Some of the most dire warnings yet about the future of our planet and the consequences of ignoring the forces and causes of climate change are being delivered by some of the most knowledgeable scientists in their fields.
Predictions of irreversible and unprecedented ramifications driven by climate change and other man-made impacts on the natural balance of Earth are nothing new, as experts are increasing their warnings of a tipping point in which lack of action by political leaders to curb carbon emissions and otherwise change the climate status quo combine to produce an inevitable reaction that will eventually be unstoppable.
Now, researchers and scientists have released a comprehensive new study that frames the deadly crossroads arrived at by humans due to their own behavior in the starkest terms possible. Their conclusion is that irreversible climate change, as well as unchecked human consumption and population growth, could lead to mass shifts in the planet’s biosphere that could very well become an extinction event for mankind.
Anthony Barnosky, biology professor at University of California-Berkely and lead author of the newly published study, says that a “new world” will likely emerge after this super-sized environmental “tipping point,” one that will have “severe impacts” on our ability to sustain current levels in quality of life and sustainability.
A prestigious group of scientists from around the world is warning that population growth, widespread destruction of natural ecosystems, and climate change may be driving Earth toward an irreversible change in the biosphere, a planet-wide tipping point that would have destructive consequences absent adequate preparation and mitigation.
“It really will be a new world, biologically, at that point,” warns Anthony Barnosky, professor of integrative biology at the University of California, Berkeley, and lead author of a review paper appearing in the June 7 issue of the journal Nature. “The data suggests that there will be a reduction in biodiversity and severe impacts on much of what we depend on to sustain our quality of life, including, for example, fisheries, agriculture, forest products and clean water. This could happen within just a few generations.”
Experts contend that the planet’s current extreme environment is similar to periods in biological history when vast changes — including mass extinctions — took place in a short timeframe, except that human activity is causing these changes to occur more rapidly and on a more expansive — and permanent scale.
The raw statistics do not reflect well on how we have treated planet Earth. Humans have consumed nearly 50 percent of the planet’s land mass in various activities and industries, and temperatures will rise to their highest levels at any other time in human evolution by the end of this century.
Human activity now dominates 43 percent of Earth’s land surface and affects twice that area. One-third of all available fresh water is diverted to human use. A full 20 percent of Earth’s net terrestrial primary production, the sheer volume of life produced on land every year, is harvested for human purposes. Extinction rates compare to those recorded during the demise of dinosaurs and average temperatures will likely be higher in 2070 than at any point in human evolution.
Scientists informally call our current geological age the “Anthropocene,” and to Barnosky’s group this means we’re strong enough to tip the planet, radically changing regional climates and ecologies.
“Everything that happened the last time around is happening now, only more of it,” said Barnosky of the last ice age’s end and ongoing changes to Earth’s climate and biosphere. “I think the evidence makes it pretty clear that another critical transition or tipping point is very plausible within the next century.”
The researchers that put this comprehensive diagnosis of the planet’s health and future course are not mincing words when it comes to describing what may lay in store for mankind should the status quo continue to be protected. One scientists said the outlook “scares the hell out of me,” and that the “bubble” of sustaining current levels of human life and habitation are about to “burst.”
The situation “scares the hell out of me,” said one author of the paper, James H. Brown, who is a macroecologist at the University of New Mexico and a member of the National Academy of Sciences. “We’ve created this enormous bubble of population and economy. If you try to get the good data and do the arithmetic, it’s just unsustainable. It’s either got to be deflated gently, or it’s going to burst.”
“Rio+20,” the global environmental conference convened by the United Nations on the 20th anniversary of the groundbreaking Rio Earth summit, is tha target of scientists and climate experts who are critical of the feeble steps taken by the international boday and industrialized nations in the two decades that have passed since the original meeting set lofty goals to promote environmental sustainability and combat global warming.
