Won’t it be fun when we can take gondola rides through downtown Miami and Los Angeles? And will not Eskimos smile when the Yukon River Valley grows cantaloupe for the European Union? And won’t we rejoice when, instead of taking the same old cruise to the palmy Caribbean, we can do something really different like water ski at the North Pole? If such things sound far-fetched, just waitfor we know from fossil evidence that at one time, about 55 million years ago, tropical vegetation had spread inside both the Arctic and Antarctic circles. And just a week or two ago it was reported that a mile-wide expanse of water had opened up at the North Pole. Average Arctic temperatures are the warmest they have been in four centuries.
The tell-tale signs of global warming are upon us. No single sign is decisive, but polar meltdown, along with record heat waves in the Balkans, rising sea levels reported in Hawaii and Fiji, and shrinking glaciers in Alaska and the Himalayas are direct manifestations of colossal global climate change. Vanishing Checkerspot butterflies in California and penguins in Antarctica, earlier springtimes in Britain and Alaska, increased storms and flooding on the U.S. East coast and drought and forest fires in the West, and the spread of tropical diseases like malaria, dengue fever and the West Nile virus into temperate zonesall these events are harbingers of worse things to come.
In 1992, when the nations of the world met at Rio de Janeiro to devise collective measures to deal with environmental problems, mainstream scientists could not agree whether man-made emissions were causing global warming or not. But since then the scientific consensus has firmed up. In 1995, the 2,500 scientists consulted through the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded that human influence on the global climate was critical, responsible for about 60 percent of the global warming observed since 1850; and in this year’s follow-up report the panel only confirms that conclusion. The uncertainties are no longer about whether our factories, power plants and car exhausts are having a warming effect. The uncertainties have to do with when the full impact will kick in, to what extent oceans and clouds may delay the deluge, and who the winners and losers will be.
Global warming, warned Gregg Easterbrook, the harshest critic of environmentalist exaggerations, is the most disturbing ecological prospect of our moment on Earth. When the U.N.’s Panel on Climate Change predicts a rise in average global temperature, during the present century, of 2 to 6 degrees Fahrenheit, they are talking about potentially catastrophic climate change.
Temperature increases of only 3.5 degrees, it is estimated, would rev up the planet’s rain-making machinery in some regions, while in dry regions deadly heat waves and droughts would intensify. At the same time, sea levels could rise by 20 inches, flooding Pacific islands and coastal lowlands, and putting vast areas of China, Bangladesh and Egypt under water. Smart investors may want to buy real estate in Siberia or northern Canada.
What is to be done? At the1992 Rio conference, the United States vowed to stabilize carbon emissions at 1990 levels by the year 2000. Instead, with the help of fuel-guzzling sport utility vehicles, we’re burning 15 percent more fossil fuel than we did in 1990. Once again, at a 1998 meeting in Kyoto to endorse a new international climate treaty, industrialized nations promised to reduce emissions by an average of 5 percent below 1990 levels between 2008 and 2012. Thus far, we are a long way from doing that, in part because the U.S. energy industry has conducted a vigorous campaign of resistance. Our big oil companies, it would appear, would have us live in the specious present, as if we had no future generations to look after.
Happily, not every transnational company thinks this way. British Petroleum, Royal Dutch Shell, Boeing, Monsanto, General Motors and United Technologies have all announced that they will reduce emissions, and by greater amounts than required by the Kyoto treaty. In the meantime, everyone can pitch in to improve energy efficiency and thus reduce carbon emissions. Householders should buy energy efficient appliances and end the love affair with S.U.V.’s. And we could all switch to long-lived fluorescent bulbs that use one-fourth the energy of incandescent light bulbs. For the long term, however, government and industry must work toward the de-carbonization of the economy by sponsoring research and development of clean energy sourcessolar, wind and hydrogen power. We owe this to the planet and the Creator.