Our opinion: Climate change lemmings


At the same time it seems we may finally be shaking off the last vestiges of a winter that seemed would never end, the United Nation's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its most recent report and its message is dire.

"Climate change is happening and no one in the world is immune," said Exeter University Prof. Neil Adger, one of the lead authors of the report.

"We're not talking about hypothetical events," said Christopher Field, of the Carnegie Institution and co-chair of the working group, who asserted the impacts of climate change are easily observable.

"Throughout the 21st century, climate-change impacts are projected to slow down economic growth, make poverty more difficult, further erode food security, and prolong existing and create new poverty traps, the latter particularly in urban areas and emerging hot spots of hunger," notes the report.

Climate change will affect food and water resources and the rate of plant and animal extinctions will continue to rise. As the ocean acidifies, due to its absorption of excess carbon dioxide, coral reefs will die and the number of shelled marine creatures -- many of them at the base of the oceanic food chain -- will diminish. This will lead to strife as more and more humans fight over dwindling resources and as refugees flee island nations and low-lying areas swamped by rising sea levels.

And for those who don't believe mankind is responsible for the rapid climate change we are experiencing, Corinne Le Quere, director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, said the consensus of hundreds of scientists is that "the human influence on climate change is clear. The atmosphere and oceans are warming, the snow cover is shrinking, the Arctic sea ice is melting, sea levels are rising, the oceans are acidifying, some extreme weather events are on the rise, ecosystems and natural habitats will be upset."

"The debate really is over," stated Bernie Sanders, Vermont's junior senator in Washington, D.C. "The scientific community is virtually unanimous in agreeing that climate change is real, that it is caused by human activity that it is already causing devastating problems in the United States and around the world."

But as dire as the situation is and as quickly as it is progressing, there is still time to stop the degradation of our habitat and eventually reverse the course of global warming.

Sanders and Sen. Barbara Boxer of California have introduced legislation to tax the carbon and methane emissions that cause global warming. Their bill would apply a fee at coal mines, oil refineries, national gas processing plants and other sites. Imported fuels would be subject to equivalent carbon fees. Some of the revenue would be returned to consumers and some would pay for investments in energy efficiency, sustainable energy, worker training and deficit reduction.

The head-in-the-sand critics who parse the data to reach the conclusion that humanity is not responsible for global climate change will fight the implementation of radical measures to curb emissions, but Sanders stated we have to act now.

"The time is late. We can no longer ignore warnings that climate change already is happening and that unless we act in a bold way the worst is yet to come."

Geoffrey Lean, writing for The Telegraph, noted change in attitudes has been evident since the ill-fated 2009 Copenhagen Climate Change Conference.

World leaders will meet in New York in September to discuss the impending disaster and in December there will be another conference where it is hoped a pact to address climate change will be signed.

"The two main obstacles to agreement in the Danish capital -- the U.S. and China -- are taking a lead in combating global warming, no small thing considering that they together account for two-fifths of world emissions," noted Lean. "Unable to get climate laws through a Republican House of Representatives, (Pres. Barack Obama) is instead resorting to executive orders to cut carbon dioxide emissions from vehicles and power stations. ... Even more improbably, China, which burns about half the world's coal, is beginning to move away from it, partly to clean up the smogs that kill an estimated quarter of a million of its citizens each year."

Lean noted that 61 of the 66 nations responsible for 88 percent of the global emissions have passed legislation to control them.

"There is also a shift from seeing combating climate change as sacrificing growth to realizing that it can increase it," he wrote. And it's not just tree huggers who are insisting something needs to be done. "Opposition to action is beginning to face. One survey shows that even most U.S. Republicans under the age of 35 regard skeptics as 'ignorant,' 'out of touch,' or 'crazy.'"

But this is the fifth report since 1990, when scientists warned climate change was "potentially the greatest global environmental challenge facing humanity." Since then, annual global gas emissions from burning fossil fuels have gone up 60 percent.

Even while our leaders in Washington, D.C., prevaricate, many of us have made a personal commitment to reducing our carbon footprints, whether that's driving a more fuel-efficient vehicle, installing fluorescent and LED lighting, and pursuing energy efficiency projects in our homes.

But that's not enough. Scientists warn just cutting fossil fuel is not enough. At a time when meat and dairy products are becoming more and more a part of diets around the world, Frederik Hederus, one of the report's authors, said the doubling of nitrous oxide from fields and methane from livestock by 2070 would make the effects of cutting fossil fuels basically the same as tilting at windmills.

"We have shown that reducing meat and dairy consumption is key to bringing agricultural pollution down to safe levels," he said.

In addition to taxing carbon emissions, some climate change scientists are suggesting we also tax meat and dairy. While many of us are willing to do what we can to reduce our use of fossil fuels, meat and dairy in our diets might be too much of a sacred cow for us to reduce or cut out altogether.

But these are rapidly changing times, and while many of us may not live long enough to see the devastating impacts of our lifestyle on humanity's habitat, our children and grandchildren surely will. We owe it to them to do what we can to grab the bull by the horns and slow its charge before it reaches the brink and plunges over into the abyss. Forgive us for mixing metaphors, but are we not smarter than the lemmings? Time will tell.


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