If there is one consequence of the current elections that will have long-term implications for all Americans in the coming years it is climate change. It doesn’t have to be a Republican or a Democratic issue, but humankind’s concern.
It is already having an impact on all life around the globe. The depth of those impacts will become more severe in the coming decades. It will mean more children dying of starvation. It will see more refugees fleeing coastal nations where sea rise has flooded their homes. It will mean more refugees fleeing drought-stricken nations seeking food and security, more shortages of water for drinking and irrigation, and more political instability in nations around the planet.
Generations of our descendants will live with the choices we make today, as individuals, as communities, and as a nation.
One positive outcome of the coronavirus pandemic has been reducing greenhouse gas emissions as more people stay at home to work and don’t go out as often. During shutdowns, before and after photos in cities worldwide showed dense smog replaced by clear air.
Still, this past May, the Earth surpassed another dismaying milestone as it hit one more record for carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide traps heat and warms the planet. It’s produced by the vehicles we drive, the carbon-based fuels we use to heat our homes and businesses, to cook with, the energy we use to light our homes and to run the machinery of industry.
Unlike smog in our cities, carbon dioxide in the atmosphere doesn’t dissipate quickly v.rith a short-term reduction in the use of carbon-based fuels. It can linger for centuries.
“It illustrates how difficult it is – what a huge job it is – to bring emissions down,” said NOAA senior scientist Pieter Tans told the Associated Press. “We are really committing the Earth to an enormous amount of warming for a very large time.” Based on records that go to 1958, the amount of carbon in the atmosphere has increased 31%.
We’ve had to learn a new term in recent years to help explain what is happening to our Earth’s climate and environment: Anthropogenic. It means change imposed by human activity.
Some skeptics say climate change is nothing more than a natural, long-term, variance in the world’s weather patterns. After all, in the last 650,000 years, we’ve been through seven ice ages, through periods of extreme drought and extreme rainfalls.
Scientists have proven that today’s weather extremes are more than natural climate variations. And 97.1 percent of climate scientists worldwide agree that we are significant contributors to those extremes.
Our world’s surface temperature has increased by just over 2 degrees in roughly the past 130 years. Our oceans have warmed by nearly 1 degree. Due to melting glaciers and polar ice, seas have risen by 8 inches in the past century, intensifying the damage caused by coastal flooding and by hurricane storm surges. These are scientific facts.
A warmer planet sees a combination of increased rains because warm air holds more moisture and increased heat leading to more frequent drought conditions.
In a 2017 National Climate Assessment, scientists dedicated a chapter to “warning of surprises” due to our burning of fossil fuels. It highlights the expectation of “compound extreme events.” Their forecast based on climate science was right. The number of billion-dollar weather catastrophes due to drought, fire, wind, and water are rapidly increasing.
“The already parched West is getting drier and suffering deadly wildfires because of it, while the much wetter East keeps getting drenched in mega-rainfall events, some hurricane-related and others not,” AP Science writer Seth Borenstein reports. Scientists say climate change is magnifying both extremes, he wrote.
The 100th meridian runs straight south down the western edge of Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico. For climate scientists, it has divided the eastern states from those in the West. When you look at a topographical map of the U.S., you will see the eastern states depicted in green while the western states are shades of yellow and brown.
In studying the U.S. Drought Monitor maps over the years, scientists have seen that dry-wet line move about 140 miles to the east. That puts western Minnesota into the dry zone. One consequence of a warmer and drier planet for America’s agriculture is the greater use of irrigation systems that take water from aquifers. These aquifers are also essential to supplying cities and rural residents with drinking water. Some of those aquifers are running dry.
While the West suffers extreme drought and devastating wildfires, our coastal cities are seeing more frequent extreme rainfalls. Hurricanes and tropical storms are bringing rainfalls of 20 to 30 inches with increasing regularity. Even states in the interior of the nation see more extreme rain events, including Minnesota.
“Over the past couple decades, meteorologists have been increasingly worried about storms that just blow up from nothing to a whopper. They created an official threshold for this dangerous rapid intensification – a storm gaining 35 mph in wind speed in just 24 hours.” Borenstein writes.
Last week’s Hurricane Delta was the sixth storm this year, and the second in a week to reach the threshold, he reported. Storms that intensify overnight don’t give communities time to prepare or its residents to flee.
As our planet warms, the Arctic permafrost is melting, releasing methane, a “super” greenhouse gas.
A Russian city that sits six miles inside the Arctic Circle shares the claim as the coldest inhabited place on Earth. This summer it saw a record high of 100-4 degrees, the highest temperature ever recorded in the Arctic, Borenstein reported.
Our capacity to think ahead past our immediate needs is nearly non-existent. Our compassion for those most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change limited. But as one climate scientist put it, “I don’t know where you can go to outrun climate change anymore.” November 3 we will decide who will lead us in the coming few years, but the consequences of who we choose will be felt by our children’s children.