On the Brink of Global Collapse

As governments, organizations and leaders struggle to come to terms with the financial crisis affecting not only their own country but affecting the health of the global economy, there’s a problem far worse than money. The health of the planet continues to get overshadowed by larger headlines of war, famine, disease, water shortages, crop failures, food shortages, economic bankruptcy, and a myriad of other issues. By no means, do I mean to lessen the importance as on a daily basis citizens of the world struggle to find and survive on basic necessities such as food, water and shelter. However, ignoring the challenges of a changing plant due to pollution, population and consumption will not serve to benefit anyone as the life expectancy of the planet being to shorten and show its age. Many things the human race has done are irreversible and rapidly deteriorating fragile ecosystems that once span great distances, but the hope now is for people to realize what can be done to slow the process and buy us a little more time on this planet we call Earth.
For those skeptics out there, some evidence of global climate change has already shown itself with the rise in sea level, violent weather, longer winters, hotter summers, glacial melting, flooding, animal beaching and extinction of species who once flourished. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the population clock as of today stands at approximately 7,082, 424, 250 at 14:08 PST  with roughly 60% of the population living on the continent of Asia. The birth and death rate for the world calculates to be one birth every 8 seconds and one death every 12 seconds with the United states gaining one migrant every 14 seconds. If these numbers don’t drop your jaw, then look at the birth rate which calculates out to be about 370,000 babies born each day around the world with a life expectancy of 67 years. With all these people relying on an ecosystem that is showing its age, can we be so sure that the system won’t collapse?

Two terms must be defined in this discussion which are global warming and climate change. Global warming is the rise of Earth’s atmospheric temperature and oceans since the late 19th century and its projected continuation. Since the early 20th century, temperatures have increased by 0.8 degrees Celsius or 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit with two third of this occurring since 1980. At no time in history has temperature risen so quickly leading scientists to be more than 90% certain the cause of concentrated greenhouse gases is due to human activities of fossil fuel consumption and deforestation. Climate change is a significant and lasting change in statistical distribution of weather patterns over periods of decades to millions of years. It changes in average weather conditions or the distribution of weather around average condition such as a more or fewer extreme weather events. Climate Change relies on several factors such as oceanic processes i.e. oceanic circulation, biotic processes, solar radiation variations received by Earth, plate tectonics, volcanic eruptions and human alterations of the natural world which account for global warming. The term climate change is often used to describe the human specific impacts.

Scientist use observational and theoretical methods to evaluate past and future climate. Borehole temperature profiles, ice cores, floral and faunal records, glacial and periglacial processes, stable isotope and other sediment analyses, and see level records help scientist to accurately look at the climate record that spans the geological past even instrumental records provide more recent data.  General circulation models also aid in a theoretical approach to match past climate data, make future projections and link causes and effects in climate change. According to a 2007 Fourth Assessment Report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, in the 21st century the global surface temperature is likely to rise 1.1 to 2.9 degrees Celsius or 2 to 5.2 degrees Fahrenheit for the lowest emission scenario while a rise of 2.4 to 6.4 degrees Celsius or 4.3 to 11.5 degrees Fahrenheit for the highest.

Actual measures of future warming and related changes will vary by region. The effects of an increase in global temperature would include a rise in sea levels, change in precipitation patterns, expansion of subtropical deserts, and in the Arctic where warming is expected to be strongest will cause further retreat of glaciers, permafrost and sea ice. Other likely events will include more frequent extreme weather events such as heat waves, droughts and heavy rainfall, ocean acidification and species extinction not to mention the human impact such as food scarcity and loss of habitat due to inundation. Climate change increases risks of many types of record breaking extreme weather events like in 2012 where 3,527 monthly weather records were broken for rain, heat and snow in the U.S. according to the National Climatic Data Center (NCDC), beating  the 2011 record at 3,251 and even some long standing records 30 or more years old. Record breaking weather occurred in all 50 states in 2012 with the hottest March on record in the U.S. and July being the hottest single month ever recorded. 2012 led to the worst drought in 50 years across the nation’s breadbasket according to NOAA with over 1,300 U.S. counties in 29 states declared drought disaster areas. Wildfires burned across 9.2 million acres in the U.S. destroying hundreds of homes with an average size of fire record of 165 acres per fire. Hurricane Sandy’s storm surge height at 13.88 feet broke the all time record in New York Harbor destroying communities in New Jersey and New York with floodwater and winds leaving 131 dead and countless injured. The cost of Sandy reached $79 billion dollars not including health related impacts and in 2011 an estimated $14 to 40 billion in health costs resulted from six extreme events that will likely worsen with global warming.

