Expert says swift action needed to calm climate
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As world leaders, scientists and policymakers from 193 nations opened the United Nations climate change conference in Doha, Qatar, this week, Larry Schweiger, president and chief executive officer of the National Wildlife Federation, was in Pittsburgh to sound a warning and issue a challenge.
The global warming debate is over, he said, and it's time to act. Past time, actually.
Speaking at Duquesne University on Tuesday evening, Mr. Schweiger said climate change is occurring much faster than even the most dire scientific studies predicted and the world has already entered a period of "climate consequences." If strong, swift action is not taken to reduce carbon emissions worldwide by 5 percent a year, he said, those consequences will become increasingly disruptive, deadly and catastrophic.
One example is higher ocean levels caused by glacier and snow melt combined with water expansion due to higher water temperatures. Mr. Schweiger said sea levels are expected to rise by five to seven feet by the end of the century. For every 3.28 feet the seas rise, studies predict 100 million people will be displaced from island and low-lying nations.
In Qatar, R.K. Pachauri, chair of the U.N.'s International Panel on Climate Change, delivered a new risk assessment report outlining the serious impacts faced by the world "if we do not take timely and adequate action to limit the concentration of greenhouse gases in the Earth's atmosphere, and if we do not adapt to the level of climate change which is now committed to happen."
Both Mr. Pachauri and Mr. Schweiger noted in their talks the heightened risk of species extinction due to rising global temperatures. If temperatures go up by 2.2 to 4 degrees Fahrenheit, scientists predict 20 to 30 percent of all animal species will face extinction, and if temperatures increase by more than 7.2 degrees Fahrenheit, 40 to 70 percent of species would be at risk.
Mr. Schweiger said man-made carbon dioxide emissions are between 130 to 235 times higher than those produced naturally, are increasing globally and have a direct connection to temperature increases. A U.N. report issued last week found that carbon emissions -- primarily from the burning of coal, oil and natural gas -- increased by 20 percent worldwide during the last 12 years.
Also, Wednesday, Jean-Pascal van Ypersele, vice chair of the IPCC, said the superstorm known as Hurricane Sandy was "probably not a coincidence," and an example of the extreme weather events that will be more likely to occur in the U.S. as the climate changes.
Mr. Schweiger, a Pittsburgh native and author of the recently published book, "Last Chance: Preserving Life on Earth," blamed a combination of timid political leadership and fossil fuel industry propaganda for delaying needed carbon controls for 20 years, giving climate change forces an almost insurmountable head start and putting the Earth and its animal and plant inhabitants at serious risk.
"We've had the science for that long that would have caused a prudent person to act," he said to an audience of about 150 attending a lecture that was part of the university's 20th anniversary celebration of the Bayer School's Center for Environmental Research and Education. "Instead we've talked about it for a long time and ignored the science and the consequences."
Among the many consequences already evident, Mr. Schweiger said, are high temperatures in the U.S. The hottest 10 years on record in the U.S. have been the last 10 years. The hottest year ever has been this year, he said, and the hottest month ever was this July.
More than 40,000 heat records were broken during the first half of this year and in early August water temperatures in the Mississippi River along Iowa's eastern border rose to nearly 100 degrees, killing 40,000 shovelnose sturgeon.
"I've heard of cold-water fish and warm-water fish," Mr. Schweiger said, "but not hot-water fish."
He said additional consequences of climate change include:
• To reflect the long-term but accelerating national warming trend, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has had to revise its "plant hardiness zone" map in 1999, 2004 and 2010, he said, and the 2010 map is already obsolete.
• In British Columbia, 80 percent of the trees will die by 2013 because of a bark beetle infestation made possible by winters too warm to kill the bugs, he said.
• The number of forest fires are increasing nationwide, tracking temperature increases and lightning strikes, which also increase as temperatures rise.
• Iowa has had four "100-year floods" in the last five years.
• In the Arctic, where warming trends are amplified, summer ice covered 20 percent less of the ocean this year than in 2007, and scientists predict that by 2020 there's an 80 percent chance it will be ice free. "That would have a profound effect on our weather, altering how the jet stream works and the flow of ocean currents," Mr. Schweiger said.
• Melting of the Siberian ice shelf released 10 billion tons of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, in 2009 and thawing of the Siberian tundra could release 70 billion to 80 billion tons more.
• Ocean acidity has also increased by 30 percent, putting at risk coral reefs and a number of other fish and shellfish species.
"We shouldn't assume these are isolated events unconnected to one another," Mr. Schweiger said.
He said public pressure is needed to push U.S. and world leaders to action on climate change that includes more reliance on wind and solar power and ocean tides, and sharp reductions in fossil fuel use -- especially coal -- but including natural gas. He said he's "troubled" by shale gas development, even as a bridge fuel, because burning gas produces half the carbon emissions of coal.
"There is a population still hanging on to the old paradigm of dirty fossil fuels. Coal ads are painful to watch. Clean coal is a myth, a dangerous myth that's misleading a lot of people," Mr. Schweiger said. "New gas power plants have a 30- to 50-year life, and I think that's a stranded investment in a few years because we cannot allow an energy source with that kind of carbon emissions if we're going to achieve a zero-carbon world."
Mr. Schweiger said the U.S. and the world would benefit economically and environmentally from the creation of a "new energy economy," and in the coming weeks he will ask for a meeting with Obama administration officials to push for more aggressive action on a variety of climate change issues. "We need to be blunt with our leaders. We need bold leadership in the country, and we want to see bold action. They have the information they need. Now they need to act on it."
First Published November 29, 2012 12:00 am