Climate change is not some nightmare scenario awaiting us in the future. It is already happening. And if it isn’t yet a full-fledged nightmare for all of humanity, it has already become a plenty bad nightmare for some.
If you are a particular species of coral, you may already be on the road to extinction because of the warming and acidifying ocean. If you are the resident of a coastal city that is protected from the worst effects of tropical typhoons because of the presence of healthy coral reefs, your nightmare may be lurking in the near future.
If you are a human, your future may be affected more than you can foresee by the gases released from the thawing tundra, which had previously been locked up in the permafrost. If you are any of innumerable species of bird, insect, amphibian or fish, the continued existence of your kind may be in danger because of the range of the food upon which you depend.
These are the conclusions of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the United Nations body whose job it is to monitor the work of scientists worldwide about the progress of climate change. A draft of the panel’s latest report states that no one will be spared the adverse effects of climate change, which, among other things, are expected to include severe stress on the world’s food supply.
Till now scientists have been scrupulous about noting that no single event can be attributed to climate change. Hurricane Katrina and Tropical Storm Irene were severe weather events, like numerous other storms wreaking havoc in recent years. It is difficult to draw a direct line between the larger patterns of climate change and particular outcomes like those storms. But an overwhelming abundance of outcomes has been documented over the entire globe, affecting sea levels, temperatures and acidification; the melting of Arctic ice; the changing ranges of diverse species; and patterns of extreme weather. All of these documented changes line up consistently with the predictions that scientists have been making for decades about the effects of climate change.
In fact, change is happening more rapidly than scientists had predicted. In fact, their work is not only about predictions; it is about documentation of the changes that are upon us.
Drought in the American West presents the United States with the kind of challenge that will be faced by many parts of the globe, presenting a serious threat to food production in California. The civil war in Syria has been attributed in part to a severe drought that drove farmers off the land and into the cities. The new report warns that events like drought in the Middle East or flooding in coastal regions or food shortages in poor nations may cause mass migrations of a historic dimension, the kind that often results in international conflict.
The prevalence of extreme weather events has been one of the major problems predicted by scientists, and Vermont got a taste of it when Tropical Storm Irene inundated the state in 2011. Who knows how the bitter cold winter this year, and the altered jet stream that was said to have caused it, were linked to larger alternations in the climate? It is dawning on more and more people that everything is linked, and nothing is not linked to climate change.
The nations of the world are not doing enough. Greenhouse gas emissions have started to decline in the United States but have been more than offset by growth in China and India. Change at the grass roots is outpacing efforts at the national level. The proliferation of solar arrays in Vermont is a sign of it. Work is also accelerating on ways to cope with the bad effects of climate change, as in the sea walls and other measures being considered for New York City.
The latest U.N. report is described as soberly realistic. It highlights the need both to be aware of what is happening and to continue to take steps to ensure that what happens in the future is not as bad as it could be.
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