Colorado Fires Mean Changes for the Southwest

forest-fire-colorado-climate-change2012 is one of the worst years on record for forest fires in Colorado. While these widespread and disastrous events are the result of weather, it signals a new trend that will affect the entire Southwest of the United States. Because of climate change the weather is changing and becoming more severe. Climate change will not ensure that weather will remain dry and hot in regions that rely on the occasional big winter snow and occasional summer rain, but it will surely make it more likely that weather like that of the summer of 2012 will happen much more frequently in the future.

In Colorado the multitude of fires that span across the entire Front Range and have devastated acres of forest thus far, have also caused thirty two thousand people to be evacuated from their homes. So far, many homes have been destroyed. The fires have not been successfully controlled even with the use of plentiful resources. The record setting temperatures and lack of moisture in the winter and in the present are accounting for most of the difficulty. Pine beetle kill is another reason the forest is burning so easily, because dead and dried out trees are ripe for the burning. Harsh weather conditions like this is unusual for this early point in the summer for the region as a whole.

For the next several decades China, the United States, and all other industrial countries are likely to pour carbon dioxide into the atmosphere by the tons, which results in warmer and drier conditions on account of global warming. Therefore it is likely that the forest fires in Colorado are just the beginning.

At the Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management at the University of California at Berkeley Professor Max. A Moritz and his colleagues have tracked the long-term probability of the increase in forest fires in the American southwest and the results are very high. Moritz’s results show that Texas and Arizona are the states most at risk for future catastrophic forest fires. Colorado experiences its worst fire season in history and a 1 degree Celsius change in the global average temperature could greatly skew the current percentage of wildfires to much worse than ever expected. Even given these conditions, many still deny climate change, including many people associated with ExxonMobil.  Others at Exxon accept the existence of global warming, but belittle its effects. CEO of Exxon Rex Tillerson said that climate change is not only “manageable” but also engineering possibilities make the changes entirely adaptable. Tillerson may have a optimistic viewpoint on climate change and its effects, but many in Colorado are no longer so helpful, especially with their homes burned to cinders.

Obviously there are many consequences to such devastation and it will take a long time to re-grow forests and rebuild lost homes. There are many ways to help in the present. One such way is to support the initiative of providing firefighters who help control wildfires with government provided healthcare. Because they are considered temporary workers they do not receive full benefits. To support firefighters who risk their live and help prevent the loss of the environment and the homes in it, please sign this Change.org petition.

The American Red Cross is also making huge efforts to help displaced persons and support the health of firefighters. They are helping treat people who are affected by the smoke and they are providing shelter to those who have lost their homes. Shelter is even more essential in times of extreme heat.  To donate to the Red Cross, check out the local Colorado chapter at this link.

Photo credit: erh.noaa.gov/okx/pics/firewx1.jpg

The Sea is Rising: Becoming Resilient Against the Inevitable

OregonCoastOnce again, another report on climate change states sea levels are rising and that coastal flooding inundation is accelerating faster than expected and will become a common occurrence by 2050. Global warming has raised sea level about eight inches since 1880 and scientists expect 20 to 80 more inches this century. Dr. Strauss, of the nonprofit organization, Climate Central, did original research for this sea level project that was funded entirely by foundations. The study makes mid-range sea level projections of 1-8 inches by 2030, and 4-19 inches by 2050, depending upon location across the contiguous 48 states. The report, “Surging Seas”, released on March 14th, 2012, is an elaborate analysis that estimates the proportion of the United States population at risk for flooding which is virtually everyone who lives on any coast of the United States, about 3.7 million people.

This Internet-published report provides a package of information including access where people can search, by their own zip code, to see their own risk of coastal flooding in their area because some states, like Florida, are at high risk. This visualization is a key step in a process for understanding the risk and impact on your community and shows you what you are dealing with so you can participate in building resiliency in your community. Many communities do not have adequate plans in place to control inundation or flooding in their area. Coastal lands are a vast resource. Coastal communities support 81% of the United States population and generate 83% of the United States gross domestic product.

