A perfect storm for climate change

Photo courtesy of UCAR

As the good ship Copenhagen leaves port this week, it appears to be heading for a perfect storm. Public opinion in the U.S. has shifted. Hit by a tsunami of climate change denial, many Americans do not believe that atmospheric CO2 warms our planet. A recent Harris Poll finds that barely half the people surveyed accept that conclusion, although it’s a view held by a great majority of the world’s climate scientists. In a poll by the Pew Research Center, “climate comes in dead last, number 20 of the 20 big issues of concern to America,” Richard Harris writes in an NPR report (12/7/09). The reason for this change, he writes, is “a relatively small but active group of people who have decided that climate change is a phony issue.”

Enter U.S. Rep. John Linder (R-GA), “There is no need for any climate treaty at Copenhagen. It is time to disband the UN’s self-serving and serially dishonest climate panel. Officially sponsored environmental extremism is a danger to our national security.”

Linder’s statement was published on Speak Out for America, a climate skeptic’s blog started by geologist Steward Leighton. Leighton started Speak Out to question the science behind global warming claims. It opposes the once standard view that CO2 and other greenhouse gases trap the sun’s heat close to the earth, creating the higher temperatures responsible for rapidly melting ice caps and glaciers around the world. Leighton himself calls CO2 an atmospheric benefit, responsible for a 12 percent increase in agricultural productivity worldwide. He argues that CO2 reductions could damage the food supply.

There is clearly some disagreement among scientists, but the real drumbeat shaping U.S. opinion has come from commentators on Fox News and its affiliates. They pound on the theme that there is no climate crisis, that this is a conspiracy of bad science and the Democrats who want to destroy capitalism and the Constitution and turn America into another East Germany. Rush Limbaugh openly says President Obama is a Marxist who hates America. Glenn Beck says Obama hates white people. Among these commentators,  facts are an endangered species, a train of thought hard to catch. Much like old time preachers, they entertain through the power of fear: how terrible are the policies of this president, how sinful is socialism and how fully it will enslave us. In this world President Obama is a kind of thug. Clearly, conservatives fear the president’s popularity and are willing to smear him on any issue and deny him any success. Truth has been sacrificed to partisan politics, damn the consequences.

One consequence is widespread homelessness caused by flooding. Rising sea levels will cause the most serious dislocation of human populations, but high mountain communities are threatened as well. Quickly melting glaciers can flood lakes and rupture dams. Called “silent tsunamis,” these outburst floods are growing threats to communities downstream. Then, as the glaciers disappear, the opposite conditions prevail. High mountain ice no longer provides summer stream flows; downstream populations are threatened with drought. This danger is growing in countries surrounding the Andes Mountains like Bolivia and Peru; also in countries dependent on ice melt from the Himalayas. “Although we are not responsible for climate change, we are greatly affected by it,” says Nepal’s Minister for the Environment Thakur Sharma.

Homelessness would increase by an order of magnitude along many coastlines. Dipu Moni, Prime Minister of Bangladesh, has said a one-meter increase in sea level would inundate 30 percent of his country. By 2050 he estimates that 20 million people might have to be relocated. Climatologist Konrad Steffen of the University of Colorado estimates that 160 million people in Bangladesh could be homeless by the turn of the century if sea levels continue to rise at current rates.

Many countries including the Netherlands, Vietnam and parts of the U.S. such as South Florida would be heavily impacted. Where would these people go? Who would give them land? How would they support themselves on that land? The Palestinian refugees have been essentially homeless since 1946. Conflict would be inevitable.

The canary in the global warming coalmine is the coral atoll. Tiny nations that rise only a few meters above sea level in some places, they are already taking a hit. Tuvalu, a “paradise” of 12,000 in the south Pacific, has lost one meter of land around the largest of its nine atolls. Kiribati has seen intruding seawater destroy villages and crops. Drinking water has been contaminated. In the Carteret Islands close to Papua New Guinea, retired schoolteacher Rufina Moi says the ocean invades her village at least once a week. Banana and sugar cane crops have been devastated. Clan Chief Bernard Tunim says the pace of erosion will force thousands to flee by 2015. However, as he and others look, they can find no place on the mainland to resettle. In fact, Tunim finds no welcome anywhere. “Who will take us?” asks Rufina Moi, who thinks her only option may be to stay put and watch the waters rise. (source: “Eleven Nations Under Threat,” website of London Telegraph, 12/7/09)

Climate change deniers meet reports like these with skepticism, even cynicism. “Since so many countries are happy to blame the U.S. for the vast majority of what they amusingly claim is a catastrophic slide into global devastation,” Linders writes, “I am sure that a new UN Climate Government will be all too eager to call on the American taxpayer to foot the bill.”

Since 1993 scientist Konrad Steffen has watched average winter temperature rise by 9 ° farenheit at his ice camp in Greenland. He has documented the speeding loss of ice in Greenland and Antarctica for 30 years. Not given to rash predictions, Steffen sees a sea level rise and a warmer planet as inevitable. If we want to know what Mother Earth is up to, I believe we should trust the man with boots on the ice, not the one with lips to a microphone.

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