By: Suzanne Elston
In TVOntario's award winning documentary, "The Greenhouse Effect", renowned climatologist Dr. Stephen Schneider is asked about what we should do to combat climate change. His answer was multiple choice.
"In science what we like to do is create a model that will enable us to see the impact of our experiment. In this case, we need to be able to measure the effect that various levels of carbon dioxide will have on our planetary systems. Since we can't exactly create a duplicate Earth, we have two other alternatives," said Schneider. "We can B) do those things that make sense anyway, like reducing emissions and cutting energy consumption, or C) we can do nothing and let the experiment perform itself."
Clearly, the right answer was B). Unfortunately, as a species we've made it pretty clear that A) we're really bad at multiple choice, and/or B) we werenÕt paying attention in class. Since Schneider's comments were made back in 1989, and carbon dioxide levels have continued to rise in the atmosphere every year since, we are all now stuck with C) letting the experiment perform itself.
As recent reports have clearly indicated, this is really not good. Unfortunately, it's way too late to pick up our Climate Change 101 credit at summer school. Earlier this week Jim Hansen, (who coincidentally was also featured in the 1989 TVOntario documentary), expressed his own mounting concerns. Dr. Hansen, who is the director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York, stated,
"A satellite study of the Greenland ice cap shows that it is melting far faster than scientists had feared - twice as much ice is going into the sea as it was five years ago. The implications for rising sea levels - and climate change - could be dramatic."
Unfortunately, when he tried to talk to the media about these issues, he was blocked by Bush appointees to the NASA public affairs team. It would appear that talk about dramatically reducing our greenhouse gas emissions might be bad for the oil business as well as the president's increasingly poor approval ratings.
But the joke (however bad) might be on the Bush administration after all. If Hansen is correct, we may already be at the tipping point. "The last time the world was three degrees warmer than today - which is what we expect later this century - sea levels were 25 m higher," said Dr. Hansen. He is among the increasing number of scientists who believe that rising sea levels may be even more harmful than the warmer temperatures that have caused them.
Even ABC news anchor Diane Sawyer joined in fray this week with her report on the melting of the Greenland ice sheet. While her predictions of a 21 foot (6.4 m) increase in sea –levels aren't quite as nasty as Dr. Hansen's; the result would be the same - the inundation of many coastal areas. Since the majority of the world's largest cities lie on a seacoast, the Manhattan skyline (among many others) may soon experience a re-sculpturing that will make the fall of the World Trade Center look like child's play.
But that's not the beginning of troubles for Mr. Bush et al. Gulf of Mexico oil production could be seriously impacted by rising sea levels and the accompanying storms (Remember Katrina?)
Just when it looked like the news couldn't get any worse, a new report published in the respected science journal, Nature, says that rising carbon dioxide levels are also causing plant life to absorb less water. The result is a huge increase in run-off, which in turn dramatically increases the risk of flooding and mudslides. As if to reinforce the point, Mother Nature recently buried an estimated thousand people under 35 metres of mud in the Philippines.
Let's recap: Weren't paying attention in class; can't do summer school; catastrophic climate change is putting "an end to the world as we know it" and I really don't feel fine.
The good news is that there may still be time to cram for the final exam. If Hansen is right, we have about a decade to stabilize greenhouse gas emissions. This means focusing on energy efficiency and renewable energy. And since procrastination is no longer a personal option, this also means turn down your thermostat, park your gas-guzzling vehicle and learn what else you can do. Oh, and take swimming lessons. You might just need them.