Population growth has skyrocketed and carbon emissions have risen 40 percent in the 20 years since the first Rio conference, leading many to question what good the latest event will do when the health of planet has gotten “worse” since 1992.
Closer to home, data released this week by government forecasters show that 2012 has seen the warmest spring in recorded U.S. history. Meteorological spring ended on June 1, and temperature readings for the beginning of the year were a stunning 5.2 degrees above the 20th century average and 2 degrees higher than the single hottest spring previously recorded.
Every contiguous state except one saw temperatures higher than normal for the start of 2012, and dozens set new heat records for the period. Forecasters said the widespread and pervasive warmth “what we would expect to see more often” due to climate change.
So far, 2012 has been the warmest year the United States has ever seen, with the warmest spring and the second-warmest May since record-keeping began in 1895, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported on Thursday.
Temperatures for the past 12 months and the year-to-date have been the warmest on record for the contiguous United States, NOAA said.
The average temperature for the contiguous 48 states for meteorological spring, which runs from March t hrough May, was 57.1 degrees F (13.9 C), 5.2 degrees (2.9 C) above the 20th century long-term average and 2 degrees F (1.1 C) warmer than the previous warmest spring in 1910.
Record warmth and near-record warmth blanketed the eastern two-thirds of the country from this spring, with 31 states reporting record warmth for the season and 11 more with spring temperatures among their 10 warmest.
“The Midwest and the upper Midwest were the epicenters for this vast warmth,” Deke Arndt of NOAA’s Climatic Data Center said in an online video. That meant farming started earlier in the year, and so did pests and weeds, bringing higher costs earlier in the growing season, Arndt said.
“This warmth is an example of what we would expect to see more often in a warming world,” Arndt said.
More long-lasting heat waves, record-high daytime temperatures and record-high overnight low temperatures are to be expected in a warming world, said Jake Crouch of NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center.
“And that’s what we’re seeing,” Crouch said by telephone. “We’ve seen it quite a bit over the last 12 months.”
More alarming is a relatively obscure milestone set this spring; carbon dioxide measurements in a remote part of Alaska reached 400 parts per million, the first time that has happened in history and only 50 ppm’s from the level said by scientists to be the “upper limit” that the planet can handle without more dramatic temperature rise.
Another Arctic measurement related to climate reached a milestone this spring, NOAA reported: the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide at Barrow, Alaska, reached 400 parts per million, the first time a monthly average for this greenhouse gas passed that level at a remote location.
The level of 450 ppm is regarded by many scientists and environmental activists as the upper limit the planet can afford if global temperature rise is to be kept to within 3.6 degrees F (2 C) this century. Some advocates suggest 350 ppm is a more appropriate target.
The 400 ppm mark for carbon dioxide in less remote locations, such as Cape May, New Jersey, has been reached for several years in the springtime, NOAA said in a statement.
But measurements of carbon dioxide over 400 ppm at remote sites like Barrow – and at six other remote Arctic sites – reflect long-term human emissions of the climate-warming gas, rather than direct emissions from a nearby population center.
The global monthly mean level of atmospheric carbon dioxide was about 394 ppm in April, compared to 336 ppm in 1979, pre-industrial levels of about 278 ppm and ice age levels of about 185 ppm.
As the world warms, environmental dominoes begin to fall, and noticeable effects of climate change begin to repeatedly make themselves felt to every American, partisan politics and outdated ideology continue to make any progress on meaningful preventative action impossible in the United States.
As heat records were toppling across the country in our warmest spring ever, lawmakers in North Carolina were pushing forward with legislation that outlaws science which happens to inconvenience politically powerful development interests along the state’s coasts.
“NC-20,” a group made up of developers and business interests in North Carolina’s easternmost counties , and state lawmakers introduced a bill that would make it illegal to adopt findings from scientific experts hired by the state that say sea levels along the Tar Heel coast will rise significantly due to climate change.
