What Is Causing the Climate to Unravel?

Answer: One Trillion Tons of Carbon Pollution

40,000 heat records have already been broken this year across the United States, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Here in Fredericksburg, Virginia, the signs of an unbalanced climate system have been felt in recent years not just in heatwaves, but increasingly in the form of unusually severe wind storms. This past weekend’s storm brought 80 mph wind gusts that snapped three trees in our backyard like pretzels, even though they were each a foot thick. Once again, my insurance company is teaching me new weather terminolgy to explain the latest climate disasters. A few years ago, the term was “micro-bursts” (not quite tornadoes, but similar impact). Now it is “derecho” (not quite hurricanes, but similar impact).

Global CO2 Emissions 1900-2008, via U.S. Department of Energy.
Whatever you call it, we need to face up to the fact that our weather has turned dangerous because our climate is breaking down.  Virginia has had 27 national disaster declarations due to storms in the past 20 years, three times as many as the prior 20 years. Meanwhile, wildfires and droughts are threatening people and wildlife elsewhere in the nation, particularly in the West, including the National Wildlife Federation’s staff in Colorado. More than two million acres have burned in U.S. wildfires already this year. Global warming has created longer wildfire seasons in the West due to heat and drought (warmer winters has also allowed pests to floursih, killing large numbers of pine trees that add fuel to the fires).

The current heat wave and climate disasters shouldn’t be catching us by surprise. Since the year 2000, we have witnessed nine of the ten hottest years ever recorded, according to NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, which tracks global surface temperatures. The first three months of this year has been the warmest first quarter ever in the United States, and March was an alarming 8 degrees warmer than average. As the planet heats, weather patterns are destabilized. Warm air sucks more water from the ground and holds more water (about 4% more for every 1 degree F increase in temperature). That’s one of the reasons our warming planet has been creating historic droughts out West and dumping torrential rains in the Midwest (in Iowa, for example, there have been four “100-year” flood events in the past 5 years, and 17 emergency disaster declarations for floods in the past two decades).

Scary Weather is a Warning:  We Need to Act

For the moment, we are paying attention to the weatherman, and the weather is scary.  But the media is still asleep at the switch when it comes to reporting the real story:  What is causing this climate to unravel?  The U.S. National Academy of Sciences completed an exhaustive review of scientific research and concluded more forcefully than ever in a landmark 2011 report that pollution from smokestacks and tailpipes is destabilizing our climate.  Here is how they put it in scientific terms:

“Climate change is occurring, is very likely caused primarily by the emission of greenhouse gases from human activities, and poses significant risks for a range of human and natural systems. … The sooner that serious efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions proceed, the lower the risks posed by climate change, and the less pressure there will be to make larger, more rapid, and potentially more expensive reductions later.”

Clear enough?  If not, here is a strong hint of what is going on: In the past 50 years, we have added one trillion tons of heat-trapping carbon dioxide emissions to the atmosphere from burning coal, oil and natural gas (Source: U.S. Department of Energy). Over this time, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has increased 23%, from 322 ppm to 397 ppm (Source:  Mauna Loa Record, Scripps CO2 Program).

We can’t do anything about yesterday’s weather, but we need to be responsible stewards of the world we shape for our kids and future generations. We want to pass on a natural world full of abundant wildlife, but wildlife species are increasingly at risk as climate change threatens the very existence of thousands of species. Pollution from smokestacks and tailpipes  is loading the dice and increasing the likelihood of more frequent and increasingly severe storms and heat waves.  If we don’t talk about the source of the problems, then we can’t do anything about it. The decisions we make today will shape the future for generations to come. Why? Because much of the heat-trapping carbon pollution we put into the atmosphere will increase CO2 levels for centuries and even millennia. According to the IPCC’s 2007 report on the state of climate science:

“About 50% of a CO2 increase will be removed from the atmosphere within 30 years, and a further 30% will be removed within a few centuries. The remaining 20% may stay in the atmosphere for many thousands of years.”

So What Can We Do?

All we lack is the determination and leadership to change course on energy. We need more businesses to provide better energy options than are currently available to families. Some companies are out in front, including automobile manufacturers who have embraced goals of doubling the fuel economy of their vehicles by 2025. But other companies, such as Dominion Power here in Virginia, are dragging their heels and doing more to block the march to cleaner energy than help.

The best and first solution to reduce our “carbon footprint” on the planet is to stop wasting energy. Energy has long been taken for granted by consumers and businesses alike; we waste far more of it than we need to. We need to each do our part and pay more attention to how we use energy. But we also need to get more ambitious as a nation to bring to market the abundant ideas and technologies engineers and entrepreneurs have to cut energy waste.

To supply the energy we need, we have to rapidly accelerate the switch away from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources such as wind, geothermal and solar—energy sources that don’t pollute and don’t run out. These homegrown energy sources create jobs installing and maintaining the technologies. America already has 2.7 million clean economy jobs building a healthier environment, and clean energy is one of the fastest growing sources of good paying jobs in the nation. In addition, we depend on America’s great outdoors for 6 million jobs in the outdoor recreation industries, contributing $730 billion to the U.S. economy.

Wishful thinking won’t make this happen. America has vast wind, solar and geothermal resources, and the affordability and efficiency of renewable energy technologies such as wind and solar have been improving by leaps and bounds. But solar, wind and geothermal still account for less than 3 percent of U.S. electricity. The growth of these industries is being held back by the entrenched fossil fuel energy companies who are quite happy selling us coal and oil. American families and businesses spend $3 billion every day on oil, coal and natural gas.

It’s up to each of us to do what we can, but we won’t get the change we need unless we hold the politicians we elect accountable to make sure that energy companies everywhere are doing their fair share.  Congress continues to dole out billions of dollars to oil companies while vital tax credits for renewable energy are set to expire at the end of this year.

But there is one bright spot that could mark a turning point in whether we are getting serious about carbon pollution. The Environmental Protection Agency has proposed clean air standards to limit industrial carbon pollution from new power plants.  Polluters are launching a fierce counterattack and spending lavishly on lobbying and campaign contributions. One thing you can do right now is to join the more than two million Americans who have written the Environmental Protection Agency to support their new carbon standards. More Americans have supported this rule than any other federal rule in history.

It’s only a start, but standing up now for a better future is the right thing to do.  And who knows? Perhaps we can get some wind at our backs to take us where we need to go.