Climate change reports are time-sensitive with the needs for analysis to take place within days or weeks, not years. But that would require more people and government backing. In 2011, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) vied for reorganization to include climate forecasting for businesses and were blocked by Republicans in the House of Representatives. The political climate toward climate science is cold and with federal budgets shrinking, funding is tight.

The calculation of flooding in your area is in simple terms, if you live in an area that is within 3.3 feet of the mean high tide level, you live in a zone of 3.7 million people who will be affected by the oceans rise. Now, is the time to act because the window of opportunity is closing and communities have to be prepared.

Ask yourself these questions, “What changes are you seeing and experiencing in your surrounding environments?” and “What do you think the impacts of these changes will be in relation to rising sea levels?” 

If your community provides a social media outlet for information, engage in it to be informed, share your thoughts and share similar concerns about your community. Major communities in this country have been able to build coalitions even though they serve different interests, it is important to contribute innovative ideas and look at the challenges as opportunities to be agents of change because the real threat of inundation in your coastal community can no longer be ignored.

If you would like to start a dialogue in your community to spread the message of inundation by rising sea levels and building resiliency in your community by planning, NOAA Coastal Services Center – Digital Coast provides the Coastal Inundation Toolkit, which was developed to help communities understand and address coastal inundation issues. Even if you do not live on a coastline, you will be affected by climate change.

Photo Credit: Shebola100 Photography

Ancient Mayans, Victims of Climate Change?

In keeping with my resolution to read, watch, and listen to any and everything pertaining to 2012 and the end of the world, it was with little to no effort that I came across an article that linked climate change to the end of the vast Mayan empire…and so, naturally, I was obligated to read it.  According to new research presented, a series of small, yet persistent, droughts caught the culture unawares and eventually led to their demise.

At the height of their splendor, the Mayans reigned throughout much of Mesoamerica with a range that spread from Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula and down into what is now Honduras. And despite their no longer being present, what the Mayans established still continues to exist today even today.  Great cities and structures are sprinkled throughout many parts of Central America, proving that what the Mayans built was meant to last.  As a culture, they excelled in astronomy, science, and mathematics—being so far advanced that much of their thinking is still the basis for modern rational.

So how could it be that at the pinnacle of their civilization, the Mayans simply stumbled? How could it happen that the people whom many believe to have been able to see thousands of years into the future had overlooked their own ending?

The idea that climate change wiped out the Mayans is not exactly new; in 2001, scientists removed sediments from a lake on the Yucatan peninsula and found that dry and wet periods on the land were represented by differing layers, much like how rings in a tree can illustrate the tree’s age.  Additionally, this engrained evidence aligned with variations in cultural upheaval (clashes between groups, social unrest, etc.).  Now, new evidence shows that between the years 810 and 910 A.D., when the Mayans ruled, three larger droughts occurred that lasted just less than 10 years apiece.

It was at this point that I was reminded of a certain Mel Gibson film, Apocalypto, a movie clearly drenched in historical accuracy, I am sure.  There was one scene in particular that depicted a show of sacrifice where natives awaited the finer fate of the divine by spilling the blood of the living as equal payment.  As gruesome of a scene as it was, it clearly illustrated a civilization in the midst of panic.  But back to the point: Martin Medina-Elizalde, a researcher at the Yucatan Center for Scientific Research in Mexico, points out the devastating nature of persistent droughts by explaining that “theses droughts may not have been strong enough to cause by themselves the collapse of the civilization, but they were likely strong enough and persistent enough…to cause major sociopolitical disruptions that ultimately led to the final outcome.”

The signs were all there—failing crops, disappearing water sources, cloudless skies—and yet the Mayans had been farsighted and could not predict what all of this would mean for them.  Three hundred years after the Mayans were no more, California’s Chumash endured their own fair share of droughts and excessive dry times.  As the water became more and more scarce, the Chumash recognized the change and converted from their hunter-gatherer ways to become established traders. 

Where the Mayans were caught off guard, we know and can feel the menace that is climate change breathing down our necks—and like the Chumash, we are capable of change.  Let this be a warning that we need to adapt and shift to a lifestyle that is congruent with the world that is growing increasingly uncomfortable underneath our feet.

