In early December, on the Indonesian island of Bali, representatives of theworlds nations met in negotiations which are surely the most important inhuman history. Theyre beginning work on a global agreement to replace theKyoto Accords on preventing global climate change.
James Hansen, the top climate scientist at NASA, says Bali is the last chancefor the world to adequately reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. Further globalwarming of 1 degree Celsius defines a critical threshold, he says. Beyondthat we will likely see changes that make Earth a different planet than the onewe know.
It can be hard to take such warnings seriously when a look out the windowreveals the same essentially healthy world weve always known, but we mustrecognize the decades-long time lag between the buildup of greenhouse gases inthe atmosphere and the results. Humanity has already created an increase of justunder 1 degree Celsius, with another half a degree in the pipeline even ifwe stopped all emissions tomorrow (1 Celsius degree equals almost 2 degreesFahrenheit). And that 1 degree has had a visible effect, causing increasinglysevere hurricanes and droughts, milder winters and hotter summers, meltingglaciers and icecaps and raging forest fires.
What will result from another degree of warming? Scientists say we must notexceed 2 degrees Celsius if we wish to prevent catastrophic climate change.The latest report from the U.N.s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change,composed of 2,000 of the worlds top climate scientists, warns of possibleloss of the Amazon, loss of up to 30 percent of the worlds species, andsea-level rise sufficient to drown coastal cities.
Scientists worry about positive feedbacks, in which a change caused bywarming leads to even greater warming. For example, the melting of permafrost inSiberia releases methane from peat bogs into the atmosphere; methane is a potentgreenhouse gas which creates much more warming. Arctic seawater is much darkerand absorbs more of the suns heat than the reflective ice once did.
Such feedbacks could cause our world to plunge over a tipping pointsooner than expected. Even if we get emissions under control soon, we willsuffer increased disease and insect outbreaks, crop losses, sea-level rise andmore weather extremes. These things are already in the pipeline.
If the Bali negotiations break down with everyone pointing fingers anddemanding that other countries change first if we continue the trajectorywere currently on we may see changes that leave much of the worlduninhabitable. We can always say, Well cross that bridge when we come toit, but wed better realize that by that time, it will be far too late todecide not to take the risk.
This is the danger we face, not soon, but in the lifetime of anyone not yetgray. Even the elderly among us, who may safely assume they will not live to seethe worst of these projections take place, must have concern for the fate oftheir own children and grandchildren, or for posterity in general.
Yet the IPCC report also says that solving this problem is within our means,using technology already on the shelf. It wouldnt even be all that expensive.We simply need the policy changes that will allow us to rapidly switch totransportation and power production systems that dont involve burning fossilfuels.
But we may lack the political will, which is a polite way of sayingthat our representatives have been bought off by their campaigncontributors, notably the big oil and coal companies. The corporations thatprovide most of the money to politicians expect a return on that investment, andthey usually get it.
This time, however, we must break through that thicket of mutually reinforcedself-interest, and force our members of Congress to do what must be doneto rescue our climate. The current energy bill has some good provisions but alsosome counterproductive pork, such as subsidies for ethanol and clean coal.There is simply not enough time left to do things the wrong way and fix it later.
We need a bill that takes large strides in the right direction. Its worthinvestigating sequestration, but its too risky to be a big part of thesolution. Ethanol can reduce the need for oil and greenhouse gases by a tinyamount while driving up food prices. Solar, wind and tidal power should get thesubsidies, together with implementation of conservation measures. This approachcould create millions of jobs.
Congress could also pass a resolution in support of the Bali negotiations. Nodoubt Bush will refuse to sign the agreement, no matter what is in it. This iswhy its important for Congress to let the rest of the world know that Americais ready to work with them to solve this problem, even if we are stuck foranother year with an administration headed by irresponsible oilmen.
So please call your senators and your representative in the House and demandaction on behalf of the people most affected by a changing climate: the ones nowin diapers or not yet born.