Global Warming is Real

Scientific findings indicate that climate change is caused by the warming of the earth's atmosphere due to increased levels of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane. The scientific consensus is that human activity is responsible for this increase in greenhouse gas levels.

As a result the earth's weather patterns are changing. Droughts are occurring as hot areas get hotter, and higher temperatures increase the evaporation of moisture, which then has to fall somewhere else. Increased precipitation, along with faster melting snow pack from mountains and glaciers, causes cooler weather and flooding in other areas. As temperature differences between wet and dry areas increase so does wind strength and the destructive power of extreme weather events such as hurricanes and tornadoes.

Data indicates that drought is increasing in the southeast and western United States while heavy rainfalls in other areas have increased by 20%. While there are fewer hurricanes in the eastern Pacific Ocean, the ones that do occur are stronger and much more devastating. Similar patterns are occurring worldwide[1].

The ocean is also affected. Melting polar ice is causing sea levels to rise and ocean currents to change.

Sea Level Rise GraphicCredit: By US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration: National Climatic Data Center - State of the Climate in 2009: Supplemental and Summary Materials: Report at a Glance: Highlights[1], US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration: National Climat

Coastal areas around the world are threatened with flooding, and low lying nations are particularly at risk. In addition, the excess carbon absorbed in the world's oceans is causing ocean acidification which is devastating marine life, particularly coral.  Tragically, the Washington Post reported on March 19, 2017 that Australia's Great Barrier Reef, the largest living structure in the world, is dying[2].

 The impact of warming on the world's weather systems was predicted with eerie exactitude almost 20 years ago by scientists who extrapolated from historical data using a complex computer simulation of the world's climate systems[3].

Since that time the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has been monitoring and assessing climate data on an on-going basis and has published several comprehensive, peer reviewed reports[4] of their findings which demonstrate the impending realities and dangers of climate change.  By making these publications available the Panel hopes to "enable policymakers at all levels of government to take sound, evidence-based decisions"[5].

Responses to Climate Change

So how could policymakers respond to the threat of climate change?

Denial

The first option is to bury your head in the sand like the proverbial ostrich and assert that global warming is not happening.

Ostrich Striking a PoseCredit: By Peter Dowley from Dubai, United Arab Emirates (Ostrich striking a pose) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

A more harmful tactic is to promote regressive policies that encourage resource development that contributes to increases in atmospheric carbon through technologies such as fracking or offshore drilling.

Do Nothing

The second approach is to admit that climate change is happening but deliberately take no action.

 But why would policy makers take this approach?

Well, they could ascribe to the argument that global warming is not created by humans. This theory holds that atmospheric warming is part of natural climactic cycles which resulted in the onset and disappearance of the ice ages of the distant past.

However, recent state-of-the-art climate modeling indicates that we have not yet experienced the full impact of man made global warming because its effects have been countered by a natural cooling phase in the earth's weather cycles. A recently published paper warns that if a warming trend begins the impact of man made warming could be much worse[6].

Another justification for doing nothing is much nastier. This is the Malthusian solution. By deliberately allowing climate induced natural disasters to occur the resulting deaths might be seen as a means of getting rid of excess population.

Choose to Act

In order to choose appropriate action, policy makers can focus on effect, cause, or a combination of both.

A focus on effects will assess the potential impact of global warming and plan to protect people from the adverse effects of flooding, extreme weather and agricultural failure.

A young man in drought conditions in EthiopiaCredit: By USAID Africa Bureau (A young man in drought conditions in Ethiopia) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

 

Addressing the cause could be much more challenging. While there is broad consensus in the scientific community that global warming is man made, there is still opposition from sceptics who believe that humans are powerless against greater natural forces . However, if human activity is indeed a major contributor to global warming, it is also within our power to slow and perhaps eventually reverse it by reducing human carbon emissions.

How Has the World Responded?

So what actions have members of the international community been prompted to take based on the information provided by the IPCC?

The Paris Agreement

In October, 2016, the Paris Agreement was drawn up and has been ratified by 145 countries as of May 15, 2017. The Agreement envisages combating climate change by taking a two pronged approach. Signatories have agreed to reduce their carbon output and also to assist poorer countries to deal with the adverse impacts of climate change[7].