Photo Credit: commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mayan_Zodiac_Circle.jpg

Death of Yellow Cedars Linked to Climate Change

For more than a century, yellow cedars in Alaska and British Columbia have been dying, yet it was recently confirmed by U.S. Forest Service researchers that the cause was due to climate change.

Yellow cedars are known to be hardy trees that can live up to 1,000 years.  However, yellow cedars have shallow roots which make them susceptible to freezing.  With climate change, there has been less snow on the ground to insulate the shallow roots from extreme temperatures.  And with less snow on the ground, frozen roots have led to the decline of 60 to 70 percent of trees covering 600,000 acres in Alaska and British Columbia.  Climate models predict that over time, there will be less snow fall yet periods of extreme cold weather in coastal Alaska which could lead to the decline of even more yellow cedars in that area. 

For a long time, tree pathologists were confused as to what was causing the deaths of yellow cedars.  Tree pathologists ruled out organisms and fungi as being the cause and focused on factors such as hydrology and soil temperatures, eventually coming to the conclusion that lack of snow covering was causing the tree’s roots to freeze. Nevertheless, yellow cedars are strong trees that are able to withstand bugs, injury, and rot.  Given its hardy nature, Native Alaskans – Haida, Tlingit, and Tsimshian – used the wood to make items such as canoe paddles, dishes, totem poles and woven items.  Yellow cedar is still used to build boats, and in Japan, the wood is highly valued for its age, color, durability, resistance to rot, and tight grain.

Research led by the U.S. Forest Service Pacific Northwest Research Station found several interesting pieces of information related to yellow cedars including that low snow levels and poor soil drainage has caused impact root injury in the trees causing eventual death.  Yellow cedars depend on wet soil and their shallow roots make it possible for the trees to obtain nitrogen.  The survival of yellow cedars depends on changing snow patterns and thus, it is crucial that shifting snow patterns be evaluated when deciding which locations are suitable for the conservation and management of these trees in the future.  Researchers also believe that yellow cedars may thrive in areas outside of where it has already migrated, leading to the hope that assisted migration may restore the dwindling population of these trees.  However, there is also concern that assisted migration may cause yellow cedars to become an invasive species.  Nevertheless, a trial planting of yellow cedars in Yakutat has been successful with a first-year survival rate of more than 90 percent. 

The yellow cedar dilemma has also shed light on the impact climate change has on other species.  Paul Schaberg, a plant pathologist for the U.S. Forest Service, sums it up nicely by stating, “as time goes on and climates change even more, other species, other locations, are likely to experience similar kinds of progressions, so you might do well to understand this one so you can address those future things.”  Schaberg makes a valid point; in the future, there will be more plants and animal species whose habitats will be affected by climate change, and thus, more research and planning can aid in combating the loss of species such as the yellow cedar.  To learn more about climate change and what you can do to help, please visit http://www.epa.gov/climatechange/.

Photo credit: federalnewsradio.com/?nid=615&sid=2753364

Effects of Climate Change Shows Correlations with Human Trafficking

Cambodia, an exotic land filled with bright colors, city lights and ancient temples is a popular vacation spot. A remarkable country with exquisite culture holds one of the darkest secrets alive today. Very much a real and disturbing reality; we come to unfold this problem and discuss the problems of human trafficking in this area. In fact, children as young as 5 are being sold as slaves in exchange for sex. A problem that has been around for a while is being made worse by the problems caused by climate change.

The sex industry in Cambodia has been around since 1999. Human trafficking is happening due to thousands of victims in need of natural resources like food, water and trees. It affects 2-3 thousand children and young teens each year. Families are deceived by con artists telling them that their daughters will work for hotels, restaurants, hair salons or complete clerical work in order for them to bring money for their families. Truth is, con artists actually take their daughters into sex industries and force them to have intercourse with older men.

The livelihoods of most families that live in rural villages are affected by the changes brought on by climate change in that area. According to the United Nations, women feel these affects the most. United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) reports that, “Lifestyle and well being of women is put in greater danger by climate change, associated with a high rate of human trafficking.” 

