas, which have been increasingly inhabited with homeowners, who in turn have opposed prescribed burns and thinning. Rising temperatures, however, are a major ingredient in the increase of burning forests, and smart money expects megafires to continue to worsen. But why should Kentuckians worry, especially if business as usual is producing more jobs?

Mike Hoffman, executive director for the Cornell Institute for Smart Climate Solutions, suggests that concern about the future of our children and grandchildren may be the only thing that will jump start our sense of urgency.  After all, the October U.N. report grants us 12 years before we cross the threshold into catastrophe. James Freeman Clarke didn’t know about climate change, but he made a good and frequently-quoted point: “A politician thinks of the next election; a statesman of the next generation.” 

Jay Inlee, governor of Washington State, is sounding like a statesman in his efforts regarding climate change, and he wants you to sign his petition. Several environmental groups are keeping climate change on the front burner. There is local power plant action. There is a Sunrise Movement brewing in the newly elected Congress that will challenge the dominance of the fossil fuel industry. Look around and find a way to be involved — if not for your own sake, for the next generation.