So far this season, there have been four times as many tornadoes in the U.S. midwest than normal. These storms have killed nearly 75 people, and caused vast amounts of damage. Meanwhile, Europe is suffering from weather so strange and violent that nobody can remember anything like it. For example, a tornado struck Hamburg, causing extensive damage and killing two. The Hawaiian island chain had experienced the most violent and rain-soaked spring in memory, and fires have burned an almost inconceivable million acres of the Texas Panhandle…followed by floods that dropped nine inches of rain on the stricken region.
And that?s just a small part of the picture. The planet is warming so much faster than expected that global warming models are essentially worthless. There has been massive coral dieback in the Caribbean, and the South Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico at this time are warmer than they have ever been in the early spring.
That?s on the one hand. On the other, America is beginning to realize that global warming is a problem. There are at present 80 environmentally related bills in congress. Not many of them are of any real value, but at this time last year there were around 10, so at least politicians outside of the White House are beginning to think about the problem.
The American people are ahead of them. A recent ABC News, Time Magazine and Stanford University poll revealed that 70% of Americans believe that the government should do more to address global warming, and 85% believe that it is really taking place.
But what should it do? What can it do? What can WE do? First, it must be understood that the situation has already run away from us, and there aren?t going to be any short–term bandages. The last time there was this much carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere was 55 million years ago. It appeared because of extensive volcanism, and was followed, as is happening now, by a methane spike. It took a hundred thousand years for the problem to correct itself, and about 40% of all species died.
That event is as stark a warning as one could imagine. However, the reality is even more stark. The amount of CO2 in the atmosphere is already as high as it was then, and it has entered the atmosphere much faster?in just under a hundred years, as opposed to the thousands that it took then. We are experiencing massive methane outgassing from melting arctic tundra, and methane hydrides trapped in crystalline form by cold ocean water will begin melting when ocean temperatures rise enough.
The whole system of ocean currents, not just the Gulf Stream, is breaking down now, and likely will be completely deformed in just a few years. The superstorm danger is with us now, and will be with us until the arctic warms up enough to stop air flow altogether.
There are now too many factors at play that have the potential to cause a great tragedy to seriously consider that one won?t happen. It will happen. The questions are these: will it mean human extinction, a massive human dieback, or something more palatable?
As things stand right now, a dieback with associated economic collapse is a possible scenario, and the question of whether or not that will happen depends largely on the way the planet manages its trapped methane. If the oceanic methane releases, global warming will be massively accelerated even from where it is now, and social and economic collapse will result in the death of billions. Should this be accompanied by extensive volcanism, as it may be, then the extinction of the human species is possible.
The reason that volcanism may be added to the poisonous mix is that rising sea levels put pressure on continental shelves, which in turn increases volcanic activity. Should extensive volcanism add even more CO2 to a huge methane load, so much heat will be trapped close to the surface of the planet that it will be essentially sterilized of any but the most heat-efficient creatures, which means small, not large. Insects and small mammals that are adapted to heat will survive. We will not.
So, why am I even sitting here writing? Why bother? Largely because I don?t think it?s going to happen that way. It?s a possibility, but I do not think that it?s the greater possibility. Let me tell you why.
The last ice age persisted for around a hundred thousand years. At the beginning of this time, man lived in the tropical forest, a brilliant ape, still somewhat arboreal. As more and more water became trapped in ice, though, the atmosphere became drier and drier. By the end of that time, we were fully upright grassland dwellers, and social structure had emerged along with advanced tool making skills. In other words, environmental pressure had compelled us to make technological advances.
Then, 15,000 years ago, the ice age abruptly ended. A planetary catastrophe resulted as massive ice melts took place. Glaciers worldwide slid into the seas, no doubt giving rise to the flood myths that almost every world culture continues to this day. But when the dust had settled, we had responded again, not by dying in the catastrophe, but by figuring out how to live in spite of it.
I think that we are highly likely to do this again. The adverse climate of an unstable planet created us by challenging our existence. This is happening again, right now. Our economic activity and population overgrowth have intensified natural factors to create the explosive situation we are in right now.
Unfortunately, the American population has wasted significant time flirting with religious leaders and politicians who would place ideology ahead of reality, and has acted much less decisively than is wise. But the battle is not over yet. We are going to endure at least two or three decades of climate upheaval. There will be a lot of disruption, a lot of death, and in a moment, I will discuss just who will be hit hardest. But there will also be a lot of innovation. An extraordinary drama of science and spirit will unfold, as people shift from listening to the pathologically greedy, and listen to the hard questions that their own children will be asking them as one terrible catastrophe follows another.
