April 22, 2008

Our Challenge

Today is Earth Day and we humans have a challenge to meet.

We are living in a time of enormous import. The world is changing in ways we humans are as yet ill-prepared to survive, yet alone thrive. Furthermore, it is not a coincidence that so many of our most critical problems are coming to a crest at the same time. Peak oil. Water wars. Global warming. Mass migrations. Financial turmoil. Dwindling food supplies. Extreme ideologies. Mass extinction. These problems come of a world straining to be home to an ever increasing number of humans facing enormous change.

The problems we face are linked together in ways that we are just beginning to understand. We humans have been fruitful and multiplied and now we have filled almost every niche this world provides. Even in the harshest climes, from the icy poles to the most extreme deserts, one finds humans eking out a living. Yet, as we spread and occupy this earth, by our very existence we have changed the world we claimed.

Global warming is due to our releasing the trapped energy from oil and coal which took the earth over 300,000,000 years to sequester, yet we have been “liberating” these carbon sources in only a couple of hundred years. Whenever we use energy created from coal, oil and natural gas, we generate carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases which add to the overall problem. And it is the increase of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere that is changing our planet because these gases trap heat and warm our world.

Throughout the 1900s, the increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has been noticeable and measurable. Fortunately for humans, not all of the carbon dioxide we generate is added to the atmosphere. Much of the excess carbon dioxide emitted by humans has being absorbed in other natural systems which has given us more time to deal with the problem. The oceans are the largest natural system providing this service as they have been absorbing almost half of the excess carbon dioxide that we modern, industrial humans emit. The earth’s forests account for most of the rest not taken up by the atmosphere.

Yet now coming into the 21st Century instead of slowing down our emissions (as world leaders had agreed to do at the Kyoto Conference), we humans are emitting greenhouse gases faster than before. Since 2000, the growth of greenhouse gases emitted per year has tripled over what was emitted per year through the 1990s. Part of the increase is due to the growing world economy and part is due to the rapid deployment of coal powered plants in China as they struggle to keep up with their demand for energy. Yet some of the rapid increase is due to another factor even more ominous than just the increase from human emissions.

Recent reports on the increase in global emissions from scientists which track what’s happening with our natural systems are deeply worrying, because it appears that our natural carbon sinks, the oceans and the forests, are no longer capable of absorbing the amount of carbon dioxide that they’ve been absorbing up to now.

New studies show that our natural systems are unable to mitigate an increasing amount our output which means that we urgently need to dramatically cut back on our emissions of greenhouse gases. Where we once thought that cutting our emissions by 80% by 2050 would be sufficient, we’re starting to realize even this won’t be enough. We’ve used the buffer that nature provided and now have no more time to waste.

The warming world is creating more dramatic weather patterns with extremes in rain falls and droughts coming in ever stronger waves. We are seeing multi-year droughts in some areas paired with intense rainfall in neighboring communities. Communities that relied on snow-capped mountains to release water over a summer must adjust to much less predictable and reliable sources of water from rivers even while we are depleting the groundwater. What happens to the American West when there is no spare water to feed the voracious and growing populations? For that matter, what happens in Atlanta and other cities in the Southeast as they face unrelenting drought while other states experience torrential rainfall? The changes we see in our country are echoed throughout the world and no one is immune. Humans simply must do something to reduce our use of greenhouse gases and we must act fast.

The good news is we already have technology that can go a long way in reducing our greenhouse gases so we can mitigate and manage the changes coming our way. (Note we no longer can prevent the changes, they are already here and more is on its way as there is significant carbon and warming built already into the system.) And furthermore, we know that clean energy technology and emphasizing efficiency is not only smart for reducing our carbon emissions, but they are also cheaper in the long run.

The bad news is that we have many institutional barriers to moving as fast as we need to move. We simply cannot let the industries who are wedded to carbon drive the agenda. And we cannot let the Bush administration block our ability to work with the international community to address the problem because after all, we are all in this together. Finally, we cannot let the naysayers like Bjorn Lomborg say we shouldn’t waste money on addressing global warming now because he says that we can do it cheaper later if we simply invest in finding better technology. The thing he ignores -- at our peril -- is the tremendous disruption to humanity and our ability to manage the change if we sit back and wait for the next generation of technology. After all, it will take decades to clear out the buildup of carbon in the atmosphere. And we can’t afford to keep making the problem worse.

This truly is humanity’s time to step up to our biggest challenge. Fortunately, some of the wisest and most insightful among us believe we are ready to face this challenge. Yet as the Dalai Lama reported last year, he was hopeful for us humans.

The rapid changes in our attitude toward the Earth are also a source of hope. Until recently, we thoughtlessly consumed its resources as if there were no end to them. Now not only individuals but also governments are seeking a new ecological order. I often joke that the moon and stars look beautiful, but if any of us tried to live on them, we would be miserable. This blue planet of ours is the most delightful habitat we know. Its life is our life, its future our future. Now Mother Nature is telling us to cooperate. In the face of such global problems as the greenhouse effect and the deterioration of the ozone layer, individual organizations and single nations are helpless. Our mother is teaching us a lesson in universal responsibility.

So, what can you do? Understand what your carbon footprint is today and figure out what you can do to decrease it. Vote for politicians that make climate change a top priority. Help educate your community by talking to your friends and neighbors, writing letters to the editor and making sure your representatives in your community, in your state, and in Washington hear from you that you expect them to work diligently on helping solve this problem.

It is our time to make a difference.

Posted by Mary at April 22, 2008 11:12 PM | Environment | Technorati links |

What can you do ?


How come this never is mentioned. It will have a far greater effect than ANYTHING else an individual can do.

Posted by: Rich at April 23, 2008 12:13 PM