Global warming? What’s the problem? Personally, I don’t like cold weather and wouldn’t mind average temperatures being a few degrees higher than they are now.
Unfortunately, global warming isn’t just about average global temperatures rising a few degrees by the end of this century. In fact, “global warming” misses the mark entirely when it comes to conveying the seriousness and urgency regarding what we’re collectively doing to the stability, and therefore livability, of our planet’s climate. “Climate chaos” may be more accurate.
Global climate models all point to the same concern: that the release and accumulation of greenhouse gases (primarily carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels, but including other gases as well) in the atmosphere will cause all weather events to become much more intense and extreme in the future. This includes not just heat waves, droughts and catastrophic forest fires, but hurricanes, blizzards, severe cold fronts, floods, sustained high winds, and so on. If this occurs, will our physical infrastructure (roads, bridges, tall buildings, sea walls, etc.) be able to handle it? Will farmers be able to grow anywhere near the amount of food per acre that they currently do to feed the world’s seven billion people? What if “Superstorm Sandys” start to hit the eastern seaboard and the Gulf Coast every two to three years?
People tend to take the relative stability of Earth’s climate for granted. I’ve spoken to climate skeptics that argue that the atmosphere is so vast that human-caused greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions couldn’t possibly disrupt the planet’s climate. But think about it. Earth’s atmosphere is a thin veneer or lens surrounding our globe. The livable (breathable) portion of the atmosphere is only about three miles thick on a planet that’s about 8,000 miles wide. Common sense suggests that billions of people burning coal, oil and natural gas during the last 300 years and continuing today, could, indeed, dramatically alter the climate’s chemistry and functioning. Historic climate data and sophisticated computer climate models confirm this.
Climate deniers argue that taking measures to reduce human-caused greenhouse gas emissions will negatively impact our economy. To the contrary, allowing catastrophic climate change to happen will create severe negative economic impacts (not to mention immense human suffering) that will dwarf any negative impacts that deniers claim will occur by reducing GHGs. In fact, economic studies indicate that deploying a combination of cost-effective energy efficiency and renewable energy strategies to reduce GHGs will maintain affordability for energy consumers and stimulate a new, vibrant clean-energy economy.
Is there 100 percent certainty that human-caused GHG pollution will result in climate chaos? No, there is not. By comparison, there’s not 100 percent certainty that one’s teenager daughter who starts smoking three packs of cigarettes a day will die of lung cancer or emphysema before she’s 40. But it’s probably not a good idea. Given the devastating severity of global climate disruption, the prudent, conservative course of action is to prevent it from happening.
Some have suggested that if and when the climate starts to get “really bad,” we can simply reduce GHGs at that time to bring things back to “normal.” Unfortunately, Earth’s complex climate doesn’t work like that. Climate models indicate that the accumulation of GHGs in the atmosphere may reach a certain “threshold” or “tipping point, ” beyond which the severe climate changes become irreversible. Preventing atmospheric GHGs from reaching that threshold is, therefore, critical and urgent.
When it comes to safeguarding the livability of our planet’s climate, I’m a conservative. There’s enough evidence in historic climate data, combined with climate model projections, to indicate that we may indeed be severely altering the Earth’s climate. Renewable energy, like solar power, and energy-efficiency technologies exist today to reduce our GHG emissions by over 80 percent by 2030, all while promoting a robust economy. The time to act boldly and aggressively is now. Our children and their children are counting on us.
Craig O’Hare is on the board of the NM Partnership for Responsible Business and has a degree in Business Economics.