Bob Bates —
In 1896, Swedish Nobel laureate Svante Arrhenius calculated that increases of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the Earth’s atmosphere contributed to the “greenhouse effect” of trapping heat close to the planet’s surface. Based on this observation, he predicted incremental global warming proportional to the added amounts of CO2 above natural levels. Decades before, with the advent of the Industrial Age in the early part of the 19th century, the natural atmospheric levels of CO2 were calculated to be 280 parts per million by volume (ppm). Over the course of the next hundred years this increased only relatively moderately. However, by 1960 global levels had risen to 315 ppm, and by 1980 the rate of increase jumped sharply to 340 ppm. This further escalated to 360 ppm by the mid-nineties, and in just another 10 years had edged above 380 ppm.
By then the scientific community had become concerned that life on planet Earth could experience a variety of severe consequences if these increases continued. An abundance of research reports followed, specifying that the major contributor was traceable to human—anthropogenic—causes, overwhelmingly the burning of fossil fuels: coal, petroleum, natural gas, and a gritty smorgasbord of other carbon-based gaseous emissions worldwide.
Since 1995 the United Nations has held annual conferences of concerned nations, attempting to address pertinent issues surrounding global warming and climate change. As the frequency and destructive force of extreme natural events has gradually increased, concerns have heightened. The Paris Agreement, also known as the Paris climate accord, which was ratified by 169 nations in 2016, signaled that worldwide concerns have reached alarming proportions. Currently, CO2 levels have risen above 400 ppm. Unrelenting climatic trends have resulted in widespread consequences that could very well alter heretofore enduring patterns and sequences of interrelated, interdependent Earth climate and biologic systems. Consider:
2016 marks 40 consecutive years of annual average temperatures exceeding the 20th century average.
All 16 years of the 21st century rank among the 17 warmest global average temperatures on record, with 2016 being the warmest ever over the 137 years of record-keeping (and 2017 looks to top that).
Earth may be reaching both short- and long-term “tipping points” for frequency, intensity, size, and duration of extreme weather events, beyond which there may be no mitigating measures.
Plant, animal, and human aspects of life, which had been in fairly stable balances for centuries, are undergoing threatening unpredictable alterations.
Recently Released Evaluative Studies of Physical Dynamics
In late October-early November 2017, three comprehensive reports were published—one by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and two by The Lancet medical journal—each citing increasing concerns over the progression and impacts of global warming and climate change.
The NOAA has assessed the past four years in a 477-page report integrating ongoing studies being carried out by hundreds of agencies and institutions around the world. Among the most ominous changes linked directly to trapped heat affecting the planet’s natural systems are the following:
Major Greenland and Antarctic ices sheets melting: These accelerating, unstoppable processes continue to contribute to rising sea levels worldwide, which in turn results in comprehensive threats to plant and animal species and human habitations within 60 miles of shorelines (where 40% of the world’s populations live). In the past century, warming ocean volumes have risen 8 inches and the rate is incrementally intensifying. A recent NASA initiative, using depth soundings from satellites, ships, and floating devices to analyze ice sheet, water, and ocean bed conditions concludes that the Greenland ice sheet is “far more exposed to the planet’s warming oceans than previously known, and has more ice to give up than, until now, has been recognized.” Most significantly, because more warm water is reaching the bases of the ice sheets’ more massive glaciers, “more than half of Greenland’s ice” is particularly vulnerable to rapid melting. Analyses suggest that such melting over the course of the 21st century would swell global ocean levels up to 24 feet.
Arctic permafrost thawing: Global warming has also inordinately impacted several hundred-thousand square mile expanses of frozen Arctic tundra. As they thaw, vast regions of permafrost steadily release dormant methane and CO2, the two natural gases which most markedly contribute to increasing greenhouse effects. It is feared that the thawing Arctic represents an irremediable accelerant of global warming.
