Friday, May 04, 2007

Earth's Changing Climate: What is in Store for the Future?

It was raining last night as I walked into the Scott Conference Center at University of Nebraska-Omaha to hear a lecture on climate change. Did the rain deter attendance? Absolutely not! There was a capacity crowd gathered in the conference center, perhaps as many as 500. I looked around the room and saw a broad age range of people - high school and college students, middle adults, and many older adults. The room was energized and alert for the presenter.

The lecturer was Dr. Henry N. Pollack, a native of Omaha, and for more than 40 years a professor of geophysics at the University of Michigan. Pollack carries a reputation as one of the world's leading experts on the temperature of the earth, both today and in the geological past. He's been a consultant with leaders in government and business on climate change. As he remarked, "The idea of a global economy is readily grasped. Why would we deny the existence of global climate impacts by human behavior?"

Pollack began by commenting that no other scientific topic has been so consistently present in the news over the last 10 years. Climate change generates considerable interest. The roomful of listeners last night bore out that claim

In 2007, over the course of recent months, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has issued 3 major reports on behalf of the United Nations and the World Meteorological Organinzation that detail major new findings that Pollack summarized for us.

Four major questions served as the outline for the lecture by Dr. Pollack:
1. Is the climate changing?
2. What is causing climate change?
3. What will be the consequences?
4. What should be done about climate change?

The first 3 questions are scientific in nature. The last question is primarily political, economic, ethical, and religious in nature.

Question #1: Pollack used power point slides of temperature measurements of the oceans and land masses over the last 120 years to illustrate conclusive proof that the climate is changing and temperatures are rising. 20 of the 25 hottest temperatures on record have occurred in the last 50 years. Most striking was Pollack's powerful use of slides to conclusively show the loss of mountain glacial fields and loss of snow mass on mountains such as Kilamanjaro in Africa.
Ice melt in Greenland and breaking of ice masses from the mainland in Antarctica from satellite photos were also shown.

According to the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, "Warming of the climate system is unequivocal."

Question #2: What is causing climate change? Scientific evidence decisively points to human agency as the overwhelming cause for climate change. Greenhouse gases are trapping heat in the atmosphere and thereby warming surface temperatures. IPCC asserts that this is a 90% probability.

Question #3: What are the consequences? Take your pick:
* A warmer planet
* Higher sea levels
*Extreme weather events
*Ocean acidification
*Geographic shifts of biota (changing plant & animal life)

Ice is melting and there will eventually be no glacier mountains. This is catastrophic in that 1/6 of the world's population, some 1 billion people, depend on glacial melt for water and for crops.

More dangerous heat waves are coming

Human health will be impacted.

Rising sea levels carry catastrophic impacts. The IPCC projects that a 1 meter rise in sea level in the coming century would displace 100 million people as "climate refugees". Compare that Dr. Pollack told us to our inability to cope with 100,000 refugees from Hurricane Katrina.

Question #4: What should we be doing? First, we must move out of denial! You can't confront a problem without admitting it, Dr. Pollack told us. Enormous denial exists. The good news is increased public awareness is growing. Looking around the room the night of this lecture was proof of that reality.

Here's where Pollack issued a principle of climate change policy:
"Avoid the unmanageable, while seeking to manage the unavoidable."

Another principle is to mitigate or slow and reverse climate change and its consequences. This will be a slow, but determined process for the rest of the 21st century.

Actions to be taken include:
1. Conseration of electricity and other energy fuels.
2. More efficient transportation. We could set a target to drive 500 million cars 5,000 fewer miles each year. Increase fuel economy from 30-60 mpg.
3. Renewable energy sources. Wind power and solar cells must be expanded.
4. Biofuels increased
5. Nuclear power. We haven't build a new nuclear plant in 30 years.

I came away from last night's lecture with a far greater understanding of the issues in climate change and a resolve to learn more and to do something.

Pollack made a strong challenge: "The United States must blaze the trail for others to follow."

I wonder. Will we take up the challenge?


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