Monday, June 14, 2004

Climate Watch: Experts Alarmed at Lack of US Response,

Reuters reporter Maggie Fox covers the protest by climatologist experts speaking out against a lack of US response to imminent climate change.

By Maggie Fox, Health and Science Correspondent
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Climate change experts said on Tuesday they are frustrated the U.S. government and the public are not taking the risk of global warming seriously.

They said even as sea levels rise and crop yields fall, officials argue over whether climate change is real and Americans continue to drive fuel-guzzling SUVs.

"There is going to be large change," said atmospheric scientist David Battisti of the University of Washington in Seattle. "The risks are very large."

The group met at the American Association for the Advancement of Science to try to drive home the message that climate change is already under way.

"You hope that somehow people will understand that we have got to do something now," Joyce Penner, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Michigan, said in an interview. "Some people get it -- some people are driving hybrids. But there is a problem with the American public."

It should be noted that I do not support Kyoto. Among other things Kyoto exempts developing nations. It's clear that if China and India are allowed to develop using conventional internal combustion engines that the cutbacks by the developed nations will be more than offset by increased energy consumption in the developing world in the next ten years. This is the formal reason why the Senate rejected (rightly) Kyoto ratification. The problem however is that having rejected Kyoto the burden is now upon the United States to craft a better and more effective resolution.

It isn't about fairness. No one has the "right" to economic development if it will engender climate change. It's a matter of necessity. Yes it might be unfair that developing nations have to invest right away in hybrid and alternative energy led industrial development but fair has got nothing to do with it. With the imminent prospect of oil production scarcity against rising demand the only solution is increased energy consumption efficiency. This coupled with the global warming situation makes an ironclad case for necessity. On the other hand, the United States and the developed world has to lead the way with incentives and assistance or else the developed world will never agree to go along with this scheme.

There is disagreement amongst the experts but that disagreement is about how bad things will get and not if it will get bad or what we should do about it.

Oppenheimer said sea levels have risen 4 inches (9 cm) already over the past century and could rise between 4 and 40 inches (9 to 88 cm) more in the next century.
Both the Greenland and the West Antarctic ice sheets are "highly vulnerable" to global warming, Oppenheimer said. If completely melted, the Greenland ice sheet would add 25 feet to overall sea level and the West Antarctic Ice Sheet would raise it by 16 feet.

This would be enough to swamp most of Florida, Bangladesh and Manhattan, he said.

"The sea level rise over the past century appears greater than what the model says it should be," Oppenheimer said. "The ice sheets may be contributing more than the models predict."

The climate experts agreed there is debate about the models but say if anything, they underestimate the extent of the problem.

"The models ... are good enough to tell us we ought to be starting now to do what we can to reduce emissions," said Michael Oppenheimer, a professor of environmental science at Princeton University.

The time to act is now. The problem is that the electorate and therefore politicians are markedly short-sighted. This is a problem that could be addressed by changes made now that might have a minor cost but actually assure prosperity and stability in the long run. The other choice is to continue on as things were and preserve the status quo for a short time and then in one to two decades begin to reap increasingly volatile weather and socioeconomic military situations. This is because as petroleum becomes more expensive there will be less and less political will to engage in the necessary but costly economic investments to make the energy consumption infrastructure change. The nadir of historical oil costs has already been reached and it will only go up in the long run from here.

Anyone who doubts this must remember that as of today the State department is suggesting that the tens of thousands of Americans working in Saudi Arabia and their dependents should leave the country now. While the facade of normality is kept up, the situation there is in fact approaching critical otherwise such a huge evacuation would not be necessary. This is in fact a screaming danger signal.

If we act now we can still avert the worst. What is the "worst"?

"In this country it depends a lot on what happens in the next election," said geochemist Daniel Schrag of Harvard University. "I don't think we can expect to change the minds of this administration in the next couple of months."

Schrag said the current concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is 380 parts per million -- higher than it has been for at least the past 430,000 years.

"In the next 100 years, unless immediate action is taken, carbon dioxide levels will rise to between 800 and 1,000 parts per million. The last time carbon dioxide was that high was during the Eocene, 55 to 36 million years ago," Schrag added.

At that time he said "palm trees lived in Wyoming, crocodiles lived in the Arctic, Antarctica was a pine forest and sea level was at least 300 feet higher than today."

The prospect of within a century seeing crocodiles taking residence in the Artic and both coastlines of America - Maine, New York, Florida, Georgia, California, Washington State, Texas, etc. completely submerged within just four or five generations is the potential disaster that we have to think about here. America has existed for just over two centuries. Within one century more we could see entire states and regions of our coastlines plunged beneath the ocean. In less time forward than separates our memories from our frontier and "wild west" days the present image of America and the outline of our map could vanish. That's astonishingly fast.

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