The Climate Crisis

Crisis? I thought it was Climate Change—or Global Warming? Those have been the standard terms for some time. More recently, print and online publications have updated their usage. See why at The Guardian—noting who else has adopted the new terminology. 

 

Protester holding sign "there is no planet B"
https://pixabay.com/users/niklaspntk-2730176/

A crisis means the change is serious—and getting worse. We need to deal with it NOW. Why? Because of the accelerating change and the trend line. The Guardian also now prefers Global Heating. We’ll discuss whether the record temperatures this summer are merely anecdotal or consistent with climate change.

You may be among the overwhelming majority of people who already accept that there’s a problem. So why this piece now? We can hope it will aid you in politely persuading others. Or supporting initiatives and electing officials to deal with it. We will also offer a few more ways you can help—on your own.

Finally, this topic is a complex issue of science complicated by politics and economics. We cannot do an exhaustive, comprehensive analysis of it here. The most we can do is offer highlights with links to sites with more information. Nonetheless, it seems like a timely issue to consider—just don’t expect any definitive conclusion on the pros and cons of any specific course of action.

 

a shrinking ice sheet in Greenland

The featured image shows flowing meltwater from the Greenland ice sheet.

The Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets have decreased in mass. Data from NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment show Greenland lost an average of 286 billion tons of ice per year between 1993 and 2016, while Antarctica lost about 127 billion tons of ice per year during the same time period. The rate of Antarctica ice mass loss has tripled in the last decade.” Click for data source

The Nutshell

  • A recap of what’s happening
  • Climate vs weather—we’ll explain the difference
  • A brief history of Earth’s climate and when it started changing
  • The science (in simple terms)
  • Why it’s a crisis—not something that can be put off for another day, year, or decade
  • If humans caused it, humans can fix it
  • Throughout the article–efforts by various scientific, governmental and non-governmental groups or organizations to deal with the crisis
  • Links to additional resources at the end

What’s Happening

You get the news or experience the weather yourself. Record breaking heat. The hottest temperatures ever recorded worldwide in June and July 2019–August may turn out the same. More severe storms. Deadly tornadoes. Multiple 100- or 500-year floods within a few years. Severe droughts in other areas. India’s sixth largest city, Chennai, is running out of water. Disastrous hurricanes or typhoons. Sunny day flooding in coastal cities like Miami. More and worse wildfires—including the Amazon Rainforest, known as the world’s lungs—which converts carbon dioxide to 20% of the planet’s oxygen.

Our planet is getting hotter—everywhere, on land and sea. The arctic ice sheet is getting smaller. Sometime soon, its disappearance may offer global shipping from one continent to another. Good thing? For some. Not for polar bears, sea life, indigenous people and fishermen.

Glaciers are melting—raising the sea level. Slowly at first, faster as time wears on. In 2005, my wife and I drove along the Columbia Ice Fields Parkway in Alberta Canada. In 1900, the glacier’s edge would have been a short walk from the road. Now it’s over a mile away from the parkway built in the 1940s.

How much hotter is it? The planetary surface has risen an average of 1.62 degrees Fahrenheit (0.9 degrees Celsius) since the 1880s. That’s according to facts on climate change from NASA.  Well, that doesn’t sound like much, does it? Except that most of it has been in the last 35 years. That’s long enough to mean climate changenot a change in the weather.

The image below is from a news feature by NASA, “A Drier Future Sets the Stage for More Wildfires.”

The Camp Fire from space. The Camp Fire became the most destructive fire in California’s history, scorching approximately 240 square miles (622 square kilometers), destroying nearly 14,000 buildings, causing billions of dollars in damage and killing 88 people. Credit: NASA
The Camp Fire from space. The Camp Fire became the most destructive fire in California’s history, scorching approximately 240 square miles (622 square kilometers), destroying nearly 14,000 buildings, causing billions of dollars in damage and killing 88 people. Credit: NASA

Climate vs Weather

You live in Seattle. You expect rain—a lot of rain. Not like a tropical rain forest, but more than the eight inches Phoenix receives annually over thirty-six days. Speaking of tropical, most equatorial regions worldwide are on the hot side. Often wet too. Those are examples of climate.

Climate is a long-term description of typical weather. Both describe phenomena such as: Temperature, precipitation, wind, and humidity. Also, sunshine vs cloud cover, thunderstorms, floods, tornados, etc.

Typical seasonal (or sometimes daily) variations may be wide in places like Montana and the Dakotas in America, as well as adjacent Canadian provinces. Or they may be slight, as in Hawaii. Over 30 years or more, seasonal averages define an area’s climate.

From one year to the next, there may be unusually hotter or wetter weather. That’s NOT climate change–usually. When the trend is one direction–it may well be. 

