The present consequences of climate change are severe, and will be more so for the next generation.
AS the present U.S. government begins adopting policies that increase the level of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere, it is important to carefully consider what impact these changes will have on us and on our children. Unfortunately, climate change and the resulting environmental damage does not lie in the distant future.
Conservative interpretation of ongoing scientific research shows that we are fully immersed within a rapidly changing environment. A misconception about climate change is that it takes multiple centuries to occur. Instead, studies of past environments show that minor changes in ocean circulation can produce a switch from Arctic glacial to warm interglacial temperatures in only decades. The present rates of change of global temperature, ocean chemistry, sea level and precipitation are unprecedented over the past 55 million years, and are occurring within our life spans.
The negative consequences that this generation will experience are not just the reduction of iconic polar bear populations, but involve the death of coral reefs on a global scale, which are located in shallow coastal areas where a billion people obtain their basic daily protein by fishing.
The present dramatic reduction of Arctic sea ice is not a remote phenomenon, of no concern to us in comfortable middle latitudes. An ice-free Arctic is instead a driver of extreme weather, as air circulation pathways change dramatically, producing negative consequences for the entire Northern Hemisphere.
Numerical models of future climate make the generalized prediction that regions with abundant rainfall will receive more precipitation, while arid regions presently dry will get even less rain. This change has been occurring for decades and is now a global trend and not only localized weather. As areas of the Middle East and Northern Africa continue to warm and become more dry, demographers predict population relocations and human suffering that dwarf current migrations.
Locally, as our mountain snowpack is reduced by an increasingly earlier spring and later fall, August flow in the Columbia River will decrease, and river water temperatures will rise substantially within the next few decades. The impact of less available fresh water for agriculture that also is cool enough to support fish stocks will soon be obvious to the least attentive among us. Increased atmospheric carbon dioxide levels have already acidified our coastal waters, threatening our shellfish and commercial fishing industries.
As these fundamental changes to our economy occur, it will seem less important that our Northwest Pacific ski slopes will remain grassy meadows during most of the year.
On a national scale, recent studies published by the National Academy of Sciences predict a reduction in U.S. agriculture productivity of 4 percent per year due directly to climate change, with production falling to 1980 crop levels by 2050. This reduced food supply with increasing global demand will compel rising prices and increasing scarcity for U.S. families.
Rising sea levels from warming temperatures and melting of Greenland and Antarctica ice sheets continues to accelerate, currently producing coastal flooding during storm surges.
As a recent homework problem for my climate class, I asked the students to use polar ice sheet melting rates to predict when a well-known golf course in coastal Florida would be flooded for much of the year. The correct homework answer was in the Year 2050, depressingly soon for the Atlantic coastal communities that must adapt, but perhaps too far in the future to capture the attention of the present administration. Recent actions of President Donald Trump in removing regulations on greenhouse-gas emissions will only bury us deeper within the dark hole of environmental damage that future generations must escape in order to live.
Climate change is not in the future but is here and now. The consequences of this change are presently severe, and will be worse for the next generation. There is an old Chinese proverb that says “if we don’t change course, we will end up where we are going.” We owe it to ourselves to change what we are doing now, while there still may be time for us and for our children to live in a habitable world.