The state’s own “Coastal Resources Commission” reported that sea levels will rise as much as 39 inches along the Atlantic seaboard by 2100. Several of North Carolina’s most esteemed scientists and researchers put the final report together, which mirrors warnings of global sea level rise that will dramatically impact coastal residents and development. Still, NC-20 and interst groups attacked the findings as a “hypothetical number” that would have a negative impact on the economy if adopted and widely published.
Wading into the turbulent debate over global warming, North Carolina’s state legislature is considering a bill that would require the government to ignore new reports of rising sea levels and predictions of ocean and climate scientists.
Business interests along the state’s coastline pushed lawmakers to include language in a law that would require future sea level estimates to be based only on data from past years. New evidence, especially on sea level rise that could be tied to global warming, would not be factored into the state’s development plans for the coast.
“We’re skeptical of the rising sea level science,” says Tom Thompson, chairman of NC-20, an economic development group representing the state’s 20 coastal counties. “Our concern is that the economy could be tremendously impacted by a hypothetical number with nothing but computers and speculation.”
That ‘hypothetical number’ came from the state’s Coastal Resources Commission, which recommended planning around a 39-inch rise in sea level by 2100. At the behest of NC-20 and coastal governments, the commission decided to remove the number from its policy entirely.
“Originally we did have the 39-inch recommendation, but the commission chose to remove that,” says Michele Walker, spokeswoman for the North Carolina Coastal Resources Commission. “We got a lot of pushback from coastal governments and groups who were concerned that would hurt their ability to develop in their communities.”
Seized on by conservative lawmakers in the state and nationally by climate change denialists as a means to fire back at scientists and others voicing concerns over human-related warming, the bill’s popularity soared and it was fast tracked for approval in the state legislature.
This week, a state senate committee endorsed the change that would strike the 39-inch prediction from the state’s final coastal report and place a complete ban any future predictions of sea level rise.
Lawmakers defended their vote for the bill by claiming they could not personally “validate” the warnings of sea level rise , while business leaders argued there was “no science” behind the scientific report and bashed the idea of rising waters as “impossible.”
Rejecting a science panel’s warning that the North Carolina coast should prepare for an increasingly rapid rise in sea level later in this century, a Senate committee on Thursday endorsed far-reaching rules that would force planning and regulatory agencies to base sea-level forecasts only on the slower rates recorded in the past.
“If you’re going to use science when you really can’t validate it, … you’re going to be implementing policy and rules and regulations that can have a very, very negative impact on the coastal economy of this state,” said Sen. David Rouzer, a Benson Republican who championed the legislation.
The bill would give the state Coastal Resources Commission sole responsibility for making any prediction for the rate of sea-level rise to be used as the basis for state or local regulations. The commission is a planning board with 15 members appointed by the governor.
It would place tight restrictions on how the commission could develop its forecast.
Projections for future rates must be based on “statistically significant, peer-reviewed historical data,” the bill says. The forecast could not include any prediction that sea level would rise at a faster rate in future years – unless this accelerated pace is “consistent with historic trends.”
That acceleration is just what has been predicted by several national scientific societies and other scientists, including a panel the Coastal Resources Commission appointed to make a forecast for the North Carolina coast. The panel said in 2010 that a rise of one meter (39 inches) was likely by 2100, partly because the rate of that increase will speed up by the middle of the century.
“Nobody can predict the future with any degree of certainty,” Tom Thompson of Washington, N.C., the N.C.-20 board chairman, said in an interview. Rouzer and N.C.-20 sought to discredit the panel’s reliance on computer projections.
Thompson warned against wasting millions of dollars by building roads, houses and other structures high enough to avoid an unlikely rise in the sea level. Citing sea-level measures from the 20th century, Thompson’s group predicts a rise of only eight inches during the 21st century.
“We’re concerned there’s no science behind this thing,” Thompson, who serves as Beaufort County’s economic development director, said in an interview. “To say 39 inches in 88 years is just so far outside the historical realm, it’s just impossible.”