It's our blue planet, and we can save it

It's our blue planet, and we can save it

April 6th, 2014 in Opinion Times

Climate change is not a conspiracy - at least not a political one.

It is a confluence of stupidity. Our own. And it is the result of our own inability to take personal responsibility even for the simple act of turning on or off a light, or for demanding that our governments insist on smart industry - not just productive, but power-heavy, manufacturing.

By not paying attention we are making our world consistently more difficult to live in. We're being penny-wise and pound-foolish. And ridiculously selfish.

A new report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns that the effects of human emissions of heat-trapping gases are already being felt, that the ultimate consequences could be urgent, and that the window to do something about it is closing.

"The evidence is overwhelming: Levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are rising," says the report. "Temperatures are going up. Springs are arriving earlier. Ice sheets are melting. Sea level is rising. The patterns of rainfall and drought are changing. Heat waves are getting worse, as is extreme precipitation. The oceans are acidifying."

Yes, the daffodils are lovely this year, and they're right on time. So how can this be so dire?

Because these changes are, at the moment, too spread out for most of us to be shocked.

And they have been gradual - but not gradual enough. Not unless we care to write off life as we now live it. Not unless we don't care whether our children and our grandchildren have the same normal safe and well-fed lives that we have come to know.

"Throughout the 21st century, climate-change impacts are projected to slow down economic growth, make poverty reduction more difficult, further erode food security, and prolong existing and create new poverty traps, the latter particularly in urban areas and emerging hot-spots of hunger," the report declares.

There also is high possibility of violent conflict over land, water or other resources, to which climate change might contribute indirectly "by exacerbating well-established drivers of these conflicts such as poverty and economic shocks."

The report paints a disconcerting picture of the consequences of a warming planet.

Already, parts of the Mediterranean region are drying out and experts believe droughts there have contributed to political destabilization in the Middle East and North Africa.

In much of the American West, mountain snow pack is declining, threatening water supplies for the region. In Alaska, the collapse of sea ice is allowing huge waves to strike the coast, causing erosion so rapid that it is already forcing entire communities to relocate.

Globally, sea levels have risen eight to 10 inches since 1880, and several studies show that trend accelerating. If carbon emissions continue unchecked, a recent survey of experts concluded, sea levels may rise about three feet by 2100.

Remember Newton's laws of motion from elementary science: Every action has an equal and opposite reaction. And remember, what great naturalist and conservationist John Muir said: "When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe."

We (millions of us) flip our light switches, and that makes power plants around the planet crank into higher gear. They belch coal or gas pollution. Nuclear plants billow no carbon plumes, but they heat up and hum alongside the cooling waters of the rivers and oceans - even while sea levels rise and ever-more-fierce storms threaten torrential rains and potential flooding. The world already has seen nuclear plants swamped into danger, including two in the United States. The Fort Calhoun plant in Nebraska became an island in the Missouri River in June 2011 thanks to a combination of heavy spring rains and Rocky Mountain snow melt. In October 2012, flooding from Hurricane Sandy threatened two New Jersey nuclear plants, Salem and Oyster Creek.

Another way to think about the "everything is connected" or the "actions and reactions" adages is cake baking. When you mix together flour, eggs, sugar, salt, soda and milk you get a cake if you bake it at 350 degrees for a half hour or so. But if you put in too much salt, your cake is inedible. If your oven thermostat sticks, you can have charcoal, not cake.

These are things we can control. We can measure more carefully. We can replace the stove thermostat.

Climate change, too, is something we can control. The risk doesn't come just from changing climate, but also from our own lack of preparedness, our tendency to leave people and assets in harm's way, and of course our natural inclination toward denial that we might need to do anything differently.

It's all about behavior. We already are controlling climate change - just not the way we need to.