Today’s climate forecast: grim

A story that I’ve been sort of ignoring because it isn’t really so much a “story” as a “depressing reality” is that the science of climate change has recently taken a turn for the deeply grim.

Rising seas are increasing the salinity of groundwater in India, wiping out farmland. Warming is significantly altering and degrading the character of American forests. Oceans are becoming more acidic. Drought threatens California. Sea ice is in rapid retreat. Worst of all, a recent paper suggests that climate change is essentially irreversible on a timescale that matters to humans.

Realclimate provides some useful insight and context to that scary word, “irreversible.” Scientifically, this isn’t really news. The oceans act as a giant buffer for carbon dioxide, soaking up a good portion of manmade emissions. When (if) humanity stops emitting carbon, the same process will play out in reverse. As carbon levels in the atmosphere drop, the ocean will slowly release its stored reserve, ensuring that CO2 remains elevated for centuries, or even millenia.

Politically, the word irreversible can have cross-cutting effects. Opponents of action on climate change argue that there’s no use fighting an irreversible process. Even proponents of action are liable to lapse into despair.

But, as Realclimate points out, irreversible does not mean unstoppable. A certain amount of continued warming is already baked into the system. We know this. We also know that the effects of warming so far, although certainly not good, are manageable. Finally, we know of a growing number of troubling indicators that the more dire predicted consequences of climate change are closer than we anticipated.

The solution hasn’t changed: clean energy, a rapid cessation of fossil fuel, and a heavy investment in energy efficiency. Same prescription, but the urgency is rapidly growing.

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