UN Under-Secretary General and UNEP Executive Director, Achim Steiner declared, “Women often play a stronger role than men in the management of ecosystem services and food security. Hence, sustainable adaptation must focus on gender and the role of women if it is to become successful.” Climate change will take a toll on environmental living especially women development.

Most of women development effects from climate change can result from: increased temperatures, severe weather, rise of sea level and droughts. Three main issues of climate change that can be linked to human trafficking are: 

Water: As climate change causes droughts, it would be more difficult to attain water. As women are forced to travel greater distances to find and capture potable water they are at a higher risk of kidnapping and con-artists who are linked to the sex trade industry.

Agriculture: Climate change causes severe weather patterns that could make temperature rise and fall more drastically making seasons shift. As these seasons shift crops will be affected the most. It would be difficult for people to grow food. To offset the decrease in crop output women would be forced to look for better paying jobs to pay for food they otherwise might be able to grow themselves. The need for higher economic stimulation would make these jobs offered by sex trade con artists seem more valuable than they might have before. 

Trees: Climate change and the resulting droughts would put a strain on the forests that supply the paper industry in Cambodia with their trees. As paper mill production drops workers may lose their jobs and would in turn be forced to look elsewhere for employment.

The lack of economic growth in Cambodia has made women’s lives even more difficult than before. The lack of education in this area for women makes them think that human trafficking is one of their only ways out. Researchers from the UN have concluded that women in developing countries are likely to be victims when being exposed to exterior threats. In a recent study by United Nations, trafficking has gone up by 30% in Cambodia since 2009 which may be linked to the increase in climate change during that time.

Solutions to climate change may revolve around education and technology use. To overcome this risk we need to find a way to provide green technologies, retain water and other natural resources. Foundations should contribute money to different types of energy sources that can offset the effects of climate change while at the same time providing security for the lives of women.

The United Nations in Cambodia is currently working with the royal government of Cambodia to support the development of policies, action plans and training for government officials towards human trafficking. They are promoting a victim-center approach to all human traffickers teaching them how to take measures to fight the sex trade system. UN is also providing education for sex slave victims in rural areas. With education, women are less likely to become victims if they understand the dangers that they may face.

Support Cambodia human development reports (CHDR) along with the United Nations Cambodia to stop sex trade and provide women with the education and technology to aid and improve their livelihoods from the effects of climate change.

You can help by signing this petition here to stop Cambodia trade acts which includes prostitution, human trafficking and the deterioration of human rights! 

Photo Credit: http://www.burgessct.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/HumanTrafficking.jpg

 

The Perils of Ocean Acidification

Effect of Ocean Acidification on ShellOcean acidification is one of the under explored consequences of global climate change on the worlds oceans.  Ocean acidification is a process that occurs as a result of chemical reactions between carbon dioxide in the air and carbonate ions in seawater.  These reactions cause the lowering of seawater pH.  This acidification causes an ensuing reduction in calcium carbonate concentration.  The increase in acidity has a very detrimental effect on entire classes of ocean creatures, specifically calcifying or shell species.  This includes clams, arthropods, plankton, and coral.  High acidity causes the shells of these species to slowly disintegrate, as in the photo, eventually killing the organism.  

The effect on coral is the most tragic because of the critical role that coral reefs have in the ocean ecosystem.   Coral reefs are one of the most biologically diverse ecosystems in the world.  They have been referred to by many scientists as the, “rainforests of the ocean”.  Reef animals are also very important food source for many human communities.  Coral is particularly threatened, because it has higher calcium carbonate requirements than other shell producing species.  This results in a much faster rate of ocean acidification damage in coral reefs.  Some scientists project that the complete extinction of coral reefs may occur in the next 100 years, with a terminal decline occurring in 2050.  