The Netherlands

The Netherlands contains vast areas of reclaimed land which lie below sea level. The Dutch have been protecting themselves against flooding for over a thousand years and have as a result become expert hydro engineers[8].

1932 saw the completion of a massive dike, the Afsluitsdijk, across the mouth of the Zuider Zee to protect the coast from flooding. This massive engineering project changed the former saltwater bay into a fresh water lake, now known as the Ijsselmeer[9], and created 895 square miles of new farmland.

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IJsselmeer, Netherlands

Following a horrendously destructive flood in 1953, the Dutch government began the Delta Works, a massive storm surge barrier built to protect three at-risk estuaries. The project was completed in 1997 at a cost of seven billion dollars. This marvel of engineering is considered to be one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World[10].

Flying over the Delta Works

While some countries are taking a "wait and see" attitude, the Dutch cannot afford to delay because the meter high rise in sea levels predicted by scientists would be a national disaster for this low lying country. Consequently, the Dutch are earmarking up to 1 billion Euros of the national budget each year until 2100 to protect themselves against the rising oceans[11]

In addition, the Netherlands has spearheaded the International Delta Coalition, an alliance of 12 nations that have significant urban populations living in delta areas. Member countries will respond to the threat of climate change by sharing expertise, being prepared and protecting their deltas from flooding[12]

The Maldives

The Maldives is group of low lying tropical islands in the Indian Ocean.

Adaaran Club Rannalhi in Rannalhi, MaldivesCredit: By Adaaran Club Rannalhi (OTRS photosubmission) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Not only is Maldive coral dying because of ocean acidification but the entire country is so low that it is in danger of being completely submerged by the rising ocean.

In 2008 the president proposed purchasing land in other countries so that the people will have somewhere to go if their home country is inundated by sea water. The current government, however, is looking at ways to enable the people to stay where they are. They are negotiating with Saudi Arabia, which is interested in leasing and developing a small group of Maldive islands. The proceeds of the lease will be used to shore up the islands defenses. Some islands are being reclaimed from the sea and new islands are being built on shallow reefs with sand dredged from the ocean. Both new and existing islands will be protected by three meter high sea walls.

Those critical of the new policy express concern that pumping up sand to create artificial islands could result in further dead coral. They are therefore urging the government to proceed cautiously and be sensitive to environmental concerns[13].

The United States

The U.S. federal government has not developed a national policy on climate change.

In spite of scientific consensus and virtually worldwide agreement on climate change, it remains a topic of political debate in the U.S. Many members of Congress continue to challenge the findings of climate science. President Trump, who once called global warming a Chinese hoax[14], has appointed as head of the Environmental Protection Agency Scott Pruitt, who has been criticized as a climate change denier[15].   

Donald Trump March 2015Credit: By Michael Vadon [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

But while the federal government does nothing, the impact of climate change is becoming more and more evident. Flooding from heavy rain has increased in wet, low lying areas like Louisiana, and tidal flooding has increased on the East and Gulf Coasts, particularly in areas like Miami Beach and Fort Lauderdale which are situated on low-lying reclaimed land. It is also predicted that changes in ocean currents will result in higher tides on the west coast. Some scientists predict a potential sea level rise of six or seven feet by the year 2100, a prospect which could result in the destruction of entire cities.

Although relatively shallow, tidal flooding can cause greater long term damage than fresh water flooding. The salt in ocean water can damage vegetation, kill trees and poison wells, while in the new saline environment salt water plants can become invasive weeds.

South Beach flood, kayak in streetCredit: By maxstrz on Flickr [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Miami Beach is investing in protective infrastructure such as sea walls and pumps. However, many communities do not have sufficient funds to follow the lead of Miami Beach and their pleas for state and federal assistance are falling on deaf ears. Congress has also opposed requests for funding to protect at-risk ocean side military bases16.

Choices for the Future

As things stand, famines and disasters will continue to increase. As extreme weather events increase so will both drought and flooding. As the oceans rise, homes and lives will be destroyed because floods will impact more and more coastal areas.

We know what is happening, and we know that taking action will be economically costly.  On the other hand, doing nothing could be even more costly both financially and in terms of human lives.

What will we do, and how will future generations judge us?

The choice is ours to make.

 

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