Wednesday, January 16, 2013

What are we thinking in denying climate change?

It would be great if, when confronted with scientific data, a difficult future could be avoided with a simple, “Not my problem.”

When the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reports that 2012 was “the second most extreme year on record” in the United States, climate change is somebody’s problem.

Instead of overestimating the effects of climate change on the planet, as the coal industry has argued, the mainstream scientific community has actually underestimated how fast temperatures and sea levels would rise.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration reports that global climate change has had observable effects on the environment. Glaciers have shrunk, ice on rivers and lakes is breaking up earlier, plant and animal ranges have shifted and trees are flowering sooner. Effects that scientists had predicted are now accelerating: loss of sea ice, sea level rise and longer, more intense heat waves. 

We know what is coming sooner rather than later. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which includes more than 1,300 scientists from the United States and other countries, forecasts a temperature rise of 2.5 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit over the next century.

In North America, that means snowpack in the Western mountains will decrease, while the frequency, intensity and duration of heat waves in cities will increase. The potential future effects of climate change include more frequent wildfires, longer periods of drought in some regions and an increase in the number, duration and intensity of tropical storms.

The Maldives, a group of atolls in the Indian Ocean, and densely populated, impoverished Bangladesh could very soon find themselves literally under water.

What’s clearly on the horizon is not a potential disaster but an actual disaster.

Voters may not be delighted to hear that they can no longer be guaranteed cheap goods. It remains convenient to denounce the scientists and scholars who bring a global message we do not like. 

But know this: Future generations will soon be contending with even more serious environmental, economic and social consequences than those we are now facing. They may not be kind to the leaders of today when they ask, “What were they thinking in doing nothing to mitigate the problems of climate change when the consequences were so clear?”

Of course, they might somehow just continue thinking what we as a nation seem to think: Wouldn’t it be great if this were somebody else’s problem?

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