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"Climate is an angry beast, and we are poking it with sticks."
-- Dr.Wallace Broecker, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory
It is the future. Imagine more or less permanent and severe El Niños, coupled with a world-wide increase in sea levels by several feet and an increase in worldwide temperatures by as much as 6.3 degrees (F). Many coastal ports have already been severely damaged. Thousands of square miles of low lying Pacific and Gulf coastal areas are now under water and the coastal wetlands that once supported shrimp, menhaden, crab, halibut, flounder and roughly 50% of other commercially fished species have all but disappeared. Fish are increasingly scarce everywhere.
The west coast shellfish industry has long since disappeared. So have most salmon runs south of Alaska -- and many of those left are severely depressed because of warm offshore waters. Hundreds of once plentiful marine and wetlands dependent species now extinct. Bluefish, Tuna, mackerel and some deep sea species still exist, but only far north of their usual fishing grounds. Any fishing which still exists is dependent on deep sea species migrating up from the tropics, and these are mostly caught for starving Asian countries. There are fewer island ports in the mid-Pacific these days -- several island nations which once existed in the 20th century are no more, now underwater at high tide. Once settled portions of Hawaii have also disappeared under the waves, and Hawaiian ports are seriously threatened.
The climate is a lot different than it used to be too. The world's deserts have been growing at alarming rates, and food can be scarce because rain is unreliable. Hundreds of millions died in the last famine, in spite of help from the world's better off nations. Closer to home, California is battered each year alternately by hurricanes and floods, and the forests of the Pacific Northwest and northern California are dying as decades of drought and widespread forest fires take their toll. Large portions of Los Angeles County and most of what was once called the San Francisco Bay Area are now under water too -- when the dikes broke there was no way to hold the waters back. Salt water in the San Francisco Bay now backs up all the way to Sacramento, but the waters there are too warm to support much life.
Still, things are better on the west coast than many places -- the battle for New Orleans has just been lost, when that city had to be abandoned to the rising tidewaters. Most of southern Florida is now underwater too or periodically flooded, and much of the Gulf States have disappeared. Chesapeake Bay disappeared decades ago, together with its entire fishery. Kansas is now virtually a desert, racked with drought. Some low lying countries (such as Bangladesh and Holland), have disappeared altogether and had to be evacuated. There are half a billion environmental refugees scattering everywhere and causing enormous dislocation.
Welcome to the year 2050 AD. Welcome to the "Era of Global Warming."
The above are some of the serious projections being made based on what is now recognized as the most alarming environmental trend of this and the next century. And it is not science fiction. It is already happening. Consider the following facts:
Until recently, scientists were uncertain about what all this meant, or whether these variations were natural or caused by humans. However, in the fall of 1995, scientists with the UN-affiliated Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change -- the authoritative international scientific body charged by the UN to study this issue -- reached a conclusion in its "Second Assessment Report" which summarized the current state of scientific knowledge on global warming. The IPCC concluded that not only was global warming a reality, but that it was caused primarily by rapid increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) caused by humans -- and at the present rate of increase it would get much worse. This Report was composed and peer-reviewed by more than 2,500 of the world's leading climate scientists, economists and risk-analysis experts. Its findings have since been confirmed in several scientific journals. Only a handful of naysayers still exist -- mostly those in the pay of big oil companies, coal producers and major industries whose profits depend on burning more fossil fuels, and who have lead a massive campaign of denial and delay.
Global warming is a fact. It is happening now. It also too late to stop it, though it can be slowed down if appropriate actions are taken soon. In fact, unless those actions are in fact taken soon global warming will get much, much worse -- and no one really knows what the consequences are likely to be, except that they are likely to be severe.
The Earth's climate is powered by a delicate balance between the amount of heat trapped by sunlight and the amount of heat lost by natural radiation back out into space. All the sun's heat would radiate back out into space except for the Earth's atmosphere, which contains a mixture of heat-trapping gases -- including water vapor, carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide and methane. These gases act as a natural "greenhouse" by keeping in just the right amount of the sun's energy to support life.
This delicate balance has now been radically changed by the past 60 years of human industrialization. Massive amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2) have been thrown into the atmosphere by the widespread burning of fossil fuels coupled with worldwide deforestation (trees store large amounts of CO2). In fact, this key element -- atmospheric CO2 -- has increased an alarming 30% worldwide just in the last 100 years. Other greenhouse gases such as methane (CH4) have also dramatically increased due to industrial agriculture. All these gases trap heat. Other artificial industrial chemicals have also been released into the air in large quantities which destroy the Earth's protective ozone layer, allowing more hard ultraviolet radiation to reach the Earth's surface, disrupting living organisms. The destruction of the Earth's ozone layer has also been documented, but is a separate problem from the warming itself.
What global warming means, in short, is that the world's climate is gradually heating up and changing in unpredictable ways. While a 2 to 6 degree (F) worldwide temperature increase may not seem like much, most of the world's agriculture depends on temperatures being stable to within 2 degrees, and also depends upon predictable rainfall. Much of the world's agriculture could be wiped out if these changes are too severe. What we have already seen, however, is more climate change than has been experienced by the Earth than in at least the last 30,000 years. Worse yet, this change is taking place far more rapidly than natural ecosystems can adapt to. From 1981 to 1991 worldwide, for instance, the start of spring plant growth has advanced by eight days. Major changes in vegetation are now occurring over one-eighth of the planet. Spruce forests are now advancing into the Arctic tundra, and a doubling of CO2 is expected to shrink the tundra itself by 30%, thus releasing vast amounts of stored
CO2 which would make the situation even worse. 100-year flood events are becoming commonplace in the Midwest and Pacific Coast. Whole ecosystems are being stressed and some are starting to seriously unravel. Worldwide species extinction rates have now gone from 1-2 species each year (the normal background rate) to an estimated 150,000 each year -- or 17 species going extinct each hour, the fastest rate of extinction in 65 million years.
