Environmental Collapse

Posted by: eric on October 10, 2009 at 10:13 pm

Generation We inherits a world in which climate change and global pollution threaten an unprecedented environmental collapse—one that could even spell the end of human existence on this planet—because of unconstrained extraction and desecration of natural resources and reliance on carbon-spewing fossil fuels.

The so-called debate over global warming has long been settled—at least, to the satisfaction of the vast majority of scientists who have studied the issue. There are still a few stragglers who deny the reality of global warming, pooh-pooh its importance, or dispute the role of human behavior in causing it. Most of these self-proclaimed “climate skeptics,” however, are either on the payroll of OPEC countries or corporate interests whose primary goal is to fend off action that will reduce their profits, or doctrinaire conservatives who pander to big business and whose ideology prevents them from admitting that freemarket principles can ever produce less-than-ideal results.

Obstructionists and shills aside, the overwhelming consensus among scientists is that the world’s climate has been changing and is continuing to change at a rate that appears to be unprecedented in history. There is also agreement that the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is an important contributing factor in this change, and that human activity—in particular the burning of fossil

fuels such as oil, gas, and coal—has played a major role in the creation and build-up of these gases. Even most conservative Republicans (who long denied the reality of global warming or the fact that human beings are contributing to it) and business leaders (whose companies will be dramatically impacted by any effort to reverse the dangerous warming trend) have largely come to accept these realities.

The questions now are: What are the likely impacts from the climate change processes that are already underway? What can be done, if anything, to avert a possible environmental catastrophe?

Because the current climate change is of a kind that has not happened since the end of the last ice age, and because massive climatic change inevitably includes complex side effects that cannot be fully understood or precisely anticipated with our current technology, scientists can’t fully predict the nature and extent of the damage or what it means to humans. There are signs that even forecasts made in the last decade may already be outdated. For example, the observed acceleration in summer melting of the Arctic icecap is occurring at a markedly faster rate than climate scientists had predicted. It is conceivable, by some models, that the icecap over Greenland could melt almost entirely in the next 50 years, releasing an amount of water so large it would cause ocean levels to rise more than 20 feet and submerge many developed coastal regions worldwide. No natural disaster or act of God in human history comes close to the sheer suffering, loss, and displacement that would result from such a crisis.

The notion that trends accelerate as they mature is even more sobering. As the melting of glaciers, permafrost, and poles continues, it systemically assists in furthering planetary warming so that an accelerator effect takes place. Take permafrost in the Arctic regions as an example. Once the ground melts, the frozen carbon-based elements in the soil start to decompose, emitting massive amounts of carbon in the process and multiplying the effect of the warming. The scariest part is that nobody can model or measure how profound the effect will be.

Here are some of the latest findings from the 2007 report of the authoritative Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC):

> Eleven of the 12 warmest years on record have occurred since 1995.

Between 1950 and 2000, average temperatures in the Northern

Hemisphere appear to have been the highest in at least the last

1,300 years. The likelihood that these trends were caused mainly by human

activities is greater than 90 percent.

> If current trends continue, the impact on climate during the twenty-

first century will likely be greater than that experienced during

the twentieth century.

> Among the effects to be expected are rising sea levels, more severe

and frequent storms and droughts, global deforestation, and dramatically

shifting patterns of rainfall.

> Human populations will suffer deaths—perhaps in the millions—

due to increases in malnutrition, heat waves, drought, infectious diseases,

and air pollution.

As for what can be done, we shift here from the area of science into that of public policy, involving government, industry, consumer behavior, and almost every other element of human society. In a later chapter, we’ll look at possible solutions to the climate change problem, focusing particularly on the leadership role Generation We will be called upon to play. But for now, let’s consider how our actions are contributing to the slow-motion ecological disaster we now see unfolding on our planet.

One Response to “Environmental Collapse”

  1. Angella Manwaring Says:

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