A Climate Repair Manual

Global warming is a reality. Innovation in energy technology and policy are sorely needed if we are to cope

By Gary Stix – Scientific American

Explorers attempted and mostly failed over the centuries to establish a pathway from the Atlantic to the Pacific through the icebound North, a quest often punctuated by starvation and scurvy. Yet within just 40 years, and maybe many fewer, an ascending thermometer will likely mean that the maritime dream of Sir Francis Drake and Captain James Cook will turn into an actual route of commerce that competes with the Panama Canal.

The term “glacial change” has taken on a meaning opposite to its common usage. Yet in reality, Arctic shipping lanes would count as one of the more benign effects of accelerated climate change. The repercussions of melting glaciers, disruptions in the Gulf Stream and record heat waves edge toward the apocalyptic: floods, pestilence, hurricanes, droughts–even itchier cases of poison ivy. Month after month, reports mount of the deleterious effects of rising carbon levels. One recent study chronicled threats to coral and other marine organisms, another a big upswing in major wildfires in the western U.S. that have resulted because of warming.

The debate on global warming is over. Present levels of carbon dioxide–nearing 400 parts per million (ppm) in the earth’s atmosphere–are higher than they have been at any time in the past 650,000 years and could easily surpass 500 ppm by the year 2050 without radical intervention.

The earth requires greenhouse gases, including water vapor, carbon dioxide and methane, to prevent some of the heat from the received solar radiation from escaping back into space, thus keeping the planet hospitable for protozoa, Shetland ponies and Lindsay Lohan. But too much of a good thing–in particular, carbon dioxide from SUVs and local coal-fired utilities–is causing a steady uptick in the thermometer. Almost all of the 20 hottest years on record have occurred since the 1980s.

No one knows exactly what will happen if things are left unchecked–the exact date when a polar ice sheet will complete a phase change from solid to liquid cannot be foreseen with precision, which is why the Bush administration and warming-skeptical public-interest groups still carry on about the uncertainties of climate change. But no climatologist wants to test what will arise if carbon dioxide levels drift much higher than 500 ppm.

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