However, there is hope in combating this destructive phenomena.  The Natural Resources Defense Council recommends the creation of international marine protected areas.  These areas would be critical to the survival of biodiversity in an acidic ocean.  International treaties could go a long way towards banning overfishing in sensitive ocean ecosystems.  Ultimately, the end of ocean acidification will occur from dramatic reductions in atmospheric CO2.  You may take part on an individual level, by decreasing your amount of driving, making your home more energy efficient, and eating locally.  However, the real change will occur by getting active.  Joining the NRDC or signing a petition will help their efforts in bringing public awareness to the issue of ocean acidification.  The NRDC has also created a very informative documentary called, “Acid Test the Global Challenge of Ocean Acidification”.  Sharing this documentary is a great way to share the basics of this problem with your friends and colleagues.  Another way to get involved, is to become an active volunteer in the organization 350.org.  350.org is an organization that working to to help bring an end to government policies that encourage climate change.  It is really up to each of us to become part of the solution to save ocean life from certain destruction.

Photo Credit: www.flickr.com/photos/usoceangov/4147577833/

Hurricane Irene: An Early Taste of Climate Change?

In a year that’s already seen droughts in Texas, floods in Montana, and heat waves across much of the eastern part of the country, you might think US residents have already had their share of weather-related disasters in 2011.  Yet now it looks like densely populated cities on the east coast could face one of the year’s most dangerous weather events yet.

Hurricane Irene, a major tropical storm, has glanced off the North Carolina coast and is predicted to hit New York and other states further north over the course of the next few days.  If it pummels highly populated areas, like New York City, it could cause unprecedented amounts of property damage, and perhaps the loss of hundreds of lives.

But Hurricane Irene is more than a potential catastrophe looming in the immediate future.  Like this year’s floods, droughts, and heat waves, it is also a sample of the kind of extreme weather that is growing more common as a result of climate change.

For years, scientists have warned that global warming and associated regional changes in climate will produce more severe storms—including hurricanes.  Sure enough, the last several years have seen more than their share of tropical storm activity in the Western Atlantic Ocean.  This trend hasn’t registered fully in the public consciousness, because in any particular year stronger tropical storms don’t necessarily translate into more damage from hurricanes.

The destructiveness of the hurricane season depends on where storms land, which varies randomly from year to year.  When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, the danger posed by hurricanes seared itself into the national consciousness.  On the other hand, last year saw relatively little damage in the US from hurricanes.  Though an unusually large number of storms grew out of the Western Atlantic, by pure luck none hit a US population center.

None of this changes the fact that the number of intense storms has increased dramatically since the middle of last century.  As this has happened, it has become more likely in any given year that a major storm will hit a population center.  That could be what’s about to happen this year, as Hurricane Irene prepares to slam North Carolina and states further north.

Hurricanes have always occurred up and down the east coast of the US, but storms the size of Hurricane Irene are rare in northern latitudes.  The last major hurricane to collide with land as far north as New York was the “Great Storm of 1938,” which hit Long Island and flooded parts of New York City.  Since then the odd Category Two hurricane has made it that far up the coast, but for the most part these storms have steered clear of dense populations.

Hurricane Irene might be about to break that trend.  And while it will probably be smaller than the Great Hurricane of 1938 by the time it reaches Long Island, it has potential to cause far more damage.  That’s because Long Island is a much more populated place than it was in 1938, with low-lying areas highly vulnerable to flooding.

If the worst-case scenario occurs, and Hurricane Irene floods New York City, it will be impossible to put the blame solely on climate change.  However conditions like warmer-than-average waters in the Atlantic, and a 4% increase in atmospheric water vapor due to rising temperatures, have likely helped the storm grow stronger than it would have otherwise.  These conditions, the result of climate change caused by human activity, can be expected to lead to worse storms in the future.

It might be comforting to say that Hurricane Irene can’t be blamed on global warming with certainty—just as it would be nice to dismiss droughts, floods, and heat waves as chance events.  But the truth is a changing climate has produced a world where extreme weather of all types is becoming more common.  Hurricane Irene may be just a preview of things to come.

Photo credit: flickr.com/photos/gsfc/6082747814/

But Really, A Mass Extinction? Really – A Mass Extinction.

Not Just Another Conference

In April of 2011, the International Program on the State of the Ocean convened 27 experts from 6 different countries “to determine the net effect of what is already happening to the ocean and is projected to do so in the future.” The workshop follows in a long line of international summits about our oceans. Even a cursory Google search shows a Sustainable Ocean Summit in 2010, a Global Oceans Conference in 2010, 2008, 2006, and 2003, the Clean Oceans Conference in 2007, 1998, 1997, and 1996, the Ocean Policy Summit in 2005, the Global Oceans Forum in 2001 – and the list goes on.

