Rising sea levels and more severe weather may be the two effects of climate change that have gotten the most press, but as the latest report from the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change makes clear, the impact will be far more widespread and disastrous, and the world remains ill-prepared to deal with that new reality.
That's not to downplay what impact coastal flooding and more powerful storms or worsened droughts will have on the world; they are potentially disastrous. But the report, put together by hundreds of leading scientists, reveals the far more insidious nature of man-made global warming, from depletion of the food supply to worsening poverty and the increasing likelihood of civil wars or conflicts between nations over economic refugees.
And it's not only the IPCC that is fretting about wars launched by climate change. The U.S. Department of Defense recently released a security assessment that described climate change as a "threat multiplier" that is bound to trigger new conflicts and worsen poverty or political instabilities that often lead to wars as well.
Only the most stubborn, out-there and irredeemable deniers are unable to recognize what the scientists have demonstrated convincingly — that man-made greenhouse gas emissions are the main reason global warming is getting worse. Such emissions can be stuck in the atmosphere for centuries, gradually trapping heat like an insulating blanket.
Melting glaciers are just one measure of the problem. Researchers also point to dozens more indicators from the bleaching of coral in the Great Barrier Reef to the increased threat of extinction facing certain animals and plants as they struggle to adapt. Already, the authors point out, there are signs that global wheat and corn yields are in decline, falling 1-to-2 percent per decade.
As freshwater resources are lost, human health will suffer as well. The hardest hit will be the poorest living in low-lying areas of Africa, Latin America and Asia, but that doesn't mean industrialized nations will have it easy. As Northern New Jersey discovered with Hurricane Sandy in 2012, severe weather can devastate coastal areas whether they are populated by rich or poor.
It will take a global effort to alleviate the worst effects of climate change — it's unlikely to be halted entirely — and building a coalition has proven elusive. But at the very least the report should build support for President Barack Obama's efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the most recent of which is directed at reducing harmful methane emissions from landfills, farms and natural gas operations.
As much as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's limits of coal-fired power plants caused some squealing in states that have grown accustomed to "cheap" electricity (inexpensive only when the impacts on human health and welfare are ignored), much more will need to be done. Investing in renewable energy and demanding greater energy efficiency in homes, vehicles and appliances ought to be higher priorities of federal and state governments.
Obviously, Congress is unlikely to be up for the task. Earlier this month, the GOP-controlled House of Representatives passed legislation to reduce the EPA's power to curb power plant emissions. And increasing U.S. aid to developing nations so they can stop relying so much on burning coal or wood, an important strategy for reducing emissions, is likely a non-starter in that chamber as well. There's also just so much that the EPA and President Obama with his executive order pen can accomplish.
That leaves it up to the general public to demand more of their government and the business community and to embrace reasonable lifestyle changes that could moderate the effects of climate change. Step one might be to read the IPCC report and better understand what scientists now understand about the issue — and at least insulate oneself against the mythology of deniers who make wild accusations about global left wing conspiracies and spout pseudoscience babble about cosmic rays and a cooling planet.
The world may be ill-prepared for the risks associated with climate change, as the authors point out, but that doesn't mean it has to continue to be. Whether it means retiring polluting power plants or simply investing more in emergency aid programs to help victims of storms, floods or droughts, there is no shortage of remedies, only a need to pursue them with a far greater sense of urgency than has been demonstrated to date.
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