It's too late to avert global warming
By TOM WATKINS | January 21,2007
It's too late. Certainly it is time to start to fix the damage but it is too late to avert the coming climatic changes. India and China are just beginning their industrial revolution and are increasing their demand for power and transportation. And their populations are eight times that of the United States (over 2.4 billion people). Even if they were to cut their emissions to only 25 percent of what we produce now (very unlikely), that would still be more than twice the pollution the United States created. This doesn't even consider the billion and a half other people in Africa, Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh and many parts of Mexico, South and Central America (and growing by 80 million per year) that have yet to hit their peak of industrial pollution. 14 percent of the permanent sea ice melted in only two years (Geophysical Research Letters, vol. 33, L17501);
As the predominant contributor of the greenhouse gases and the richest economy in the world, you would think that our political leaders would want to lead the world by setting examples and investing in the technologies needed. That won't happen as long as our government is dominated by politicians who owe their allegiance to their largest campaign contributors.
We are now considering 7 percent to 9 percent emissions reductions over the next 10 years, but other occurring and developing events will drastically overwhelm that small effort. Here are a few events with tremendous momentum that won't stop without emission reductions of 80 percent or 95 percent:
16,200 square kilometers of ice shelves (Larsen, Wilkins and Larsen B) have broken off and are melting — more than any other time in recorded history;
The Alaskan and Siberian tundras are melting. This has begun a process of runaway feedback heating effect caused by the heat absorbed by the darker exposed ground (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 103, p. 14288);
When the tundra heats up just one more degree centigrade, it will release as much as 70,000 million of tons of methane from the thawing peat – the most powerful greenhouse gas. (Nature, vol. 443, p. 71).
The northern latitudes of Canada, Alaska and Siberia are experiencing insect infestations (bark beetles, moths, etc.) that are wiping out thousands of acres of trees and creating forest fires on a scale not seen in modern times.
Jet contrails, Pinatubo, El Chichon, Mount St. Helens and other contributors to high-level atmospheric light scattering have masked the actual warming of the troposphere for over 20 years. (LLNL Program for Climate Model Diagnosis, 1-1/2-8/2001)
Each year, deforestation contributes 23 to 30 percent of all carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and we are losing the rainforests at a rate of one and a half acres per second – 1 percent per year. Twenty percent of the world's oxygen is produced by the conversion of carbon dioxide. An increasing cycle of unsustainable regeneration has begun that will push the rain forests to the point of no return in 10 to 15 years. (James Alcock, Geology Society of London in Edinburgh, June 2001)
Most continuous or repeated global warming studies that date back more than a decade have resulted in corrections to the rate of warming, melting and other effects. Sea ice, glacier loss, sea-level rise, fresh water loss, insect populations, bird migrations and carbon loss rates have all been accelerated to a faster rate since their first studies.
These and many more effects of global warming have physical and causation momentum that cannot be stopped or even slowed in the short term (less than 10 years). Given the inevitable future actions of the billions of people in the developing world, the total lack of will on the part of our political leaders and the disregard for our future from powerful commercial interests, it's already too late.
Although we should strive to begin to move out of the discovery mode and into the correction phase, realistically, that will take decades. By then the effects will be upon us. If we do not begin to identify mitigating responses before they begin, we will suffer massively while we adjust to the changes after they create serious problems.
Tom Watkins, a decision supports analyst, lives in Montpelier.