But this time there were some things different.

This particular meeting had two highly original qualities about it: its approach for studying the ocean, and the findings that resulted from said approach. This time, somebody had the wonderful idea of gathering experts from across traditionally separate disciplines, thus forming a cumulative understanding of the ocean’s condition, rather than studying one aspect of ocean health at a time.

And the findings were equally original. When experts on every little corner of the ocean came to Oxford University and put their individual pieces of the puzzle together, they saw a startling picture: a mass extinction of ocean life (to begin with) more imminent than anyone had previously thought.

The workshop’s report “leads to the conclusion that we have underestimated the overall risks and that the whole of marine degradation is greater than the sum of its parts.” So what, exactly, was underestimated?

Many of the ‘worst-case-scenarios’ laid out by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) are already being met in the following areas: rate of decrease of Arctic Sea ice, Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets; sea level rise; and the release of methane from the ocean floor. Furthermore, these conditions are making things worse for other indicators that have so far only matched – and not yet exceeded – the already bleak predictions. These include the distribution and abundance of marine life, degradation of ecosystems, distribution of algal blooms, simplification and destabilization of food webs, and the ability of marine life to survive stresses on the ocean.

The Imperfect Storm

A long-suspected fact about human pollution has finally been born out. Human-induced carbon dioxide emissions, the dumping of waste, run-off from agriculture, over-fishing, the destruction of environments from industry and transportation – all of these things are now known to compound each other. As the report explains, different stresses on the ocean can interact in ways that are either “synergistic” (increasing their overall effect) or “antagonistic” (decreasing their overall effect).

For example, the warming of the ocean, nutrient run-off from human activities, and the introduction of non-native species can together create the conditions for an algal bloom, which removes diluted oxygen from the water (hypoxia) and creates ‘dead zones’ where most sea life cannot survive.

Or take coral reefs. The state of coral reefs may be one of the most important indicators of overall species health in the ocean. They represent the most diverse ecosystem on the planet and directly support an estimated 500 million people with food and economic livelihood. They also act as barriers that protect our coastlines.

But the last century has been bad for coral reefs. In the past 50 years, about 40% of them have disappeared. And the increasing pressure from carbon dioxide emissions is speeding things up. Whereas the original perceived threats were overfishing and direct pollution through chemicals and plastics, now, warmer and more acidic oceans are causing coral bleaching, making it harder for reefs to recover. “A recent study,” professor and conference-participant Ove Hoegh-Guldberg explains, “has revealed that reef building corals are more sensitive to temperature stress when exposed to acidified ocean waters. This suggests that existing scientific projections of how coral reefs will respond to global warming have been highly conservative.”

The new projections are something a little less conservative: scientists are now trying to figure out how to gauge the clock that counts down to the next mass extinction.

Mass Extinction?

Indeed, coral reefs bare out a disturbing truth about the state of the ocean and its resemblance to conditions present in most (if not all) of the past mass extinctions. Paleobiologists have pinpointed five mass extinctions – defined as the loss of at least 75% of species over 2 million years – over the last 540 million years. The common thread that runs through most of them is what’s called “the deadly trio,” or three conditions that were present when mass extinctions occurred: global warming, ocean acidification, and ocean anoxia (the absence of oxygenated water).

These conditions are also present today, but moving at a rate unprecedented in Earth’s history. To illustrate: whereas carbon perturbation during the End Permian mass extinction (about 251 million years ago) and the Paleocene Eocene Thermal Mass extinction (about 55 million years ago) was on the scale of one to two gigatons (Gt) per year, “both these estimates are dwarfed by today’s emissions of roughly 30 Gt of CO2 per year.” As the sink drain for atmospheric carbon dioxide, the ocean is absorbing gargantuan amounts of human pollution – about one third of it over the last two decades

Even our most primitive data suggest that a global mass extinction is not far. Anthony D. Barnosky, a UC Berkeley professor of integrative biology, suggests that “if currently threatened species – those officially classed as critically endangered, endangered and vulnerable – actually went extinct, and that rate of extinction continued, the sixth mass extinction could arrive within as little as 3 to 22 centuries.”

