The recently-released results from two scientific studies jolted even me - a firm believer in human-induced global climate change. In one study, Worldwatch Institute compiled reports on glaciers and ice caps from around the world. They found that, "The Earth's ice cover is melting in more places and at higher rates than at any time since record keeping began." In the other study, the National Climatic Data Center found that in the final quarter of the 20th century, the Earth was warming up at a previously unexpected rate. As reported in The Los Angeles Times, this analysis "indicates Earth's climate is warming at an unprecedented rate, suggesting that the future impact of global warming may be more severe and sudden than predicted." In fact, given the series of 16 consecutive, record-warm months in 1997 and 1998, scientists think the rate of temperature rise may now be double what it was formerly believed to be.
Although fossil-fuel industry skeptics will cast doubt on these temperature figures, and even on the notion of global warming itself, it is hard to argue with the widespread melting of ice, much of which has existed as frozen water for thousands of years. At the North and South Poles, and on every continent, ice is melting far faster than expected. In many areas, one-quarter to one-half of the glaciers' mass has disappeared in just the last 150 years. The acceleration of melting above historical averages is really worrisome. For example, the Quelccaya Ice Cap in Peru is retreating at ten times its rate just ten years ago.
Because ice reflects the sun's light and heat, while open water or land absorbs them, this melting may increase the Earth's temperature even more, leading to further melting. Of course, melting glaciers raise the level of the sea. Already, the ocean has risen four to ten inches because of melting ice and increased temperature. If Antarctic ice continues to melt, it alone could raise sea levels between six and 70 meters. A ten-meter rise would flood the homes of one-quarter of the US population, making many of my listening audience homeless.
If we pay attention, the evidence is there. Unfortunately, the fossil-fuel industry, like the tobacco industry for much of this century, tries to obscure the connection between its products and these serious problems. Yet, even if humans are not the cause of these serious changes on the Earth, prudence should dictate that we use our ingenuity to figure out how to cope with them.
In the end, it won't matter if we are flooded as a result of our gluttonous use of fossil fuels or by natural long-term changes in the climate. Already hundreds of millions of people who live in Central America, Bangladesh, Mozambique, and North Carolina have experienced the horrors of unusually severe storms which became tragic disasters because of deforestation, human settlement patterns and industrial-scale hog and chicken farms. This country produces about one quarter of the world's greenhouse gases, and we're determined, it seems, to keep it up.
If there ever were a time and place to simplify our lives and learn how to satisfy our needs close to home, it is here and now. What can we do? We can use less fossil-fuel energy and take advantage of solar energy. We can drive less, walk more, and live in smaller houses which take advantage of the sun's non-polluting power. And, we can get serious about eating more from our gardens.
Spring began last Monday.. Let's use this season's warming sun and sprouting plants to show us the way to a more benign relationship with the Earth. This way should decrease the rate of global climate change and make us less vulnerable to its ravages.
This spring, we've got out work cut out for us.
This is Bill Duesing, Living on the Earth
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