The ocean ecosystem too is in a finely balanced equilibrium. We've seen what just a few degrees temperature difference in ocean currents can mean -- El Niños. We have also seen the recent collapse of the Bristol Bay salmon fishery, again related to an unexpected influx of warm water, probably El Ni_o related.
El Niños have happened periodically through history, of course, and are not necessarily related to global warming. Worldwide warming trends, however, could easily exacerbate El Ni_os as well as greatly increase their frequency. Warming could also trigger a "phase shift" in which El Ni_os become the norm, and not the exception. This would mean widespread devastation of marine ecosystems, with many cold water species forced to migrate northward or perish. The range of many species (such as Pacific salmon) would shrink dramatically, particularly those whose habitat has already been seriously degraded by human impacts.
Migratory patterns within the ocean system are likely to be disrupted by any long term warming trend. Species that are wetlands or estuarine dependent (roughly 50% of the landings in the west coast and up to 98% in places like the Gulf of Mexico) would largely disappear as coastal wetlands and salt water estuaries were inundated. Deep sea species (particularly tropical species) might fare much better, however, as warm water ranges were expanded. However, nobody knows just how widespread warming would affect upwellings and the marine food chain over the long run. A likely result would be to greatly impoverish the US and British Columbian fishery for several decades while marine ecosystems are adjusting -- if they adjust at all. This is the danger -- some parts of the marine food chain may not adapt. Many commercially valuable marine food sources may totally disappear from our waters.
This concern has lead many fishing organizations such as PCFFA to call for dramatic reductions of greenhouse gases being pumped into the atmosphere. "As fishermen, we know and we've experienced first hand the impacts ocean temperature change can have on fish populations," stated PCFFA's President, Pietro Paravanno, at a recent press event. "We don't want our fisheries placed at further risk of climate change resulting from global warming caused by human greenhouse gas emissions."
The US is a key player in greenhouse gas emissions. With 4% of the world's population, the US produces more than 20% of its greenhouse gases and has done little or nothing to control them. In 1992, prompted by the IPCC Report, the US and 150 other nations entered into an agreement called the "United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (FCCC)" at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. The FCCC was ratified by the US Senate in 1992 and has now been ratified by 165 other nations. This agreement called for voluntary cutbacks of greenhouse gases to 1990 levels. However, the US and most other industrial nations have totally missed these targets -- US emissions are in fact projected to be 13% higher in the year 2000 than they were in 1990.
Because these voluntary efforts have proven inadequate, there is widespread agreement that mandatory measures are now needed. This resulted in a new world-wide climate treaty (the "Kyoto Protocol") at the International Climate Summit in Kyoto, Japan in December, 1997. The Kyoto Protocol is complex, but requires the US to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to 7% below 1990 levels by the year 2008. Even this level will not reverse global warming by a long shot, but if implemented will at least mitigate the damages and moderate its impacts through the next century. However, the Protocol must still be ratified by the US Senate before it becomes binding on the US as an official treaty. This issue is expected to come before the US Senate next year.
The petroleum, automobile and coal industry, predictably, have mounted a multi-million dollar campaign to prevent Senate ratification, and many Senators have called the Protocol "dead on arrival." One of the elements in this campaign is to greatly exaggerate the economic impacts these reductions -- which are technologically feasible, and may in fact be economically beneficial -- would have on the US economy. This rhetoric does not much impress us. In fact, the US Department of Energy has issued a comprehensive report indicating that these reductions are not likely to adversely affect the economy, and in fact could greatly increase its economic efficiency, particularly through the introduction of new conservation technologies. Other reputable economic studies say the same thing.
"We're frankly tired of the fossil fuel lobby and their fellow travelers and the 'chicken little' claims of economic harm from this treaty," comments PCFFA's President, Pietro Paravanno. "Their allegations have no basis in science or economics. But make no mistake, if we don't do something about greenhouse gases and other pollution it will be America's first industry -- fishing -- that will be the first to be destroyed. It's time other industries and members of Congress stopped whining about the agreement and started leading the effort to control global warming. We know what global warming will do to the environment and the economy. We know if we pull together we can do something to control it. Let's just do it!"
The historic record of CO2 presence in the Earth's atmosphere, from US Global Change Research Information Office. Early reconstructions are from antarctic ice cores, ancient reef growth rings, ocean sediment cores and other sources, all of which are cross-checked against each other.
Here is a list of the most reputable Internet information sources on the global warming issue (use exact web addresses or click on the link):
US Environmental Protection Agency
US Global Change Research Information Office
Pace Law School Global Warming Central
Union of Concerned Scientists -- Global Warming Information
Write or call your Senators and tell them to support the Kyoto Protocol on greenhouse gas emissions as well as support more efficient uses of energy and oil that reduce greenhouse gases. You can always reach your Senator by calling:
Congressional Switchboard: (202)224-3121
PCFFA is the U.S. west coast's largest organization of commercial fishermen. PCFFA's Southwest Regional Office can be reached at: PO Box 29370, San Francisco, CA 94129-0370 and by phone (415)561-5080. PCFFA's Northwest Regional Office can be reached at: PO Box 11170, Eugene, OR 97440-3370 and by phone (541)689-2000. PCFFA's Internet Home Page is at <http://www.pcffa.org> or PCFFA can be reached by email at <firstname.lastname@example.org>.
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