Recourse

Three to twenty-two centuries is not a very long time to head off a mass extinction, in the scheme of things. But that doesn’t mean that humanity should not try. One of the most important conclusions of the workshop last April was “to strengthen the case for greater action to reduce anthropogenic emissions of carbon dioxide” (Rogers & Laffoley 2011, 4). Other recommendations call to reduce fishing to the point of sustainability; establish a world-wide system of conserving ocean biodiversity; reduce and prevent inputs of other pollutants and nutrients into the ocean; and create a United Nations body to govern international waters, where no one is responsible for the conservation of biodiversity. Still, it is far from clear that any of these solutions will be worthwhile as long as civilization is still pumping so much CO2 into the atmosphere. In other words, the ocean is seriously changing – and humans are going to have to seriously adapt.

Photo credit: Matthew Dell

Photo credit: rst.gsfc.nasa.gov/Sect16/_45552631_ocean_acidification02_466in.gif

Ramifications of Climate Change Inaction: A 10-Year Window

climate-change-lakeAt some point, the consequences of an action become unavoidable and irreversible (cigarette smoking is analogous in this respect). A July report released by the ClimateWorks Foundation details an alarming future if carbon dioxide emissions are not quelled to acceptable levels. There is no time to squander – implementing and enforcing policies within the next decade is mandatory, to avoid a significantly more treacherous battle down the line. Without immediate and large-scale action, the atmosphere will reach a point of no return.

Stacking CO2 Concentrations

Carbon dioxide does not dissipate quickly and conveniently after being emitted. CO2 can remain in the atmosphere for centuries, or even longer; in order to reverse the trend effectively, a massive reduction is required so that a natural balance can be achieved once more. Emissions far exceed the actual capacity of natural carbon absorbers, and thus the imbalance grows more lopsided by the minute (and consequently more difficult to backtrack).

If all CO2 emissions ceased tomorrow, the adverse effects would still impact the earth thousands of years later. The plausibility and logistical considerations of such a dramatic reduction is worrisome, but a window of approximately 10 years remains. Policymakers and organizations must assess the situation objectively and with genuine regard for long-term safety.

The takeaway: stabilization can only be achieved with very low emissions. “Very low” is not a relative term, either, and is not marked in incremental victories. It necessitates a massive reduction in CO2 emissions to levels not seen in many decades.

Vanishing Carbon Sinks

The ClimateWorks report emphasizes the role of natural carbon sinks in absorption. However, these mechanisms – mainly oceans and plants – are either disappearing or are overloaded. Plants are destroyed from deforestation and habitat degradations; oceans are reaching their limits of CO2 (marine life are also threatened due to more acidity in the water).

Columbia University researchers found that oceans absorb more than 8 billion metric tons of human-produced carbon dioxide each year. Two convergent, and disadvantageous, factors come into play: as the water temperature rises (another consequence of higher greenhouse gas emissions), the oceans possess a more limited capacity to sequester carbon dioxide; additionally, as the water becomes more acidic, it reduces the amount of CO2 able to be absorbed.

Future Ecosystems and Species

Higher temperatures and a generally warmer climate can permanently change how ecosystems are constructed, and intrude on the delicate balance within them. Once these consequences occur, there is no opportunity for reversal.

A lag, called “thermal inertia,” dictates that immediate and precipitous alterations are not the key concern: long-term impacts that will manifest themselves centuries afterward can wreak havoc on species and ecosystems. A longer delay equals a more dangerous future. An estimated 35 percent of known species will become extinct due to ecosystem alteration.

Atmospheric Balance of Methane

As warming continues, areas of the world once layered in permafrost are experiencing dramatic melting events. Not only is this detrimental to sea levels and weather patterns, but significant concentrations of methane are found beneath slush and ice, at the floor of the Arctic Ocean.

If enough methane escapes into the atmosphere – and even a fractional amount qualifies – the effects may be catastrophic. In history, there have been two instances of methane release. One disrupted the climate for the following 100,000 years and killed many species. The other nearly eliminated all life on the planet.