Snowstorms don’t happen in Hawaii. Temperatures don’t hit 100 degrees Fahrenheit above the Arctic Circle. But they did hit 90 degrees in Anchorage (which isn’t Arctic) on July 4th in 2019. Temperatures in June were 5.3 degrees above average there. That may portend climate change, if it continues.

Climate change is something that occurs over many years—not one year’s odd weather. It’s consistent variation from the norm. That IS the change happening now—around the world, year after year in a discernible trend.

For millennia there were naturally occurring cyclic changes. The ones occurring now are different. First, the history. Then the how and why of the change—what responsibility we bear.

A Brief History of Earth’s Climate

As NASA will tell you,

The Earth’s climate has changed throughout history. Just in the last 650,000 years there have been seven cycles of glacial advance and retreat, with the abrupt end of the last ice age about 7,000 years ago marking the beginning of the modern climate era — and of human civilization. Most of these climate changes are attributed to very small variations in Earth’s orbit that change the amount of solar energy our planet receives.

 

Going back much further in time, millions of years, climate has changed much more radically. 

How do we know how this? There’s lots to examine and lots to learn from the Earth itself. Here’s an excerpt from an article in the Smithsonian. For more, read the entire article.

Anything that puts down yearly layers—ocean corals, cave stalagmiteslong-lived trees, tiny shelled sea creatures—faithfully records the conditions of the past. To go further, scientists dredge sediment cores and ice cores from the bottom of the ocean and the icy poles, which write their own memoirs in bursts of ash and dust and bubbles of long-trapped gas.

How hot has it been? Really hot—like thousands of degrees at the beginning and occasionally thereafter. A big spurt came 56 million years ago. Pushing Earth’s average to 73 degrees compared to today’s 60 degrees. During that time “the poles were free of ice caps, and palm trees and crocodiles lived above the Arctic Circle,” according to this article, which describes the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM) and much more.

While ice ages and dinosaurs are interesting, they contribute little to our understanding of today. What matters to humans is why the climate has been changing in the last 100 or so years. AND the fact that the change is so dramatic.

The How and the Why of Climate Change

Think of your car sitting outside on a warm sunny day. Sunlight passes through the window. Most of the light escapes through the glass, but not the infrared, heating the car. The same thing happens to the Earth. But it’s not windows reflecting the heat, it’s “greenhouse gases” like carbon dioxide (C02), methane, nitrous oxide and water vapor. 

Consider this from https://climate.nasa.gov/causes/

Life on Earth depends on energy coming from the Sun. About half the light reaching Earth’s atmosphere passes through the air and clouds to the surface, where it is absorbed and then radiated upward in the form of infrared heat. About 90 percent of this heat is then absorbed by greenhouse gases and radiated back toward the surface, which is warmed to a life-supporting average of 59 degrees Fahrenheit (15 degrees Celsius). 

So, greenhouse gases are a good thing, right? Yes, in the right proportion and not in excess. As noted in the history, Earth’s climate had its natural and cyclical changes. We now have too much carbon dioxide in the air.

Look at this chart from the NASA site we referenced earlier. Atmospheric carbon dioxide had gone up and down for 800,000 years. It varied in a range from just under 180,000 to 300,000 parts per million (ppm).

Graph of global CO2 from 800,000 years ago to 1950
This graph, based on the comparison of atmospheric samples contained in ice cores and more recent direct measurements, provides evidence that atmospheric CO2 has increased since the Industrial Revolution. (Credit: Luthi, D., et al.. 2008; Etheridge, D.M., et al. 2010; Vostok ice core data/J.R. Petit et al.; NOAA Mauna Loa CO2 record.) Find out more about ice cores (external site).

Then came the industrial revolution in the 1880s. Factories burning coal. Fossil fuels for heating homes, businesses and government buildings.

A few decades later, came oil refineries producing gasoline and diesel fuel for trucks and automobiles. What went out the tailpipe reached the atmosphere.

Then contrails from all those planes too. The backyard grilling. More powerplants needed to produce the electricity for AC, TVs, computers, and appliances galore in modern homes.

As a result, Atmospheric C02 has been rising steadily. This time, the increase in CO2 never stopped. It passed 300K ppm in 1950 (the base year in the graph above). It’s now above 400 ppm and rising annually at a rate of 2-3% more recently. See this NOAA site.

The result is a hotter climate. Anecdotal extremes in weather like what’s happening around the world this summer is not climate change, per se.

Consistent variation in one direction over decades is. That’s what we have now.

When such extremes become commonplace, they’re more than anecdotal. They are consistent with a trend–confirming the problem. The problem of a climate crisis.

97% of climate scientists are in consensus about the problem. Like these ones. They believe that 95% of carbon emissions and the problems of climate change come from what we humans are doing.They have the evidence. Others have anecdotal doubts and fallacies. We are including links to a variety of sites that offer that proof, but the best one—covering more stuff in more depth is NASA.

