While the scientists have been doing their job in calling attention to the multiple ways in which environmental decline threatens the planet, we hear less and less from political leaders. Their focus is on the here-and-now—terrorism, jobs, immigration—and not on commitments to the future. Last year’s Paris Agreement on climate change seems like a distant memory.
Here is some of the latest scientific evidence, which points not only to the magnitude and immediacy of the problem but also to the interdependence of its parts:
- Five scientists from the Global Change Research Institute, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, in College Park, Maryland, give findings on the rate of climate change increase—“unprecedented for at least the past 1,000 years”—and therefore the need for an accelerated response.
- To the now familiar melting of the Arctic ice packs—which the most recent study shows is likely to cause a sea level rise of “at least several meters”– should be added the equally if not more dangerous thawing of the permafrost, which means increasing emissions of methane and carbon dioxide. “Indeed,” Chris Mooney reports, “scientists have discovered a simple statistic that underscores the scale of the potential problem: There may be more than twice as much carbon contained in northern permafrost as there is in the atmosphere itself. That’s a staggering thought.” (Methane, by the way, seems to be the unsung villain: all the attention to carbon dioxide, Bill McKibben tells us in The Nation, detracts from methane’s equally potent heat trapping. Increased use of natural gas, plus fracking, are significantly increasing methane emissions in the U.S.)
- The world’s largest forest “carbon sink,” the Amazon basin, is losing its ability to soak up excess carbon dioxide, a British study reports. In a nutshell, growth—i.e., conversion of forest land to agriculture—is outpacing forest sustainability.
Americans’ concern is rising again: the percentage of Americans polled by Gallup in 2016 who believe climate change is a worrisome problem stands at 64 percent.
- Human expansion, such as in the Amazon basin, is imperiling the ecosystem itself. A study by European scientists finds that biodiversity levels have fallen below the point where the ecosystem can remain intact. Species decline of 10 percent, the scientists estimate, is dangerous; “but their study found that overall, across the globe, the average decline is already more like 15 percent. In other words, original species are only about 85 percent as abundant (84.6 percent to be precise) as they were before human land-use changes.” Climate change will add substantially to this sobering assessment.
- A new UN Environment Programme report covering all parts of the globe found that well-known problems are intensifying. Two problems in particular: “One was worsening air pollution problems, driven, again, by large populations and the swelling of urban cores. Another was widespread water scarcity problems, exacerbated by climate change but also greater demand in growing cities.” More than 1,200 scientists from 160 countries participated in the study.
- The first-ever international report on declining populations of bees, butterflies, and other pollinators underscores the looming threat to world food supplies and the agricultural system that supports it. The causes of pollinator extinction are well known: global warming, pesticides, and overuse of agricultural land.
- New studies of flooding confirm that rising sea levels as the result of global warming are occurring at a faster rate than ever before. The coastal flooding witnessed in recent years in Miami, Charleston, and Norfolk is likely to be more frequent and prolonged in the future. Ocean levels may rise up three to four feet by 2100.
- China, while promising to draw 20 percent of its energy from renewable sources, is, in fact, continuing to construct coal-fired plants—on average, one plant a week until 2020, according to the latest Greenpeace report. The extraordinary fact about this new construction is that it creates huge excess capacity, the result not of central government dictates but rather of permits for investment in coal-fired plants by leaders in distant provinces. Unless this trend stops, as much as $200 billion will be wasted, and water availability will dramatically decline.
Two pieces of good news: nuclear power is in trouble everywhere, and the ozone “hole” over the Antarctic is starting to heal. The latest “World Nuclear Industry Status Report” details the numerous nuclear power plants that have been or in a short time will be shut down. Financing problems, aging plants, and technical breakdowns are a big part of the reason; but competition from renewable energy sources is becoming the most important factor. The future energy picture is captured in this notation: “Globally, wind power output grew by 17 percent, solar by 33 percent, nuclear by 1.3 percent” in the past year, and “Brazil, China, India, Japan and the Netherlands now all generate more electricity from wind turbines alone than from nuclear power plants.” Meantime, thanks to the 1987 Montreal Protocol that phased out ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons, the ozone layer is growing back—a sign that international agreements backed by a coalition of scientists do work.
Public opinion trails behind scientific findings on climate change, according to Pew Research Center polls. The urgency of climate change is felt more strongly in Europe and Latin America than in the U.S. and China. That fact is worrisome: Americans and Chinese, who live in the biggest carbon producing societies, should be the most concerned about climate change. On the other hand, Americans’ concern is rising again: the percentage of Americans polled by Gallup in 2016 who believe climate change is a worrisome problem stands at 64 percent. On the other end of the spectrum, only 10 percent of U.S. adults now discount global warming as a major problem. But before we celebrate, we need to remind ourselves that expressions of concern don’t equate to what people are willing to do to combat the problem, even at the polls. And if many of them are inclined to “let the politicians figure it out,” or hide behind “I’m not a scientist” disclaimers, we’re in great trouble.
Sadly, climate change is barely on the election-year agenda. That’s hardly surprising in the case of Donald Trump, a climate change denier. His comeuppance will be when his prize Florida hotel, Mar-a-Lago, goes under water in perhaps thirty years, along with many other coastal properties as mentioned above. Beaches and streets are already flooding in Miami. As for Hillary Clinton, she has mentioned global warming of course, but it’s clearly not a high priority in her campaign. Whether or not that changes in her presidency remains to be seen.
A final thought, which comes from an opinion piece by William Gail, former president of the American Meteorological Society: Future generations may have to start from scratch in grappling with the “new dark age” of climate-altering changes. Their learning process will have been disrupted. Models, technologies, and other resources used to identify patterns, and predict and act on Earth’s dramatic changes, will be largely useless. Our children and grandchildren have no idea what they are inheriting.