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Global Warming... Time To Wake Up!

Author and HUPC board member Art Roscoe was invited to attend the International Conference on Global Warming organized by Clean Earth/ Cool Planet and the Greenhouse Network. July's Boston conference included folks from North America, Asia and the Middle East. Versions of this article appeared in the Ogden Standard Examiner (9/15/02), were presented to Unitarians and Rotarians, and will soon be published in Catalyst Magazine.

The time for debate about the reality of global warming is over. It is here, it is real and, for the most part, it is caused by the activities of man. There isn't a serious scientist anywhere on the planet who disputes the evidence:

  • 17 of the 18 hottest years on record have occurred since 1980. 1991 to 1995 constitutes the hottest five-year period on record. 1998 replaced 1997 as the hottest year in human history, with 2001 replacing it as the second hottest. The first six months of 2002 were the hottest such six months on record. The planet is heating faster than at any time in the last 10,000 years.
  • The average temperature in Alaska increased by 7 Fahrenheit in the last 20 years. Until two years ago, there had never in human history been open water at the North Pole. Now, the Northwest Passage around northern Canada is navigable by cruise ships. Glaciers in Alaska and Greenland are receding at alarming rates; icebergs the size of Rhode Island are calving off the Antarctic ice shelves.
  • Dramatic changes in the habitat of thousands of plant and animal species are occurring worldwide. Extremely troubling are the many new diseases, mostly tropical, showing up in the U.S. borne by various insect vectors. Malaria has been found as far north as Boston (2001) and West Nile and Hantavirus are spreading rapidly across the country with several hundred deaths attributed to these two viruses.
  • Larger and more violent storms and longer more severe droughts are happening in both hemispheres. Parts of Texas recently experienced a 500-year flood (33 inches of rain near San Antonio in two weeks.) This was immediately preceded by a parching three-year drought. In June, Houston suffered the single most expensive storm in modern history when it received 35 inches of rain in one week, leaving $6 billion in damages. Last year in Iran, a devastating drought left more than $2.5 billion in agricultural losses. The drought was temporarily interrupted in August by the worst flash flooding in 200 years which killed 500 people.

Unfortunately, although scientists have now almost universally accepted global warming as fact, some politicians have not. This reflects the political realities of outrageously large campaign contributions by big oil and coal which have bought them virtual freedom from serious regulation. Our current President stated recently that he still doubts that the science exists to prove both global warming and its human causation. In fact, though some aspects of the science of global warming are dizzyingly complex, the facts underlying the science are quite simple. Carbon dioxide traps in heat like a blanket around the globe. For 10,000 years the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere remained unchanged at 280 parts per million (PPM). At roughly the turn of the last century, when we began burning significantly more coal and oil, that number began to rise. It is now over 360 PPM, a level not experienced in the last half-million years. It will double later in this century and, given the very precise correlation between atmospheric CO2 content and global average temperature, that correlates to an increase in temperature of as much as 12 Fahrenheit in the next 100 years. Keep in mind that these effects have resulted from an average temperature increase of only 1 F.

The economic consequences of the intensifying weather extremes brought on by the warming are truly staggering and are visible in the rising disaster relief costs to governments and the escalating losses of the world's property insurers. During the 1980s, insurance losses to extreme weather events in the U.S. averaged $2 billion a year. In the 1990s they averaged $12 billion a year. The $89 billion in losses to extreme events in 1998 alone exceeds the total losses for the entire decade of the 1980s. And the following year, 1999, saw the greatest number of natural catastrophes in the industry record. 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.

But the stakes involve far more than the survival of the insurance industry. A year and a half ago, the biggest insurer in Britain said the economic impacts of climate change, if continued unchecked, could well bankrupt the entire global economy in another 65 years.

Considering the physical, economic, social and political consequences of global warming, we may well be facing a near term situation which threatens the very existence of many of the planet's human inhabitants. A top scientist in the field said recently that had this newly unstable climate begun 150 years ago, the planet would never have been able to support its current population of 6 billion people.

This, then, is the central drama underlying the issue the ability of the planet to sustain civilization versus the survival of the largest commercial enterprise in human history. The oil and coal industries together generate nearly 2 trillion dollars a year in revenues. They support the economies of more than a dozen countries in the Middle East, Latin America, Africa and South Asia. In the battle against their eventual transformation or demise, oil and coal resources are virtually without limit.

