Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Climate Change Facts - What We Know as of June 2014

"Over the years of research, we have consistently found that, on average, Americans view climate change as a threat distant in space and time – a risk that will affect far away places, other species, or future generations more than people here and now." - Climate Change in the American Mind: Americans’ Global Warming Beliefs and Attitudes in November 2013, George Mason University, Center for Climate Change Communication.

In my extensive readings about climate change over the last year or so, it has become abundantly clear that the reality of the situation is quite a bit different from what is usually presented in the media. Insofar as they are aware of climate change at all, most Americans believe anthropogenic climate change is a problem to be concerned about in the distant future, not now. They may believe that the concern is with some few degrees of global temperature rise over the course of a century of more, and therefore that we have plenty of time to figure out a solution. The latest science however tells quite a different story. Not only is global temperature not a good measure of the severity of the situation, but the problem may in fact be very urgent. The most recent data indicates a so-called abrupt climate event could well occur within our lifetimes, taking the majority of humanity to, and possibly over, the precipice. Let me lay out some of those facts for you and you can draw your own conclusions.

- Atmospheric CO2 concentrations passed 400ppm this year. (Source.)

- The last time CO2 concentrations were this high was at least 800,000 years ago, and some studies indicate it may have been as much as 15-25 million years ago. Obviously this is way before humans were around and the global environment was very different from what we know from the last 10,000 years (the approximate age of so-called "civilization"). (Source.)

- Half of the carbon emissions in human history were released within the last 30 years. (Source.)

- There is a time lag between when carbon is released into the atmosphere and when the atmosphere begins to show its effects (known as "climate lag" or "thermal inertia"). Studies indicate this time lag to be somewhere between 25 and 100 years. The most likely time frame is somewhere around 40 years, which would mean that the warming and atmospheric effects we are currently experiencing are likely less than half of what we can expect from carbon that has already been released. (Source.)

- The polar regions are warming much faster than the rest of the planet. (Source.) This is very worrisome for the three following reasons.

- The first is that loss of ice and snow cover reduces the reflectivity (known as "albedo") of the earth's surface, thereby accelerating warming. (Source.)

- The second is that there are vast amounts of methane (a very powerful greenhouse gas) in polar seas and permafrost that could be released by increased temperatures in the polar regions. (Source.)

- The third is that melting ice releases massive amounts of freshwater into the oceans, which can affect global ocean currents. (Source.)

- Though scientists know that methane emissions are increasing, they don't know the exact rate of increase or how it will affect the climate because it's only been studied for a few years. However there is considerable concern that arctic methane, if released into the atmosphere, would cause a so-called runaway climate change event. (Source.)

- Climate scientists know that there have been times in the history of the planet when the global climate underwent a drastic change in less than a decade (possibly as rapidly as a year or two). (Source.)

- Although the exact causes of abrupt climate change events are not agreed upon by scientists, there seems to be a consensus that a slowing of global ocean circulations is involved. If that is the case, we should be very concerned because polar warming has the potential to disrupt global ocean circulation and may already be doing so. (Source.)

So, now we know the facts, what are we supposed to do with this information? That's a reasonable question and I wish I had a simple answer for it. Honestly, I do not blame people for wanting to deny the reality of climate change -- it is terrifying and seemingly inexorable. So now what?

I do know that the first step has to be acknowledgment and understanding of the facts, on an emotional, as well as intellectual, level. In buddhist practice, the end of suffering begins with the acceptance that we are, in fact, suffering. Likewise, the first step in healing, or least surviving, such a global calamity is to look at the problem straight on and to acknowledge both its reality and magnitude. I'll revisit this topic again, but for now I'll just say that it's my firm belief that our list of actions for the immediate future should include preparing ourselves and our children psychologically for what most likely awaits us in the coming years.

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