Beside heat related deaths, we are also looking at water scarcity and contamination among other things. The increase in fossil fuel usage and emissions will lead to more heat trapping greenhouse gases making heat waves more intense and could potentially cause 150,000 additional Americans to die by the end of the century due to excessive heat. Extreme storms can cause a myriad of problems such as drownings, contaminated drinking water and infectious disease outbreaks. The heat and smog increase respiratory diseases such as asthma and worsen cardiac or pulmonary diseases. The solution to the problem is for lawmakers to quit ignoring the problem of climate change and start limiting carbon pollution that is heating the planet and adding to extreme events. Tropical Storm Debby brought record rainfall and extreme flooding in Florida in 2012 killing seven people, destroying a 100 homes and causing tens of millions of dollars in damage to beaches, businesses and homes. In the Midwest storms that dump more than three inches of rain a day have more than doubled in the last 50 years. Between intense rain and rising sea levels, flooding will increase if not addressed now as some states have started to take steps to address the problem many have not. The first half of 2012 saw more than 80 percent of the country in abnormally dry or drought conditions in mid-July threatening water and food supplies even driving up the cost of everything from corn to milk. More than 1,100 U.S. counties will face water shortages by mid century as a result of global warming. Some states are taking steps to address the problem by developing monitoring systems and increasing water storage capacity. Another solution is to stop wasting water and the energy required to pump it around.

The effects on the world’s living ecosystems are hard to predict but are potentially the most devastating. Many ecosystems are sensitive to the slightest changes as most ecosystems are dependent on each other making the chain reaction of effects immeasurable. One tiny change could kill off several species and other species that depend on them to survive. The effects could range from a forest gradually dying off to grasslands or entire coral reefs dying. Many species of plants and animals would have to move or adapt to the shifting climate or become extinct. According to the University of Alberta, much of the tundra in Northern Canada has turned into forest  and does so at sudden spurts. The human cost could result in thousands of lives per year lost due to heat stroke and hear related trauma. Poor and underdeveloped nations would suffer without financial resources to deal with increase temperatures leaving a huge number to die from starvation if precipitation limits crop growth and disease from coastal flooding leads to water borne illness. Rising temperatures are changing weather and vegetation patterns across the globe forcing many species to migrate to new areas, however the rapid nature of climate change will exceed the ability of many species to migrate or adjust leading experts to predict that one fourth of Earth’s species will be headed for extinction by 2050 if the warming trend continues at its current rate. Polar bears will become extinct in a 100 years due to melting ice caps, more coral reefs will bleach out as heat kills colorful algae needed for coral health and survival, and many states will lose their official birds as they head to cooler climates. The rising sea level and heat will cause thermal expansion as glaciers dump more fresh water into the ocean creating problems for coastal areas and damage to ecosystems such as mangroves and wetlands. Over the next 100 years, sea levels will continue to rise between 4 and 36 inches compared to a four to eight inch rise over the past 100 years causing approximately 100 million people who live within three feet of sea level to be displaced. Higher temperatures will cause frequent and more severe droughts as water evaporates from land and water causing devastation to agriculture, the water supply and human health something that occurs already in some parts of Asia and Africa. Scientist have also indicated that climate change will cause hurricanes and tropical storms to become more intense lasting longer and unleashing stronger winds damaging ecosystems and communities even gaining energy as ocean temperatures rise. Disease and pests once limited to tropics will find hospitable condition in new areas once too cold to support them.

If action is not taken to curb global carbon emissions, climate change could cost between 5 and 20 percent of the annual gross domestic product  according to a British government report compared to 1 percent of the GDP to lessen the most damaging effects of climate change. In Southern New England, lobster catches have plummeted due to heat stress and growing parasite threats due to sea temperature. Ski resorts located in the Swiss Alps have difficulty obtaining bank loans as snowfall declines. In Lake Erie, climate change may significantly lower lake levels costing millions for relocation of ports and shore infrastructure. Globally, more intense downpours and hurricanes could cause billions of dollars in damage to property and infrastructure. Declining crop yields due to drought and higher temperatures especially in Africa could put hundreds of thousands at risk for starvation and an overall decrease in quality food, water and land may lead to increase global threats, conflict and war. Higher temperatures threaten the coral reefs that generate $375 billion per year in goods and services. National security experts looking at Sudan’s Darfur region suggests that global warming has contributed to the conflict specifically the availability of resources. The violence broke out during a time of drought after two decades of little to no rain along with rising temperatures in the Indian Ocean. Scientist along with military analysts theorize that climate change and consequences will lead to threats of war and conflict as countries suffering from water shortages and crop loss become vulnerable to security problems.

In order to counteract the emission of greenhouse gases, new non-fossil fuel energies need to be developed. Hydro-electric power, solar power, hydrogen engines and fuel cells could all create big cuts in greenhouse gases if they were to become more common. At the international level, the Kyoto treaty introduced the idea of reducing CO2 and other greenhouse gas emission to a global audience with thirty-five industrialized nations committing to reduce their output of gases to varying degrees. Unfortunately, the world’s biggest offender, the United States, did not sign the treaty.

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