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It isn't often that the Pentagon, the U.S. Department of Commerce, the United Nations, the National Academy of Sciences, the European Union, the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Intelligence Council, and the Shell Oil Company agree on anything.
When it comes to the threat of global climate change, however, the evidence is in and the verdict is clear. These groups, and more, all concur. The world is warming at an alarming rate. Irreparable harm has already been done. Catastrophe looms ... unless we take the necessary steps to avert it.
The Arctic ice cover is melting. In the past three decades, a third of it has gone. The deserts of Africa are spreading, fueling disputes and sometimes conflict over increasingly scarce clean water and food. Himalayan glaciers are in retreat, threatening rivers that one out of every five people on Earth depend on for water to drink and to grow crops.
Oceans are becoming more acidic, putting coral and shellfish at risk.
Ancient pines in Yellowstone are dying. Wildfires are burning eight million acres of American lands each year, twiceas much as a decade ago, and the devastation is set to expand.
Global sea levels are on track to rise by two feet or more by this century's end, a change that would leave scores of coastal cities worldwide as vulnerable to flooding as New Orleans. The Everglades would go underwater. Ellis Island could be submerged.
Hurricanes, droughts, typhoons, and storms have become more severe. The world endures, on average, more than 400 weather-related disasters each year, more than twice as many as just two decades ago.
A 2003 heat wave killed 30,000 people in Europe, half of them in France, in what the chief scientific adviser to the British government called "the largest, single natural disaster on record in central Europe, as measured by human fatalities."
That's what hot weather does to some of the richest people on Earth. This is what it means for the poorest: "Green pasture land has turned to dust ... water taps have run dry ... communities fight over the last remaining pieces of fertile grazing land ... children, dressed in little more than a sheet, are hiking 20 miles for a gallon of water" (The New York Times, September 8, 2009. Dateline: Lokori, Kenya).
From the Sahara to Central Asia, a belt of dry land growing ever thirstier has seen the first trickles of what Refugees International already fears will be wave upon wave of climate refugees on the move in the decades ahead. Closer to home for Americans, the summer of 2009 brought the worst drought in 70 years to Mexico, killing an estimated 50,000 cows and wiping out 17 million acres of cropland.
"The human impact of climate change is happening right now," former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan declared last May, when the group he founded, the Global Humanitarian Forum, released a survey of the impact global warming is already having on the world's poor. "For those living on the brink of survival," he said, "climate change is a very real and dangerous hazard."
It isn't only low-income people who are threatened. In September 2009, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency launched The Center on Climate Change and National Security. Its mission is to assess the national security risks posed to the United States by widening desertification; rising sea levels; population shifts and increasing competition for food, land, fresh water, and other natural resources of growing scarcity around the world; and to better evaluate "the effect environmental factors can have on political, economic and social stability overseas," the CIA stated in a September 25 press release. As CIA Director Leon Panetta put it in the release, "Decision makers need information and analysis on the effects climate change can have on security."
* * *
In 1989, then-President George H. W. Bush started asking questions about climate change. He had heard a lot of fussing and fighting. He wanted to know the truth.
Initiated by Bush, the U.S. Global Change Research Program was one of the most exhaustive undertakings in the annals of scientific inquiry. It was a 20-year mega-study commissioned by the U.S. Congress and conducted by 13 federal agencies over the course of four administrations-two of them Republican and two Democratic.
The results were made public last June in a 196page report. This is how it begins:
"Observations show that warming of the climate is unequivocal."
Unequivocal: leaving no doubt, open to no misunderstanding. That's what unequivocal means.
"The global warming observed over the past 50 years is due primarily to human-induced emissions of heat-trapping gases," the report goes on. "These emissions come mainly from the burning of fossil fuels (coal, oil, and gas), with important contributions from the clearing of forests, agricultural practices and other activities."
As fossil fuel use has intensified over the past century, carbon dioxide emissions, the report continues, have already raised average temperatures by as much as 7 degrees Fahrenheit in parts of the United States, shortening winters, lengthening summers, and raising sea levels and water temperatures in ways that have begun to affect human health, farms, coastal areas, and water supplies.
Further warming is already inevitable, and, unless action is taken to limit carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels in cars, factories, and power plants, the world could warm another 11.5 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century, the report concludes, with potentially devastating effects that span the globe.
"Likely future changes for the United States and surrounding coastal waters include more intense hurricanes with related increases in wind, rain and storm surges," states the report. "These changes will affect human health, water supply, agriculture, coastal areas and many other aspects of society and the natural environment."
The project was led by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the most authoritative source of weather and climate information anywhere in the world. Also on board: the Department of Defense, the National Science Foundation, the Department of State, and nine other U.S. government agencies. They augmented their own data with hundreds of peer-reviewed studies in 21 separate scientific disciplines ranging from ecological systems to atmospheric chemistry.
The work was audited by the National Academy of Sciences and then further scrutinized by an independent panel of experts from institutions like the National Center for Atmospheric Research, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Texas A&M University.
If you're wondering whether climate change is real, these are good people to ask.
Their findings, moreover, echo similar conclusions reached separately by the United Nations, the 27 countries that make up the European Union, and, indeed, one of the largest and oldest oil companies in the world.
"The scientific evidence is now overwhelming," Shell Oil states on its website. "Climate change is a serious global threat, one that demands an urgent worldwide response."
That statement is nearly identical to language contained in a 2008 assessment by the British Treasury. Those views, in turn, are mirrored in dozens of independent assessments from groups as diverse as the National Intelligence Council and the World Health Organization.
"Climate change poses a clear and present danger to the United States of America," retired Navy Admiral Lee Gunn told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in July. He warned of strategic bases falling prey to rising sea levels, weakened states falling into anarchy, and regional conflicts boiling over amid growing scarcities of food, water, and arable farmland.
"As the planet warms, rainfall patterns shift and extreme events such as droughts, floods, and forest fires become more frequent," the World Bank stressed in its World Development Report 2010, released in mid-September. "Millions in densely populated coastal areas and in island nations will lose their homes as the sea level rises. Poor people in Africa, Asia, and elsewhere face prospects of tragic crop failures; reduced agricultural productivity; and increased hunger, malnutrition, and disease."
Little wonder Kofi Annan calls global climate change "the greatest emerging humanitarian challenge of our time."
A towering edifice of global consensus has risen around immutable facts.
To argue against them, at this point, is the twenty-first-century equivalent of saying the Earth is flat. The accumulated science, the body of research, the physical evidence before our very eyes, is literally that definitive.
"The science has become more irrevocable than ever: climate change is happening. The evidence is all around us," United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon wrote in the report on climate change that the U.N. Environment Program released September 24, 2009. "The time for hesitation is over. The time to act is now."
This debate has been settled and scored. Now we all know the truth.
We know that our world is warming. We know it is harming us all. We know it is only going to get worse until we stand up and summon the will to stop it. And we know what it will take to do that. We must find the courage to begin.
"We know enough to act on climate change," the U.S. Climate Action Partnership, a coalition of corporate and environmental interests, wrote in "A Call for Action," a 2007 position paper. "Congress needs to enact legislation as quickly as possible."
Excerpted from Clean Energy Common Sense by Frances Beinecke Bob Deans Copyright © 2009 by Frances Beinecke. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted February 21, 2010
A concise, well-documented, powerful and inclusive summary of
today's global warming threat and measures needed to lessen it. Short, easy to read, and compelling.