Atlantic Ocean disrupted currents: The massive Atlantic ocean water circulatory systems have moderated hemispheric climate conditions for millennia. Over recent decades, however, analyses have revealed that global warming has significantly disrupted these currents. An unprecedented volume of deepening warmer surface waters has produced two main consequences. One, effects of cooler/colder ocean water volumes, which had been stabilizers of North Atlantic weather/climate patterns, have diminished. Future consequences to the lands of Northern Europe and Scandinavia are uncertain, but are likely to have numerous negative impacts, especially on agriculture and increasingly extreme weather events. Two, decreasing oceanic oxygenation and increasing acidity are harming the health of marine life forms and causing food chain disruptions that further decimate inestimable numbers of aquatic species. In particular, to human populations dependent on fish for a dietary staple, the North Atlantic fishing industries are stressed and any abundant rebounds are unlikely.
Pacific Ocean impacts: Analyses cite probable “much stronger” El Nino effects. Consequences already to South America across to North Africa and to the American South and Central American Caribbean regions have reached imperiling conditions of deluges and flooding to some areas, and drought conditions to others, as well as more frequent and destructive weather events.
Disconcertingly, taken altogether, studies show accumulating evidences of more numerous, intense, larger, and longer-in-duration extreme weather events: record heat waves, more intense rains and flooding, more multiple clusters of tornadoes, vaster areas of persisting drought, expanding areas of out-of-control wildfires, and far-reaching destruction to oceanic life forms, especially the endemic devastation of coral reefs and the ecosystems that depend on them. Perhaps what is most disturbing is that for some of these circumstances, points of no return—“tipping points”—may be near, or present, already.
Alongside the NOAA studies, the widely respected British medical journal The Lancet released its ongoing monitoring report on climate change status. Drawing upon data compiled around the world, the report integrates these global findings, the results essentially reinforcing the NOAA studies. As an introduction to their report, The Lancet authors state: “For decades, pollution and its harmful effects on people’s health, the environment, and the planet have been neglected by both governments and international development agendas.” Thus, much catch up work must be done before many aspects of climate change can be slowed and reduced.
The Lancet report draws a number of unambiguous conclusions:
Human causation is the main driver of climate change; “most fundamentally” the continuing increase of carbon emissions is propelling rising global temperatures.
Climate change impacts are disproportionate to low and middle income countries.
There is clear evidence of increasingly frequent and intense heatwaves, the #1 killer of vulnerable adults and children.
Since 2000 the frequency of weather-related disasters increased worldwide by 46%, and all countries have struggled to adapt to and recover from these ongoing destructive events.
There is real danger of “threat multipliers” or “positive feedback cycles” spontaneously kicking in and exacerbating current climate change dynamics.
The world’s most populous nations are at fragile cusps of worsening warming. Since 1990 Western industrialized nations have either stabilized or reduced their carbon emissions. However, since 1980 India’s emissions have tripled and China’s quadrupled (though since 2013, China has plateaued and is embarking on extensive projects to reduce their emissions). Other populous but lesser-developed Southeast Asian countries are currently increasing their emissions as they expand their economies.
The capacity of the nations that ratified the Paris Agreement to deliver on stated climate change reduction goals is key to where the planet goes from here. These goals specifically address 85% of current greenhouse gas emissions. As The Lancet authors note, with “accelerated reduction responses and momentum building across many sectors,” there is feasible promise that currently documented rates of CO2 ppm may slow and level off. Such an optimistic outcome will depend on the “ongoing collaboration between experts and a range of stakeholders” receptive to analyzing new evidence and knowledge and to furthering research and development projects which promise to continue effectively addressing climate change through “diverse direct and indirect mechanisms.”
Continuing on an optimistic note, The Lancet report concludes that just as there are significant threats to climate instability, there are also increasingly emergent “enormous potential opportunities … for] comprehensive and ambitious responses to climate change,” mainly through shifts to increase use of renewable energy sources worldwide, accompanied by decreasing installation and maintenance costs. Such glimmers of progress are encouraging and reflect growing social and political consensus that time is of the essence in implementing more extensive and effective needed actions.