Another article notes three recent studies suggesting consensus that humans are causing the global warming is now past 99%. The story quotes support from another scientist that the studies refute climate change deniers claims that global warming is part of a natural cycle.

From Climate Change to Climate Crisis

Why a crisis? The volume of carbon emissions is too much. That’s why it’s getting hotter. Why the glaciers are melting. Why the storms are getting worse.

The increase in CO2 is accelerating. The resulting rate of temperature increase is still accelerating. So is glacier melting, ocean warming and sea level rise. There is a potential for irreversible damage. Synergistic negative effects—feedback loops may occur.

Methane hydrates are frozen in ocean depths. Ocean warming—changing currents or oil drilling could accidentally fracture the seabed. Releasing the methane into the atmosphere. More greenhouse gasses. A feedback loop.

Permafrost melting—more carbon and methane releases. Peat bog upheaval for heating or conversion to commercial use in some countries—more of the same.

Hotter ocean currents sending warmer air over glacier fields. Which return melt water to the ocean—raising sea levels further.  Islands submerge, people are displaced.

Sign visible, part of post below flood water
https://pixabay.com/users/hermann-130146/

Poorer coastal cities are destroyed, people moved inland. The dislocation causes economic, infrastructure, health and other problems.

More affluent cities flood, causing population and commercial mayhem.

More droughts kill crops. Hotter temps displacing poor populations and causing more heat-related deaths.

Polar bear atop a tiny block of ice in the Arctic
https://pixabay.com/users/pixundfertig-683277/

Wildlife and Earth’s natural environment are in peril. Fish, mammals, beneficial insects like bees—the last which are responsible for pollinating 75% of the crops. See more in this article.

How do we know these prospects? Reexamine the scientific methodology and consider the forecasting next.

We covered the methodology in brief in the history section above. [See the Smithsonian article]As noted, the article covers it in detail. It explains why we should trust the calculations and resulting forecasts.

Not convinced or your friends and family are skeptical? There’s more, much more, out there. See the list of resources at the end of this article. 

The Forecasts

This article from The Atlantic says with the rise of mammals during the Earth’s history, a great climate change happened. Analysis suggests that it could happen again—soon. OK, maybe not as bad as the piece says could happen. Here’s a snippet from the piece:

Sea-surface temperatures might have topped an unthinkable 86 degrees Fahrenheit, with near-tropical forests on Antarctica itself.

They go on to suggest that the CO2 may have been 1,000 ppm at the time—and that some estimates are that Earth could reach that number in 2100. That may be way overstated, but the article is worth reading.

But let’s look at some forecasts from otherswhich are all over the ballpark. This aids deniers and skeptics in claiming it’s a boy crying wolf or chicken little. But it really isn’t. There’s just more consensus on the past than the future.

Way back in 2011, one source said, “For the next two decades warming of about 0.2° Celsius is projected.” It’s still worth the educational value to view the page.

NOAA’s slightly more recent (2012) projections range from an increase of 1.1 to 5.4 degrees Celsius or between 2 and 9.7 F. The large variation is based on low, moderate or high growth in the values. In other words, great efforts to reduce carbon emissions or little to none. Click on the Climate Projections tab to view graph information or go here for an interactive graph of the projections.

A still more recent analysis of the models being considered for the 2021 report of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC) showed much higher number numbers, as described in this 2019 piece from the American Association for the Advancement of Science:

For nearly 40 years, the massive computer models used to simulate global climate have delivered a fairly consistent picture . . . But a host of global climate models developed for the United Nations’ next major assessment of global warming, . . . are running hotter.

In earlier models, doubling atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) over preindustrial levels led models to predict somewhere between 2°C and 4.5°C of warming once the planet came into balance. But in at least eight of the next-generation models, produced by leading centers in the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, and France, that “equilibrium climate sensitivity” has come in at 5°C or warmer.

So, how bad will it get if little is done? As we said before:

Dry, cracked earth with green grass adjacent

  • Worse storms—tornados, hurricanes/typhoons
  • Flooding—from rain, tidal surges, sea level rises
  • More wildfires
  • Crop-killing droughts
  • Extreme heat
  • Huge economic and human costs

Don’t take our word for it, see this RECENT article from NOAA’s Climate.gov page. The focus is the recent National Climate estimate (July 2019). It reports that thousands of lives can be saved in the US if greenhouse gases are reduced. The article has several links documenting the above consequences and others we didn’t mention.

Or check out this interactive page on VOX, which will tell you what your weather could be in 2050 if we do nothing. Sorry, it’s only for American cities. Put in your city (not all are included) for an estimate.

Humans CAN Fix It—But It Won’t Be Easy

America (corporately and by state and local government), Europe and other developed countries are doing their part to slow the process. Not yet to reverse it, unfortunately.

