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CLIMATE CHANGE: END GAME OR A SECOND CHANCE?

Joanna Clark and Thea Iberall, Ph.D.*

Species adapt or they go extinct. And the rate at which we're causing change in the environment, living species don't have the time to adapt. It is true that there have been other inhospitable times on Earth. Take the Permian-Triassic mass extinctions, for example. They combined to produce the largest mass extinction in Earth's history. This accounted for a staggering 90-96% loss of life. All life on Earth today is descended from the estimated 4% of species that survived this mass extinction.

Needless to say, it was a bad day in Black Rock. But that's the point and what climate change deniers fail to acknowledge. These "inhospitable" mass extinction events lasted more than a million years, not the current hundreds of years that we're causing.  There was time to adapt through the process of evolutionary natural selection.

The population of our species has grown. Today we number more than seven billion and by 2050, we are expected to exceed nine billion on a planet that can under normal conditions sustain two billion. As a consequence of our population growth, we are changing the planet over the course of a few hundred years, not millions of years, and there is little time for species, including ourselves to adapt. Since 1980, more than 3,100,000 lives have been lost worldwide to extended heat waves, droughts, loss of crops, severe storms, and loss of fresh water. Additionally, some 13 plant and animal species have become extinct while thousands more hang precariously on the edge.  Simply stated, we are running out of time, and we cannot continue business as usual.

This is not new news. In 1896, Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius was aware of the warming effect of excess carbon dioxide and predicted that increasing the levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from human activity would result in a warming trend. The issue hasn't crept up unexpectedly. In 1769 when the Watt engine was invented, concentrations of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere were about 278 parts per million (ppm). Almost one hundred years later in 1859, when the first oil well was dug, it was about 282 ppm. Pretty slow change. One hundred years after that, in 1950 when the leaf blower was invented, the CO2 was about 310 ppm, and on May 9, 2013, atmospheric CO2 exceeded 400 ppm. That's the biggest and fastest change in atmospheric CO2 in more than 800,000 years. Get it?

Do the changes that we are witnessing mean the end of civilization, as we know it? Possibly! It all depends on us and the decisions we make in the very near future.

This past week, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) reported that over the past decade "[t]he rate of rising oceans has doubled, the heat temperatures for both land and water are on the rise, the melting of the Arctic ice is speeding up, and both the weather extremes the world is experiencing and the overall global warming trends are simply 'unprecedented,'" and they warned that "we better get ready for more." Don't believe them? Ask the island nations that are abandoning their homes.

One way to turn this around is with a national carbon tax. David Suzuki points out that "pricing carbon emissions through a carbon tax is one of the most powerful incentives that governments have to encourage companies and households to pollute less by investing in cleaner technologies and adopting greener practices."

Republican critics claim that a carbon tax would have a negative effect on our economy.  This could theoretically happen but it is succeeding elsewhere. Sweden imposed a carbon tax in 1991, reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 20 per cent. Sweden's economy has grown since then.  If properly implemented here, a revenue neutral carbon tax could have a similar effect on our economy while reducing our carbon footprint.

Of course, we need to simultaneously end the subsidies to the oil and gas cartels, redirecting them to research, development and deployment of renewable energy technologies.

And look at what is happening in California cities such as Lancaster and Sebastopol. Sebastopol expanded on Lancaster's solar ordinance by requiring all new homes to include solar systems that provide 2 watts of photovoltaic-derived power per square foot of insulated building area. According to the Press Democrat, "the system must offset at least 75 percent of the building's total annual electric load. Homes and businesses constructed in areas were solar isn't possible must either pay a fee or look into other means of alternative energy." Locally, we need to pressure our city councils to follow their lead.

Another stab at a solution is what's happening in Lincoln and Rocklin. These cities have implemented neighborhood electric vehicle (NEV) friendly ordinances. NEV's are restricted to streets with a speed limit of 35 mph or less.  Local businesses quickly realized that NEV owners bought local, and they installed recharging stations for their NEV customers.

Cities in Orange County can study these examples. The climate is a global problem and we can turn this around if we all pitch in. C'mon Lake Forest, what do you say? Adapt or go extinct.

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*Dr. Thea Iberall is the author of the forthcoming novel "The Swallow and the Nightingale".



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