The Greatest Threat To Our Existence
(originally published in Tumbleweird January 2019)
by Ted Miller
“Right now, we are facing a man-made disaster of global scale. Our greatest threat in thousands of years. Climate change. If we don’t take action, the collapse of our civilizations and the extinction of much of the natural world is on the horizon.”
– Sir David Attenborough, United Nations Climate Change Conference, Katowice, Poland
December 3, 2018
There is a metaphor that says a frog put into boiling water will immediately jump out to save itself, but a frog placed in tepid water that is slowly heated will be boiled alive before recognizing the danger. Although I like this metaphor as a caution against complacency, it is not scientifically valid. In fact, frogs are ectotherms which regulate their body temperature by changing location. A real frog would sense the temperature change and save itself by jumping out of the water.
The temperature of our planet is rising. This is an incontrovertible fact that the climate deniers can’t make untrue no matter how hard they try. I can point you to websites and propaganda of those who are convinced the earth is flat, but that doesn’t make the earth any less round. I can point to historical studies that obfuscated the link between tobacco and cancer, but that doesn’t mean smoking is good for your health. And whatever doubt the deniers still have about the cause and significance of climate change, it is not based on data and scientific analysis.
Just because you don’t believe something doesn’t mean it isn’t true.
The Fourth National Climate Assessment[i], Vol II, was released by the federal government in November 2018. It is an exhaustive, thoroughly researched report with input from hundreds of experts in wide-ranging areas of expertise. The source material is diverse and meets rigid scientific and quality standards. The report reflects the best information available on climate change and its impact on the United States and the world. I highly encourage you to read the report summary yourself (see nca2018.globalchange.gov).
The report concludes “that the evidence of human-caused climate change is overwhelming and continues to strengthen, that the impacts of climate change are intensifying across the country, and that climate-related threats to Americans’ physical, social, and economic well-being are rising.”
This conclusion should not be taken lightly.
Scientists have understood the physics of global temperature and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere for almost 200 years.[ii]We have known since the middle of the last century that human activity, beginning with the use of fossil fuels in the industrial age, has greatly influenced the earth’s climate. And now the impacts are becoming more dramatic and self-evident. Consider the following:
- Arctic ice is melting fast. The amount of sea ice has decreased dramatically and the seasonal changes are more pronounced. The arctic is warming faster than any other part of the planet.
- Land ice and snow packs are melting much faster than they are being replaced. The ice cover over Greenland and Antarctica is shrinking. Glaciers are receding.
- Sea level is rising. Some low-lying islands will be completely underwater within the next few decades.
- Desert areas are becoming hotter and more arid and more desert is being created in the subtropics.
- Rain and snow patterns are changing, leading to increased flooding in some areas while other parts of the planet see more drought.
- Wildfires are becoming more severe.
- The oceans are becoming more acidic and are getting warmer. Both of these trends have a significant impact on the ecosystem. Coral reefs around the world are dying.
- Extreme weather, including hurricanes and winter storms, is becoming more common.
The consequences of climate change on humans and our environment are potentially devastating. Mass extinctions are possible. Famine and poverty will likely increase as land becomes more uninhabitable, crops begin to fail, and diseases from warmer temperatures spread. Agriculture, the economy, and human health will all be negatively impacted. Climate change will affect every aspect of our lives.
But the situation isn’t hopeless. Action to reduce atmospheric carbon and other greenhouse gas emissions can limit the global rise in temperature. International agreements can establish achievable goals with concrete actions. National and local governments can consider impacts on climate with their policies, regulations, and initiatives. Investments can be made in research and technology to replace carbon-based energy sources and science and engineering solutions can be implemented.
And, perhaps most importantly, individual citizens can hold their elected officials accountable for decisions affecting the climate. We must do everything in our power to reverse this trend. Subsidies to the petroleum industry must be eliminated and clean, carbon-free energy sources must be incentivized. Individual choices and environmental habits are important, but only governments can drive the change we need to save the planet.
Like the proverbial frog, we are at risk of boiling alive. But, like the real frog who can save itself, we know what is happening to the planet and we are fully capable of saving ourselves and the natural world.
We just have to feel the heat and know that it is real.