The current situation is not as dire, but the potential deleterious impact of high methane concentrations warrants serious consideration.

Economic Considerations

Confronting the problem immediately yields tremendous savings. Research conducted by the Stern Review in the United Kingdom revealed that implementing policies now to reduce CO2 emissions and alleviate long-term impacts would only cost 1 percent of GDP (gross domestic product). Inaction consequently will require 20 percent of GDP (some studies predict a higher percentage) to adapt and make mandatory changes.

In order to achieve quick results, per the first option, efficient infrastructure should be prioritized. Houses, factories, and entire cities can realistically build structures that are less demanding and significantly more energy efficient.

Immediacy and Urgency

Squandering this small window of time would be inexcusable. High concentrations of atmospheric carbon dioxide will cause irreparable damage to the earth, and a substantial reduction is necessary to sidestep such an unenviable future. Many nations and corporations have the technological means to become less reliant on fossil fuels and increase efficiency, and many policymakers and political officials are cognizant of the significance. All entities involved need to collaborate to secure a sustainable future, and it needs to be done as soon as possible.

Photo credit: dfg.ca.gov/climatechange/

Government Working Group Underestimated Costs of Climate Change

The US federal government has dramatically underestimated the costs of failing to act against climate change, according to a newly released peer-reviewed economic report.  The report authors, Elizabeth A. Stanton from the Stockholm Environmental Institute and Frank Ackerman at Tufts, say failure to account for the full costs of climate change has meant the US government isn’t giving the issue the urgent attention it deserves. 

“It is unequivocally less expensive to reduce greenhouse gas emissions than to suffer climate change damages,” say Stanton and Ackerman in the executive summary to their report, which is titled “Climate Risks and Carbon Prices: Revising the Social Cost of Carbon.”  The “social cost of carbon” refers to the damage to the economy which results from a ton of carbon being released into the atmosphere.

Carbon’s social costs may include health bills paid by people struck with climate-related illnesses, damages paid by insurance companies whose clients are affected by increasingly severe weather events, and ecosystem services lost to global warming.  Many of these costs are difficult to measure precisely, but Stanton and Ackerman say the US government is using calculations based on faulty assumptions.

A working group of the US federal government has put the social cost of carbon at only $21 per ton.  “This is not a large number,” say Stanton and Ackerman.  “It seems to suggest that we don’t need to do much about climate change.” 

In looking at the government’s report, the economists concluded it was wildly over-optimistic about what the effects of continued climate change will be.  For one thing the government assumed climate change will be a relatively slow process, using a best-case scenario for their calculations while ignoring warnings from scientists that the effects of global warming could materialize much more quickly. 

Similarly, the government analysis used low-ball estimates of the economic costs of near-term climate change and assumed the full costs would take a very long time to materialize.  It also assigned relatively small importance to the effects of global warming on future generations. 

When Stanton and Ackerman adjusted the variables and performed their own calculations of the social cost of carbon, they found it could be as high as $900 per ton or more.  “If the damages…are that high, then almost anything that reduces emissions is worth doing,” they conclude. 

All this isn’t to say the government’s optimistic estimate of the cost of carbon couldn’t be right.  Rather, the government working group is using data that assumes a best case scenario on several counts, implying that any response to climate change should likewise assume costs will be minimal.  It’s like planning your family’s economic future based on the assumption that times will always be good, and that there will never be emergencies.

Just as it’s impossible to predict when an expensive family emergency might strike, there is no way to tell for sure what the true economic effects of climate change will be—especially in the long term.  The reason is there simply are too many variables impacting the Earth’s climate to ever predict with absolute certainty how fast climate change will happen or exactly when the impacts will be felt.  The only way we’ll know for sure is if we wait and see.  By that time, of course, it will be too late to prevent the damage.

Stanton and Ackerman’s report shows the costs of climate change are likely to outweigh even the most expensive proposed mitigation strategies.  According to the executive summary, “Cost-benefit analysis under such conditions coincides with a precautionary approach that calls for taking immediate, large-scale action to phase out carbon emissions and protect the Earth’s climate.” 

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