by Randolph T. Holhut
Chief of AR Correspondents
December 6, 2012
GLOBAL WARMING: THE ALARMS ARE GROWING LOUDER
DUMMERSTON, Vt., Dec. 6, 2012 -- An inescapable truth is staring the world's leaders in the face.
The window for avoiding the worst impacts of global warming and climate change is nearly closed, but there is still a chance to take action.
There is general agreement in the scientific community that if greenhouse gas emissions can be reduced by 15 percent worldwide by the end of this decade - something that is technically and economically feasible - we can keep the global temperature increase below the 3.6? F. that climate scientists say will trigger unprecedented changes to our climate.
The key is that nations need to stop talking and start doing. Continued delay will seal the planet's fate.
But representatives of the 194 states and the European Union that are currently attending the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Doha, Qatar, are totally unprepared for even small changes.
In this century, we have experienced 333 consecutive months where the planet's temperatures were above the 20th Century's average. This year will end as the hottest on record in the United States. Superstorms, heat waves, wildfires, and droughts are striking with depressing regularity.
The accumulated scientific evidence of climate change is crystal clear. But how much more evidence do we need before action is taken? Three reports released at the Doha talks speak volumes about the fix our planet is in now.
The World Meteorological Organization says the area of ice loss in the Arctic Sea at the North Pole this year was 4.57 million square miles, an area equal to the size of the United States.
"The extent of Arctic sea ice reached a new record low. The alarming rate of its melt this year highlighted the far-reaching changes taking place on Earth's oceans and biosphere," Michel Jarraud, head of the WMO, an agency of the United Nations, said last week. "Climate change is taking place before our eyes and will continue to do so as a result of the concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, which have risen constantly and again reached new records."
This melting is leading to sea levels that are rising faster than scientists have previously thought. A study, led by Stefan Rahmstorf of Germany's Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK), found that sea levels are increasing at an average 0.125 inches per year. By comparison, the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) projected in 2007 that by 2012 the rise would be 0.078 inches per year.
One-tenth of an inch a year doesn't sound like much, but when you consider that current data is showing an increase that's 60 percent faster than was estimated just five years ago, you can see why there's widely shared agreement that the world's sea levels will be about 3.25 feet higher by 2100, which will swamp low-lying nations and make storms such as Hurricane Sandy that much more devastating for coastal cities like New York.
And if all this isn't bad enough, Arctic permafrost is melting faster than first thought, according to a new report from the U.N. Environment Program (UNEP).
"Permafrost is one of the keys to the planet's future because it contains large stores of frozen organic matter that, if thawed and released into the atmosphere, would amplify current global warming and propel us to a warmer world," UN Under-Secretary General and UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner said last week. "Its potential impact on the climate, ecosystems and infrastructure has been neglected for too long," he added.
Permafrost melt is especially bad because, as the UNEP report explains, "Once this process begins, it will operate in a feedback loop known as the permafrost carbon feedback, which has the effect of increasing surface temperatures and thus accelerating the further warming of permafrost - a process that would be irreversible on human timescales."
Yet in Doha, countries continue to squabble over whether a new climate agreement is needed to replace the Kyoto Protocol, which expires in 2020 and in being ignored by most developed nations, including the United States (which never signed it).
The fossil-fuel lobby is fighting hard to prevent any changes that might affect profits, and the conservative think tanks that are are fighting even harder to sow doubt that climate change even exists.
The stark reality is that if we want at least a 50-50 chance of minimizing the impacts of a warming planet, we have to do something that today seems radical and unthinkable - we have to leave two-thirds of the known reserves of fossil fuels in the ground.
But that's the prescription for curing the planet's fever that the International Energy Agency recommended in October 2012. Quite simply, if the world continues to burn coal, oil, and gas at its current rate, the game is over.
Is this is how the planet will die? Not from a single apocalyptic act, but through the continued lust for wealth and political power that puts the status of the few ahead of the survival of the many?
This may be how the story of humanity ends, unless the world comes together to reduce carbon emissions and ensure the our species will continue. It's a long shot, but it's the hope we have.
AR Chief Correspondent Randolph T. Holhut,a graduate of Harvard's JFK School of Government, has been a journalist in New England for more than 30 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at email@example.com.