U.S. Climate Policy a “Disgrace!”

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“In countries like Burundi, you can hold children who are starving and
dying because of weather changes that many experts believe are driven
by our carbon emissions.”

“Not only is the U.S. not leading on climate change, we’re holding
others back,” said Jessica Bailey, who works on climate issues for
the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. “We’re inhibiting progress on climate
change globally.”

” … that’s our national policy toward climate change, and it’s a disgrace.”
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The New York Times
August 16, 2007

The Big Melt

By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF

If we learned that Al Qaeda was secretly developing a new terrorist
technique that could disrupt water supplies around the globe, force
tens of millions from their homes and potentially endanger our entire
planet, we would be aroused into a frenzy and deploy every possible
asset to neutralize the threat.

Yet that is precisely the threat that we’re creating ourselves, with
our greenhouse gases. While there is still much uncertainty about the
severity of the consequences, a series of new studies indicate that
we’re cooking our favorite planet more quickly than experts had
expected.

The newly published studies haven’t received much attention, because
they’re not in English but in Scientese and hence drier than the
Sahara Desert. But they suggest that ice is melting and our seas are
rising more quickly than most experts had anticipated.

The latest source of alarm is the news, as reported by my Times
colleague Andrew Revkin, that sea ice in the northern polar region
just set a new low – and it still has another month of melting ahead
of it. At this rate, the “permanent” north polar ice cap may
disappear entirely in our lifetimes.

In case you missed the May edition of “Geophysical Research Letters,”
an article by five scientists has the backdrop. They analyze the
extent of Arctic sea ice each summer since 1953. The computer models
anticipated a loss of ice of 2.5 percent per decade, but the actual
loss was 7.8 percent per decade – three times greater.

The article notes that the extent of summer ice melting is 30 years
ahead of where the models predict.

Three other recent reports underscore that climate change seems to be
occurring more quickly than computer models had anticipated:

Science magazine reported in March that Antarctica and Greenland are
both losing ice overall, about 125 billion metric tons a year between
the two of them – and the amount has accelerated over the last
decade. To put that in context, the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (the
most unstable part of the frosty cloak over the southernmost
continent) and Greenland together hold enough ice to raise global sea
levels by 40 feet or so, although they would take hundreds of years
to melt. We hope.

In January, Science reported that actual rises in sea level in recent
years followed the uppermost limit of the range predicted by computer
models of climate change – meaning that past studies had understated
the rise. As a result, the study found that the sea is likely to rise
higher than most previous forecasts – to between 50 centimeters and
1.4 meters by the year 2100 (and then continuing from there).

Science Express, the online edition of Science, reported last month
that the world’s several hundred thousand glaciers and small ice caps
are thinning more quickly than people realized. “At the very least,
our projections indicate that future sea-level rise maybe larger than
anticipated,” the article declared.

What does all this mean?

“Over and over again, we’re finding that models correctly predict the
patterns of change but understate their magnitude,” notes Jay
Gulledge, a senior scientist at the Pew Center on Global Climate
Change.

This may all sound abstract, but climate change apparently is already
causing crop failures in Africa. In countries like Burundi, you can
hold children who are starving and dying because of weather changes
that many experts believe are driven by our carbon emissions.

There are practical steps we can take to curb carbon emissions, and
I’ll talk about them in a forthcoming column. But the tragedy is that
the U.S. has become a big part of the problem.
“Not only is the U.S. not leading on climate change, we’re holding
others back,” said Jessica Bailey, who works on climate issues for
the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. “We’re inhibiting progress on climate
change globally.”

I ran into Al Gore at a climate/energy conference this month, and he
vibrates with passion about this issue – recognizing that we should
confront mortal threats even when they don’t emanate from Al Qaeda.

“We are now treating the Earth’s atmosphere as an open sewer,” he
said, and (perhaps because my teenage son was beside me) he
encouraged young people to engage in peaceful protests to block major
new carbon sources.

“I can’t understand why there aren’t rings of young people blocking
bulldozers,” Mr. Gore said, “and preventing them from constructing
coal-fired power plants.”

Critics scoff that the scientific debate is continuing, that the
consequences are uncertain – and they’re right. There is natural
variability and lots of uncertainty, especially about the magnitude
and timing of climate change.

In the same way, terror experts aren’t sure about the magnitude and
timing of Al Qaeda’s next strike. But it would be myopic to shrug
that because there’s uncertainty about the risks, we shouldn’t act
vigorously to confront them – yet that’s our national policy toward
climate change, and it’s a disgrace.

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