Seeking higher ground

While we were busy driving our cars, using our handheld devices and home appliances, eating beef and pork and microwaving our snacks for consumption in front of the television, it seems the world reached a tipping point.

We just wish someone had warned us a little earlier, oh say, like in 1968, when John Mercer, a glaciologist from Ohio State University characterized the West Antarctic Ice Sheet as "unstable." He said the ice sheet was perhaps the "single largest threat of rapid sea level rise."

Or maybe in 1973, when Terry Hughes, a researcher out of the University of Maine wrote a paper entitled "Is the West Antarctic Ice Sheet disintegrating?" And then in 1981, when Hughes again warned about the instability of the ice sheet.

Earlier this week, scientists announced the collapse of the ice sheet is already underway and there is little we can do to stop it.

"It has passed the point of no return," said Eric Rignot, a glaciologist at NASA and the University of California, Irvine. "The system is in a sort of chain reaction that is unstoppable."

"Scary," Stefan Rahmstorf, a professor of physics of the oceans at Potsdam University, tweeted. "One of the feared tipping points of the climate system appears to have been crossed."

Those who believe the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report and the White Houes's National Climate Assessment are nothing but fear-mongering were immediately put on the defense, especially when the scientists said their research concluded the sea level rise in the UN's report was much too conservative because it didn't include the Antarctic ice sheet. (If you want to really be startled, try this number on for size: 100 billion tons. That's how much Antarctic land ice disappears every year.)

But Elizabeth Kolbert, writing for The New Yorker, takes global climate change denialists to task.

"Of the many inane arguments that are made against taking action on climate change, perhaps the most fatuous is that the projections climate models offer about the future are too uncertain to justify taking steps that might inconvenience us in the present. The implicit assumption here is that the problem will turn out to be less serious than the models predict; thus, any carbon we have chosen to leave in the ground out of fear for the consequences of global warming will have gone uncombusted for nothing."

While the problem could, conceivably, be less serious than the scientists are stating, notes Kolbert, it could also be more serious.

"In fact, it increasingly appears that, if there is any systemic bias in the climate models, it's that they understate the gravity of the situation."

In the journal Global Environmental Change, Naomi Oreskes and Michael Oppenheimer write that skeptics frequently accuse climate scientists of "alarmism" and "overreacting to evidence of human impacts on the climate system."

In actuality, note Oreskes and Oppenheimer, "The scientific values of rationality, dispassion, and self-restraint tend to lead scientists to demand greater levels of evidence in support of surprising, dramatic, or alarming conclusions."

If you think 97 percent of global scientists are alarmists because they have some skin the game, maybe you might listen to The Center for Naval Analyses Military Advisory Board, which stated on May 13 that climate change-induced drought in the Middle East and Africa is leading to conflicts over food and water and escalating long-standing regional and ethnic tensions into violent clashes. Rising sea levels could force tidal waves of refugees to seek a haven inland and away from the encroaching sea, causing even more conflicts, noted the report.

In addition, the report predicts that an increase in catastrophic weather events around the world will create more demand for American troops, even as flooding and extreme weather events at home could damage naval ports and military bases.

Last March, in its Quadrennial Defense Review, the Pentagon noted "The impacts of climate change may increase the frequency, scale, and complexity of future missions, including defense support to civil authorities, while at the same time undermining the capacity of our domestic installations to support training activities."

Navy Admiral Samuel J. Locklear III told the Boston Globe significant upheaval related to the warming planet "is probably the most likely thing that is going to happen ... that will cripple the security environment, probably more likely than the other scenarios we all often talk about."

And with this latest report from NASA and the University of California, it appears we may be confronting the issues sooner rather than later.

"This system, whether Greenland or Antarctica, is changing on a faster time scale than we anticipated," said Rignot. "We're discovering that every day."

He said even if the world takes drastic actions to cut greenhouse gas emissions, it could be too late.

Still, there is some good news mixed in with the bad news: It could take 1,000 years to totally swamp the portions of the Earth that now sit 13 feet or lower above sea level. That means that everyone we know and love will be long dead before the consequences of our current lifestyle are totally realized. How good is that? We get to live high on the hog, wasting energy like it's going out of style and pumping tons of carbon dioxide and other pollutants into the ecosphere and then not have to pay the piper.

Whoo, hoo. Light the charcoal grill, throw a steak on the fire, start up the ATV and the leaf blower and let's party like it's 1999. Might as well enjoy the good life now, because future generations won't be able to. And the best thing? We won't be alive to suffer their opprobrium.

~ Brattleboro Reformer


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