January 19, 2008

Widely Acknowledged Facts on Global Climate Change

Andrew Revkin, New York Times environmental reporter, blogs at DotEarth on the NY Times. He recently put up a great piece on his blog about the facts to use as A Starting Point for Productive Climate Discourse. So what are those facts? (My additions in blue.)

Carbon dioxide is a heat-trapping gas. More of it will inevitably warm the planet. Richard Lindzen of MIT agrees. Pat Michaels of the Cato Institute agrees. The gas has a long residence time in the atmosphere so that it builds as long as more is added than comes out through absorption in the ocean or ecosystems (unlike most other emissions from burning fossil fuels, forests, and the like, which dissipate quickly.) See wonderingmind42's lectures here to understand why this is just basic physics working You learned most of these facts in high school.

Warmer times have generally had much higher seas and smaller ice sheets and glaciers. Colder periods have had lower seas and more ice (like the mile-high heap that scoured the knobs of granite in Manhattan’s Central Park 20,000 years ago).

The carbon dioxide buildup is changing the chemistry of surface seawater, lowering its pH in a way that, in theory, could be harmful to the shell-forming and reef-forming marine organisms of today’s ocean ecosystem. (There’s been very little from the traditional “skeptic” community on this. Have I missed something?) Called the acidification of the oceans, this trend is truly unsettling.

Coal is still abundant, has helped today’s industrial powers become rich, and is helping poorer countries grow their economies. But it comes with significant environmental and social costs (scoured landscapes, carbon dioxide, around 4,000 deaths a year in Chinese mines, tens of thousands of premature deaths from respiratory ailments linked to sooty pollution).

Oil is still reasonably abundant and fairly cheap, but comes with a large external price tag including international conflict, pollution, and (of course) carbon dioxide.

The incineration of tropical forests (most temperate forests are expanding) is bad for the atmosphere, water supplies and biological diversity.

Growing populations and growing energy demand will greatly increase atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases in this century without big changes in technology, policy, or behavior.

If everyone turned off all motors and power plants tomorrow, or jumped in Hummers and jacked up thermostats, the climate system wouldn’t measurably “notice” the difference for at least a few decades (IPCC fourth science assessment). [ADDED 1/14] This is the reason why James Lovelock believes we've past the tipping point and why Dr. James Hansen is fast coming to that assessment too.

Finding renewable sources of energy that are cheap and do not come with significant environmental or security risks or social costs is a good thing, particularly in a world adding roughly 80 million people a year, and where two billion people today only have firewood or dried dung as an energy choice. Check out RMI's site for a myriad of ideas, articles, stories and projects that affirms the truth of this statement.

Too many people today are vulnerable to the world’s existing climate extremes, and widespread prosperity and security are unlikely to be attained without cutting vulnerability even as long-term climate policies are hashed out. Reducing vulnerability to climate hazards will benefit the world with or without human-driven warming.

Now that we have the facts on the table, where does that take us?

Posted by Mary at January 19, 2008 01:59 PM | Environment | Technorati links |

0. alleviate poverty by sharing, not growing.

1. invest in education and watch population stabilize by itself.

2. um -

3. factor submersion of coastal power plants into climate models

Posted by: Huskarl at January 19, 2008 02:11 PM

4. expedite the licensing/distribution of less carbon-intensive technologies to less-developed countries.

Posted by: Huskarl at January 19, 2008 02:24 PM