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Editorial: Awaiting a climate change tipping point

Last modified: 8/22/2013 12:31:11 AM
One of these days, the tipping point will be reached. No, not the tipping point that leads to a continued warming of the globe. That one, unfortunately, is probably behind us. The even more elusive tipping point is the action, event or increased collective concern that finally prompts Americans to make combatting climate change a national goal akin to winning a world war.

Hurricane Katrina didn’t do it, and neither have Hurricanes Sandy and Irene. So the notion that a slim book and a barnstorming state senator from Iowa will spur the nation to action seems far-fetched. But Sen. Rob Hogg’s book, America’s Climate Century, and his talks across the state this week should move the needle in the right direction.

Hogg, who met with Monitor editors yesterday, makes the convincing case that for the next half-century or more “every aspect of our lives will be affected by human-caused global warming and its resulting climate changes, and by the actions necessary to stop climate change before it devastates the world.”

All citizens should, in their personal life, do what they can to minimize energy use, which can be done without compromising one’s quality of life. Every business should maximize its energy efficiency, both to help spare the planet more drastic changes, and because it’s good for the bottom line. Every household and city should do what it can to minimize the damage from the more violent and erratic weather that occurs when more energy pours into the complex system that is the climate. And every citizen, Hogg said, should lobby elected representatives at all levels to support efforts to reduce the pace of global warming. Among the needed measures are a tax on carbon emissions. He’s right.

Hogg’s visit coincided with the premature release of the fifth report of the United Nations Intergovermental Panel on Climate Change. The vast majority of the world’s scientists now believe that the burning of fossil fuels is driving climate change that will increase sea levels by, in their best estimate, 3 feet by the end of the century. In worst case scenarios predicated on the collapse of one or more ice sheets, sea levels could rise 10 feet or more and drown coastal cities like Boston, New York and Miami.

The current issue of National Geographic, available online now and on newsstands later this month, depicts Lady Liberty up to her knees in the rising waters of New York harbor. If we continue emitting greenhouse gases at our current rate, a scientist quoted in the article says, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, now circling 400 parts per million, will hit 1,000. At that level, which was last seen 50 million years ago, the Earth was ice free and the seas 216 feet higher than they are today.

The carbon dioxide already in the atmosphere, plus additions caused by what Hogg calls “magnifiers” like the methane released from melting permafrost and the added warming caused when solar energy is not reflected by snow and ice but absorbed by land and sea, means temperatures will continue to rise if all fossil fuel use were abandoned tomorrow.

Preventing an even bigger temperature increase will require U.S. leadership, which in turn, require bipartisan support. That support has been wanting among Republicans, but that too may be changing. Earlier this month four former heads of the Environmental Protection Agency, William Ruckelshaus, Lee Thomas, William Reilly and Christine Todd Whitman, authored a joint column in The New York Times. It was called “ A Republican Case for Climate Action.” They wrote, “The only uncertainty about our warming world is how bad the changes will get, and how soon. What is most clear is that there is no time to waste.”

The tipping point that will result in American leadership on climate change is approaching. Our hope is that it is no more than one election away.


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