Over the last 10 years, the fossil fuel lobby has mounted an extremely effective campaign of disinformation to persuade the public and policymakers that the issue of atmospheric warming is still stuck in scientific uncertainty limbo. Initially, the campaign targeted the science and succeeded in marginalizing the findings of more than 2,000 scientists from 100 countries reporting to the U.N. sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC.) This was the largest and most rigorously peer reviewed scientific collaboration in history. The fossil fuel lobby then proceeded to misrepresent the economics. And most recently, with its new champion in the White House, it has attempted to demolish the diplomatic foundations of the climate convention. Tragically, it has been extraordinarily successful in maintaining a relentless drumbeat of doubt in the public mind.

In the early 1990s, with the science still uncertain, this deception could be excused as the predictable business as usual response. But, with the science becoming so robust and the impacts so increasingly visible, it seems fair to view this as a corporate crime against humanity.

Here is the truth about the uncertainty. Carbon dioxide stays in the atmosphere 100 years. If we could magically stop all our coal and oil burning, we would still be subject to a long and costly spell of severely disruptive weather. Moreover, new research indicates that prehistoric climate changes have happened as abrupt shifts rather than gradual transitions and that small changes have triggered catastrophic outcomes. Not only are we gambling with our collective futures, we are doing it blindfolded. We can't even read the cards we ve been dealt.

Lest you think the news is all bad, let's shift gears and discuss some of the good things that are happening. Outside the boundaries of the U.S., there is virtually no debate in any country in the world about what is going on with the climate. One proof of this assertion is that when 160 governments came together in Kyoto in 1997, not one questioned the validity of the science supporting global warming.

Another is that as the U.S. continues to obstruct the climate talks, a number of European countries are going it alone. Holland just finished a plan to cut its emissions 80 percent in the next 40 years. Britain is preparing for 60 percent cuts in the next 50 years. Germany has committed to cutting emissions 25 percent below 1990 levels by 2005. And in November, 165 nations approved the Kyoto protocol.

There are other hopeful signs as well. The united front of the carbon lobby has begun to crumble. Despite the relentless campaign of disinformation, we are now seeing a parade of companies breaking ranks with the industry. Two years ago the main industry lobbying group, the Global Climate Coalition, collapsed after Ford, Daimler-Chrysler, Texaco, the Southern Company and General Motors followed British Petroleum and Shell in abandoning the group.

At the corporate level there has also been some real progress. Recently, Ford Motor Co. joined Daimler-Chrysler in a $1 billion venture to produce fuel cell powered autos. BP is now the world's biggest producer of solar systems. Shell has created a $1 billion core company in renewable technologies. Texaco is making substantial investments in fuel cells, and Ford's chairman, William Clay Ford, recently declared that the 100-year reign of the internal combustion engine is over.

These are certainly laudable efforts, but they fall far short of the IPCC finding that a 70 percent cut in global CO2 emission rate is necessary for climate stabilization. The very act of addressing the true proportions of the climate crisis should bring home to everyone around the world the realization that we are living on a planet with limits and that we are now bumping up against these limits. What is needed is the kind of thinking that brought U.S. the Marshall Plan after World War II . We should envision a worldwide crash program to rewire the planet with clean, renewable energy.

Most of the world is ready to hear this message and respond. They simply need some strong, resolute, intelligent leadership to show the way. The U.S., as the worst offender (CO2 emissions of the U.S. represent approximately 27% of the global total), is the logical candidate for this leadership role, but we are currently on a very different political track. With our agenda being set by the biggest energy companies, we find ourselves dramatically out of step with the rest of the world. As 9/11 has shown, however, global political realities can cause 180 degree shifts in national policy with light speed.

The message is simple and urgent. Demonstrate your level of concern about global warming by voting for change with every means at your disposal:

  1. Vote for reduced CO2 emissions by riding your bike or mass transit and vowing that your next vehicle will be a hybrid;
  2. Vote for clean energy by supporting your power company's efforts to convert to wind and geothermal generation and agreeing to pay the slightly higher surcharge;
  3. Vote for carbon sequestration by supporting conservationists efforts to protect the world's rain forests; and
  4. Vote for political change by supporting only those candidates who are clearly not on the payroll of big energy.

I was raised in the forest on the Seneca Reservation and was told an Iroquois story that seems worth retelling at this critical juncture in the history of our planet.

    Once there was a great fire in the forest and all the creatures were fleeing for their lives. As Owl was flying to safety, he spied his brother Small Bird below him flying feverishly back and forth from a stream to the forest. Curious, he dropped down and asked the small bird if he was not aware of the danger. "Of course," replied the bird, "but I want to save my home so I am carrying water to the fire, a drop at a time. It is all I can do."
    Touched, Owl joined in, although he saw this to be a fool s task.
    Soon, other creatures of the forest saw what Small Bird and Owl were doing and they joined in as well.
    And then the human creatures, trying to leave with their possessions, saw this strange, chaotic parade and they dropped their possessions and began to help.
    And that is how the world was saved each doing exactly what he could.

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