Climate change: good news / bad news


When discussing climate change, the old saying needs to be amended to "What do you want first, the somewhat good news, or the astoundingly awful bad news?"

The bad news is piling up fast:

* The ice sheets in the Artic, Antarctic and Greenland are melting twice as fast as earlier projections from just a year or two ago, which will lead to the sea level rising about a foot every 20 or 25 years - meaning a 3-foot rise by the end of the century, enough to wipe out some island nations, flood much of Bangladesh and other low-lying coastal countries, threaten many coastal cities around the world, and increase erosion on coasts.

* Glaciers are melting faster as well - meaning that before the end of this century, glaciers in the Himalayas may disappear, and these glaciers provide water for over a billion people, an environmental, agricultural and human catastrophe. This extra melting will first cause more floods in India and China, and then cause extreme water stress for humans and for agriculture.

* Previous estimates of the massive amounts of carbon dioxide and methane locked up in the permafrost were too small, increasing the likelihood of an unstoppable tipping point if too much of the permafrost melts and releases these greenhouse gases, potentially overwhelming any human efforts to slow and control carbon emissions.

* While it is not possible to link any one weather event to global warming, extreme weather events are increasing in intensity and frequency, such as the droughts in Australia and the U.S. Southeast and Southwest which heavily impact on agricultural production of essential foodstuffs like wheat.

* Scientific projections are now that even with all the planned emission cuts, the world's average temperature will rise 6 degrees by the end of the century, with disastrous consequences for extreme weather events, droughts, disruption of agriculture, species extinction, water stress, population dislocation, spread of tropical diseases, ocean acidification, and many other aspects of life. This will be the hottest world in the last 11,000 years or more, the entire period of human agricultural development.

Are you scared now? There is some good news:

* The Waxman/Markey energy bill has passed the House of Representatives and has some serious support in the Senate (the companion Senate bill was introduced on Sept. 29, sponsored by John Kerry and Barbara Boxer), though whether or not this can overcome the fierce lobbying by energy companies, right-wing climate change deniers, and coal-producing states is still to be determined, in part by our activism.

* In a cloud/silver lining way, the global economic crisis has resulted in a decrease in greenhouse gas emissions over the last year, with decreases in travel and shipping, and the shelving or delay of some proposed coal-fired plants.

* China has made significant strides in increasing its energy efficiency, and it projects a four-fold increase in energy efficiency in the coming decades, which means its economy can still continue to expand, lifting millions out of poverty, without increasing the threats to the atmosphere. China is also making other important strides in improving its environmental efforts, though it still opposes mandatory caps on the emissions of developing countries.

* Diplomatic efforts and meetings to prepare for the upcoming Copenhagen climate change conference are intensifying, and include important proposals such as the U.S. proposal to cut energy subsidies; a fund to compensate countries such as Brazil and Indonesia for ending or at least slowing rampant deforestation; and various proposals to share technology and costs for the poorest countries, which have contributed least to the problem yet face the earliest and sharpest impacts of climate change, and to mitigate and adapt to rising sea levels and set limits on carbon emissions.

* The production of alternative energy is increasing; the efficiency of alternative energy processes is increasing - making them more economically competitive with fossil fuels; subsidies for alternative energy are increasing - such as $60 billion in the U.S. stimulus package; and alternative energy sector jobs are increasing.

* Economic projections of the costs of carbon emissions caps and other environmental measures have decreased, making these efforts more economically and politically feasible.

There is much public posturing leading up to the Copenhagen conference, which has the goal of negotiating the international treaty that will replace the Kyoto Protocol when it expires in 2012.

Passage of a climate change bill by the full Congress and completion of a treaty in Copenhagen complete with mandatory emission reductions for at least all the industrially developed countries are the minimum steps needed, before the bad news gets much worse.


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