Recently Released Health and Society Study
The Lancet‘s second report, which focuses on relationships between societal institutions and human health concerns, presents some starkly disturbing findings. Comprised of four dozen international members, The Lancet Commission monitoring pollution and health dealt systematically with multiple issues. They applied a five-pronged approach: (1) synthesizing data from available information sources, (2) examining links between pollution, disease, and poverty, (3) presenting means of control and prevention, (4) examining economic costs, and (5) outlining plans for future initiatives.
The Commission defines pollution as “unwanted, often dangerous, material that is introduced into the Earth’s environment as a result of human activity, that threatens human health, and that harms ecosystems.” For humans, they examine the range of pollution exposures during gestation, infancy, childhood, adolescence, adulthood, and old age, drawing on integrated data from the World Health Organization, US Environmental Protection Agency, international Global Burden of Disease commission, and numerous independent centers studying associations between science and the environment.
Their framework of “zones” of pollutants is trifold: Zone 1—well established pollution-disease pairs; Zone 2—emerging effects of known pollutants, though associations between exposures and disease are not yet fully characterized and the burden of disease has not yet been definitively quantified (examples of this include central nervous system debilitations, the autism spectrum, dementia, toxic chemical exposures, and hazards of heavy metals in soil); Zone 3—new and emerging pollutants (e.g., an array of neuro-toxicants, endocrine disruptors, new pesticides such as neonicotinoids, chemical herbicides, and pharmaceutical wastes). Given the increasing concerns surrounding Zones 2 and 3, they caution that “Zone 1 could be just the tip of a disastrous iceberg.”
Some findings are staggering, particularly because American media tend to overlook or under report circumstances elsewhere. Around the world air pollution and water and land contamination annually prematurely kill more than all combined deaths from war and violent conflicts, malaria, TB, AIDs, smoking, and vehicular accidents. In all, one of six premature deaths is due to disease from some form of pollutant exposure (in India it is one of four, and in China one of five).
Overwhelmingly these deaths occur in areas of poverty and more primitive industrial development. The term applied to this is “environmental injustice,” specifically “inequitable exposure of poor, minority, and disenfranchised populations” to contaminated air, water, chemical toxins, and unsafe work or play areas. Conclusion: “In many instances, environmental injustices are linked to societal structural racism.”
A litany of operative factors include: unsafe water sources; air pollution through burning of coal, wood, or kerosene; inadequate sanitation and wastewater practices; incapacity for healthy hygienic observances; industrial emissions of gases and particulate matter; and fluid or solid chemicals or other toxins. An expansive list of diseases are linked directly to these factors, often fatal at worst. Additionally, the economic and familial/social costs attached to the human tolls at minimum are staggering to each region affected.
The Lancet concludes with a statement of connected measures it feels are necessary to remediate current high rates of disease from existing proliferation of pollutants: “Sustainable long-term control of pollution will require that societies at every level of income move away from the prevalent resource-intensive, inherently wasteful, linear take-make-use-dispose economic paradigm, towards a new paradigm rooted in the concept of the circular economy in which pollution is reduced through the creation of durable, long-lasting products, the reduction of waste by large-scale recycling, reuse, and repair, the removal of distorting subsidies, the replacement of hazardous materials with safer alternatives, and strict enforcement of pollution taxes.” They stress, “This societal transition is essential” to remedy pollution, to promote health, and to prevent disease.
Taken altogether, these status reports are discouraging in many, if not most, respects. However, overview analyses recognize an array of specific opportunities for the global community to more effectively address, mitigate, and hopefully resolve numerous environmentally- and institutionally-based climate and health crises. These will necessarily have to be of top concern and commitment socially and politically, and will require necessary re-prioritizing of economic layouts and developing more altruistic outlooks and habits.
The Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health report (released 10/19/17).
The Lancet Countdown 2017 report (released 10/30/17).
US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fourth National Climate Assessment (released 11/3/17).