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Global Warming is Here. Now What?

Changing the course of global warming could take a major upheaval to affect public policy -- a Pearl Harbor-type event in the environment.
 
 
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The world's economy appears to be robust, but masks an approaching crisis -- the sustainability of future generations "can no longer be taken for granted." That's the opinion of the 1,300 scientists who participated in the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, a four-year analysis of the world's ecosystems sponsored by the Worldwatch Institute and reported in Vital Signs 2006-2007.

Examining 24 major ecosystems that support human life, scientists found that 15 are "being pushed beyond their sustainable limits," toward a change that will be "abrupt and potentially irreversible." Humanity's genius at economic development has taxed our ecosystems to the point where we face "imminent ecological and economic crises."

Economically, the world is booming. Steel, aluminum, vehicle production and Gross World Product set records in 2005, as did Internet usage and cell phones. Unfortunately, the production of atmospheric CO2 concentrations, the main greenhouse gas, is also booming -- 2004 measured the highest annual increase ever. Average temperatures in 2005 were the hottest ever recorded on the earth's surface, the warmest in 10,000 years.

Warming has led to the destruction of 20 percent of the world's coral reefs and 25 percent of the world's mangrove forests. Sea ice fell to the lowest levels ever recorded and almost a third of the Arctic Ocean, normally covered by ice in the summer, has melted. Weather-related disasters, attributed to global warming, reached a record cost of $204 billion, with record hurricane, forest fire and tornado seasons in the US.

Global warming is here and scientists predict that the number and severity of weather-caused disasters will increase as the earth warms through the heat trapping effects of greenhouse gases created by burning oil, coal and natural gas, which accounts for 80 percent of the world's energy use. With the US consuming roughly a quarter of the world's oil and, along with automobile exhaust, creating almost a quarter of the world's greenhouse gases, pressure is mounting to switch to alternative sources of fuel to modify the amount of damage created by global warming in the future.

With the Bush Administration and the oil, gas and automobile conglomerates rejecting scientific findings of man-made global warming, how will the country take action to curb it?

American voters lurch from crisis to crisis, have a short attention span and get their information from a very fad-obsessed media, according to Daniel Press, professor and chair of Environmental Studies at UC Santa Cruz. Any crisis that requires a change in behavior or tremendous investment, such as global warming requires, will take a major upheaval to affect public policy -- a Pearl Harbor-type event in the environment.

"Unfortunately, we will have many disruptions with extreme climate events, rising sea levels and possibly some cascading collapses in various ecosystems," said Press.

Some states are not waiting for disasters. California recent adopted a global emissions bill, which could spur politicians to provide national leadership on the issue. Despite strong opposition from Republicans, California passed a bill requiring reduction of CO2 by 25 percent by 2020, with enforceable controls.

"California's global warming bill represents a complete break from federal policy and something unheard of in this country," said Press. "If the political stars can align for this to happen in California, moderate Republicans and Democrats could make this happen on the national level."

Businesses are beginning to find economic opportunities in energy efficiency and alternative forms of energy because competition demands it. Japanese cars are surpassing domestic auto companies; Finland uses less energy to produce paper than the US does; and manufacturing sectors around the world are more energy-efficient than the US.

"As energy costs go up, there's money to be made with renewal energy, managing conservation and reducing energy demands," Press said. "As energy costs become a larger part of manufacturing, the winners will be those who conserve energy."

One opportunity involves sequestering carbon, which currently costs $150 a ton, too expensive to be practical. If CO2 can be captured and injected underground, or otherwise prevented from accumulating in the atmosphere, many global warming problems could be alleviated.

"Americans are good at this sort of technological change," said Press. "The whole world is a market for fuel efficiency and renewable energy supplies."

Press advocates many off-the-shelf energy saving technologies that are immediately available such as solar energy, insulation and more fuel-efficient cars. This happened in 1974, when building codes were changed to require home insulation. Developers fought the change, claiming 200,000 Californian homebuyers wouldn't be able to afford the price increase. Instead, consumers appreciated cutting their energy bills in half and housing didn't experience a downturn.

"Transitions are scary, uncertain and possibly expensive, but the arguments for making energy investments are compelling," said Press. "You make money because, over the long run, you're saving energy."

The transition should have been begun 20 years ago: Every delay makes it more difficult.

"I don't think it is impossible for us to make substantial gains in reducing global warming," Press said. "We can't afford a defeatist attitude. We have to be forceful. If we throw up our hands and do nothing, we are accepting the worst-case scenario."

 
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