Wind turbine farm over water
https://pixabay.com/users/hermann-130146/

They are using more wind and solar power. They’re using hybrid or plugin electric vehicles. But don’t forget, fossil fuel which may be used to generate the power to run those electric vehicles. Try doing the analysis of that trade-off. As more generating stations switch, that trade-off will disappear.

Developing countries want more. More of what the rest of the world have. Modern homes. Modern appliances. More cars. More factories to make more consumer goods and trucks to deliver them to new stores. Don’t tell them they can’t develop—they won’t accept that.

So, the whole world needs to work on the problem—because it’s not a local or regional issue, it’s a worldwide crisis.

Developed countries will have to do more—more reductions in carbon emissions by switching to non-fossil fuels for almost everything.

They can live in smaller homes. European countries have been in the forefront of the small house movement, but America is catching on. Smaller homes are more energy efficient. Obviously, there are savings on embedded energy costs in materials and construction. Admittedly, these houses are not suitable for most people.

Use higher efficiency appliances. Smart thermostats. LED lighting. Reduced flow plumbing fixtures. Passive and active solar (see our New Mexico home story here). Well-designed homes use less energy for heating and cooling through insulation, roofing, orientation, etc.

Residential solar is getting cheaper. Business and commercial buildings have long been working on lower cost heating and cooling for their own bottom lines. In the American Southwest, some solar power generation for use in buildings comes from shaded parking.

Public facilities are retrofitting buildings to reduce energy use (intention may be economic, but the results are less carbon emissions until the state utility reaches net zero carbon emissions (see this story on our local library).

Utilities are switching to wind and solar generation. For example, PNM, a New Mexico investor-owned utility, has a goal of net-zero carbon emissions by 2040. They are on track to be 70% emission free by 2032.

Developing countries can use inexpensive solar-powered options for cooking, heating, etc. For example, in primitive rural villages, a solar-oven or cooker can eliminate the carbon emissions of burning wood or other fuels—at less cost and trouble for the user.

Every country can plant more trees for reforestation. Trees soak up carbon dioxide and give off oxygen. Unfortunately, the Amazon rainforest may be nearing the point of no return. That’s especially so given policies of its new president, Jair Bolsonaro. And the horrible fires consuming vast swaths. Difficult as it may be, perhaps other countries can try to make up for it until Bolsonaro is out of office.

On a more positive note, see this from The Nature Conservancy (TNC):

During a time of unprecedented change to our global climate, it can be convenient to think of nature as a victim. But science shows nature is poised to play a significant role in much needed efforts to both store carbon and reduce emissions. In fact, restoring, protecting and harnessing the power of our forests, grasslands and wetlands will provide at least 30% of the reduction in greenhouse gasses needed for a prosperous, low-carbon future.

Some corporations are moving to reduce carbon emissions. In the same vein, see this story: “The former boss of Unilever is seeking a team of “heroic chief executives” to drive a shift to a low-carbon, more inclusive way of doing business.”

The technology challenges can be met to get to net zero greenhouse gases. The political will is another matter–but see the discussion below about politicians.

In August 2018, the European Geosciences Union offered this assessment:

If governments don’t act decisively by 2035 to fight climate change, humanity could cross a point of no return after which limiting global warming below 2°C in 2100 will be unlikely, according to a new study. The research also shows the deadline to limit warming to 1.5°C has already passed, unless radical climate action is taken.

In October last year, the IPCC released a report that some sites, like The Guardian, concluded meant that the world has just 12 years (2030) to limit warming to 1.5°C.

Others pushed back on the 12-year limit. Axios reported that “12 years isn’t a deadline, and climate change isn’t a cliff we fall off — it’s a slope we slide down,” said Kate Marvel, a climate scientist at NASA.

The challenge is to get to net zero by 2050. That’s an essential prerequisite to avoid the worst of climate change. Other precise deadlines are motivational, not absolute by scientific standards. If John F. Kennedy hadn’t set a goal of a man on the moon in ten years, it probably wouldn’t have happened.

Politicians are the world’s most outstanding procrastinators—we must fight their inclination to put off dealing with the climate crisis. Nonetheless, some ARE earnestly committed to defeating climate change. Like MOST of the remaining Democratic presidential primary candidates.

ALSO see the last two links on mayors in the list below both in the US and around the world.

NOTE from the publisher: The youth of the world have already concluded that they WILL act because the world’s political leaders seem unwilling or unable to act. We don’t usually take overtly political positions on Eagle Peak Press, but it’s hard to avoid noting that America’s President Donald Trump not only fully denies any contribution by humans to climate change but is actively working to hasten it with rollbacks of climate protecting policies from A to Z. That’s all we will say on the matter.  

Featured Resources and Additional Sources

Sources across the spectrum of climate crisis issues:

Specific articles of interest not included in this Annual article

Last Modified on September 20, 2019
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