Ironically, the United States will be among the first countries in the developed world to really take a body blow from this. There are three areas of concern: the first is well known?hurricanes. As long as southern waters continue to warm, they will get more ferocious. Frankly, the whole Atlantic coast of the Americas from Belize to Newfoundland is at risk. The greatest danger in the United States involves places like the Houston-Beaumont area, New Orleans and central Long Island, which is at extreme risk from a storm surge that, given a direct hit from a Category 4 or 5 hurricane, could completely inundate the island in what is now a heavily built up area. When this last happened in 1936, the area was mostly rural.
Until arctic air warms the American heartland is going to see very powerful storms. Supercells are becoming common, and it is likely that new types of storm will emerge, as was predicted in Superstorm. Whether or not that happens, the central United States will experience extensive and powerful storming for decades to come, to the point that the continuous and ever-growing danger will change the whole culture of the region in ways that cannot now be predicted.
Across the central and southwestern United States, there is also exceptional potential for midsummer ?hot spots? where temperatures will rise higher than are livable for human beings. This is a variable number. Babies and the elderly are at immediate risk when sustained daylight temperatures are around 110 F. With every degree of increase, more population groups become at risk, until, at around 130 F sustained temperature, conditions are not livable even for people who are adequately hydrated and not active.
The highest temperature ever recorded on earth was 136 F, in Libya in 1922. The highest temperature recorded in the U.S. was 134 F at Death Valley in 1913. Temperatures routinely rise into the 120 F region across the Indian subcontinent and throughout North Africa in summers, and people adapt.
Europeans and Americans are much more vulnerable to high temperatures, because their bodies are not adapted. The effects of the Chicago Heat Wave of 1995 illustrate the problem. Temperatures remained in the high 90s to low 100s for a week in July of that year, with the result that there were nearly 800 deaths above the norm. And these temperatures were much less than is possible in that same region now. At present, temperatures of 108 F to 110 F could be sustained anywhere in the midwest or southern US for a period of days, and in the desert southwest, they could go into the 120s.
European weather will be similarly violent, with massive flooding the norm during the period when warm air from the south continues to collide in spring and fall with cold arctic air. During the summer in Europe, very hot air from the middle east is likely to reappear with frequency. In the summer of 2003, temperatures rose to 113 F in Spain, and exceeded 100 F across much of the continent. Thousands died as a result, and it has subsequently be found that heat stress caused European plants to begin releasing carbon dioxide rather than absorbing it.
India and Pakistan are similarly threatened, with the difference that water supplies there are limited, and an extended heat wave anywhere in the subcontinent could result in very substantial death.
So, what to do? One thing, and this is true of everyone reading this worldwide, is to communicate your concerns to political leaders, and actively support politicians who are aware of the problem and willing to address it in a useful manner. It is certainly a political emergency and should be viewed as such.
It is also a scientific emergency, because things are moving so fast that we no longer have the knowledge to predict consequences. That must change, and quickly, or the danger that this thing will outrun us is a serious one. The United States, which is the world?s largest emitter of greenhouse gasses, needs effective political leadership, which it does not presently have, in order to address the problem in a useful manner. Countries like China and India must make efforts to curtail their pollution, and also to report it accurately. However, because they are less organized and their governments less capable of enforcing cleanup efforts, they are not as important as the U.S. and Europe in the battle.
It is incumbent on the better organized countries to evolve institutional protocols that really do curtail greenhouse gas emissions, and good science is essential to this effort. It?s no use planting trees, as called for under the Kyoto Protocol, if they are going to overheat and start outgassing CO2 along with the factories around them.
We not only need to understand better how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, we need to understand how to create systems that absorb these gasses. This may seem impossible at the moment, but it is essential to our survival.
But what can YOU do? Personally. Well, actually, a lot. I urge you to go to our Quickwatch Page, scroll down and read the list of small changes you can make in your personal life that will enable you to reduce your own CO2 emissions by tons per year.
If American presidents had been advocating such reductions for the past fifteen years, there would not be a crisis now. If Europeans had focused on small scale, personal action instead of complex, large-scale programs that are really disguised social engineering projects, their emissions would have dropped, instead of missing targets, as they are doing now.
Ultimately, our future is going to rest in the hands of we the people. We individuals. Good science and appropriately motivated political leaders are important, but it is individual action that is most essential.
The question is one of motivation. But believe me, when our little kids come into our laps of an evening and ask, ?what?s going to happen to me?? we will be able to answer with assurance and pride, ?you life is going to happen, and you?ll have kids, too, and all the joy and wonder that?s embodied in mankind is going to continue to unfold.? The children ride on the backs of the parents. Remember that, always, when you hear the greedy scream their lying mantra that the jury?s not in, that nobody knows if global warming is real, and in any case that since it has happened before, there is nothing to be done.
What they are really asking us to do, the big companies and the politicians who sing this dirge, is to sign a death warrant. But we must not sign, no matter how comforting are the lies that they tell, because on that warrant are the names of human beings?people we know so very well, the dearest to us of all: our own children.
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