Romancing Through Italy
© 2013 Robert J. Connors
For more than 20 years scientists, in an ever-louder chorus from the sidelines, have been warning global team leaders that climate change was a looming problem.
Now the preliminary physical impacts are beginning to be felt, in the form of extreme flooding, record droughts, crop failures, and scorching heat that drives wildfires that stress or kills livestock and wildlife.
The United States has been rocked by a serious of weather disasters, ranging from killer tornadoes, to unprecedented flooding, to epic drought and widespread wildfires. The home team is taking a beating.
The National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, reports that the past 12 months have been “the warmest 12-month period the nation has experienced since recordkeeping began in 1895.” July 2012 was the hottest single month ever recorded. Nearly two-thirds of the nation is in drought even as it bakes under record heat. Yet so far, global temperatures are up less than two degrees on average. What will happen when the more serious effects begin?
Several important North America crops have suffered this year, ranging from Midwestern corn, oats and wheat, to Florida citrus, to California plums. Already, food shortages are emerging. The US Dept. of Agriculture has predicted that grain stocks will soon hit a three-year low.
A few nations, particularly in Africa, are now in famine. Shortages are developing in Asia, and both India and China may need to increase food imports. Wheat and grain crops are also failing in southwestern Asia due to a heat wave and drought. Sparse rain in India has caused a drop of 7.8 million tones of rice production, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN. The FAO also reported that world food prices climbed six per cent in July.
In the US, corn for livestock has become increasingly scarce and costly, even as part of the crop is diverted to create ethanol fuel. Rising corn prices are helping drive the cost of gasoline higher.
The United States is among the nations who have done least to prevent the crisis. Some other world leaders enacted policies to mitigate the threat, changing their local, regional, and national policies. Dependent upon the largess of big energy and locked by rigid orthodoxy, Congress has remained unable to react, unable to agree on any major issue.
The real problem is even bigger: even if Congress tries to find a solution, there may be none available. The clock is rapidly running down, and we’re out of timeouts. The chemistry of climate change is quite simple. Sunlight that would normally reflect its energy back into space is being absorbed by carbon dioxide, or CO2, which heats the atmosphere.
CO2 is the same common substance that makes your beverage fizz, not that your beverage is the problem. CO2 is released in vast quantities by combustion, which turns oxygen, the stuff we breathe, into more CO2. Humans love to burn stuff. We burn to drive, we burn to heat and cool and light our homes, we burn to obtain, refine, and deliver all the products we use. Ironically, GM sold a record number of cars in July… in China.
Scientist warn that if we continue to burn earth’s fossil fuels we are doomed, yet little is being done to wean our global economy off it. Instead it’s subsidized to make it more affordable. According to some published estimates, our present known reserves of oil, gas, and coal contain at least three times the amount of carbon required to bring about total climate disaster.
Global temperature increases are expected to reach 3 to 4.5 degrees by mid-century, and will surpass 10 degrees if we persist, due to numerous ‘feedback effects’ that will speed the process, and make it unstoppable once it passes an unknown “tipping point,” according to climate scientist James Hansen. “We are pushing the system an order of magnitude faster than any natural changes of climate in the past,” he said recently.
Such a sharp increase has happened before in earth’s history, but would normally occur over thousands or tens of thousands of years. The speed of the present shift, within only a few generations for many species, makes adaptation difficult. Globally, most large animal species face extinction as prairie habitats become deserts, and forests are killed by heat, fire, and invasive insects. A growing appetite for ‘bush meat’ in the face of rising food prices adds more pressure. Adaptable insects will thrive.
As famine spreads, populations become desperate, and governments are destabilized. Scarce resources increase the likelihood of riots and war. Already, rising costs have contributed to social instability in many nations. “Failed states” is becoming a familiar term. The US military has been among the leaders in developing alternative fuels, meanwhile preparing for food crises and urban combat.
Those scientists on the sidelines are still vocal, and perhaps their message is being heard this year. If the voices of suffering citizens are added, perhaps there is still a chance to beat the clock.