Global warming: where we are, what to do

by John Eaton

The reason I’m writing this can be largely summarized in two words: “kids” and “grandkids.” Since effects of climate change have become tangible, and heeding predictions of where it could go, I wonder, “What am I leaving them?” And it seems time is running out to do something to change this future for planet Earth.

I won’t devote much space trying to convince you it’s happening because the news has been full of it lately (glaciers and arctic ice blankets melting, sea levels rising, drastic weather events, ecosystem and biosphere changes, the last five years being the warmest of any on record, etc.). Although at age 80 I probably won’t be around to see it, I know I would be upset with loss of habitats supporting cold water fish (trout and whitefish), cool water fish (walleyes and black crappies) and ruffed grouse, which could happen in my grandkids’ lifetime. It is worth noting that climate is changing faster at more northerly latitudes, like in Minnesota, Canada and Alaska, as compared to the southern U.S. An article in the Feb. 3 edition of the Minneapolis StarTribune cited University of Minnesota climate change research predicting a dramatic loss of birch and evergreen forests in 50 years if emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) continue unabated.

Regarding the source of global warming, we know that carbon dioxide prevents heat energy from the sun from being radiated back out into space after hitting the earth and that the major products from the combustion of fossil fuels are carbon dioxide and water.  We know that carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere have risen exponentially from 280 parts per million (ppm) at the start of the industrial revolution from combustion of fossil fuels to 410 ppm today.

Other sources of atmospheric heating have been proven to be insignificant in terms of global warming in this century. Reams of scientific data support these facts. Yet there is a core of persistent but diminishing denial of the causes of climate change that I find remarkably similar to the denial of the link between tobacco and cancer in the ‘80s and ‘90s. In the words of N.Y. Yankees baseball catcher, manager and humorist Yogi Berra, “It’s like déjà vu all over again.”

So where are we now with regard to dealing with this issue? The United Nations has been struggling with the problem for at least three decades on a couple of fronts. In 1988 the World Meteorological Organization and United Nations Environmental Program jointly assembled an international group of eminent climate researchers and scientists and charged them with better defining causes or drivers of climate change, with compiling and evaluating models for estimating effects, and with proposing ways of dealing with the effects through various adaptation and mitigation strategies. The descendants of this group, which was named the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), have met at regular intervals since then and published their sixth report, the latest, in October of 2018. It turns out that the nature of effects predicted by their models have been quite accurate, but that these effects are occurring more rapidly than some predicted.

Meanwhile, in 1992, the UN initiated an international treaty named the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) aimed at having 197 member nations voluntarily control the concentrations of heat trapping ‘greenhouse gases’ (GHG), particularly CO2 and methane. In 2016, with concentrations continuing to rise, the UNFCCC met in Paris to again attempt reaching agreement on commitments for controlling CO2 and other GHG emissions. The US and China, which are responsible for 15 and 28 %, respectively, of mean annual CO2 emissions, were considered essential participants in what became known as the Paris Agreement. Deliberations at the meeting recommended strongly that average global temperatures, which have now increased by 1.00 centigrade (1.80 Fahrenheit), should be held at or below 1.50 C (2.70 F) of change, and certainly below 20 C (3.60 F) of change, to avoid monumental and irreversible effects on the planet and human living conditions. The IPCC was charged with examining the feasibility of such a 1.50 C increase and the results are contained in their sixth report titled Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5 Degrees C, A Report to Policy Makers. They concluded that holding the global mean to +1.50 C could only be accomplished with extraordinary increases in efforts to reduce CO2 emissions.

And now, of course, the U.S. has announced that it is pulling out of the Paris Agreement. Because CO2 is quite stable in the atmosphere (with a 27-year half-life) and emissions therefore cumulative, the U.S. has been the largest single contributor to existing environmental levels and the associated global warming. Other steps backward have included the attempted repeal of the Obama era Clean Power Plan (CPP) of 2015 which would cut CO2 emissions by 32 percent by 2030. Coal fired electric power generating plants are a major source of CO2 here (600 of them) and elsewhere. The CPP would be replaced with a much weaker 2018 Affordable Clean Energy Rule that has no specific emission targets.

This exchange is currently tied up in district court; the coal industry is explicitly the intended beneficiary of its passage. Also, rules formulated by EPA in 2016 to reduce industrial emissions of methane, a GHG 21 times more potent than CO2, were scaled back in 2018 to ‘reduce the regulatory burden’.

So, are there any bright spots to consider in this picture?  Several states are proceeding with the plans outlined in the Clean Power Plan of 2015; several states and industries (e.g. Mobile Exxon) have adopted the original methane rule targets. Most encouraging of all is the recent upwelling of grass roots support for doing something to stop global warming.

In searching for a place to contribute, I learned about an organization, the Citizens Climate Lobby (CCL), that has been in existence since 2007. It has an international membership with 502 chapters, including one in Bemidji. A major consideration in light of the foregoing discussions is that CCL strives diligently to be politically nonpartisan.

An important concept being adopted by countries around the world to deal with the cost of reducing CO2 emissions is that of carbon pricing. In essence it consists of forcing those who emit CO2 to pay for the right to do so. The CCL has devised such a program, now a bill before Congress cosponsored by both Republicans and Democrats, named the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act, H.R. 763. The bill charges producers of fossil fuels with gradually increasing fees corresponding to the carbon content of the fuel and returns all the money collected back equally to all citizens to cover the costs passed along to them by fossil fuel producers.

Equal dividends to all means that the poor benefit more proportionately than wealthy recipients. It is market based and the stimulation or fostering of alternative clean energy sources will produce more new jobs than are lost in reductions in fossil fuel industries. Canada has adopted a federal carbon fee and dividend program that is starting this year. Further information on the U.S. bill and on many other climate change subjects and concerns are available on the CCL web site and at chapter meetings. I find the members very enthusiastic and well informed on the subject and their bill to be the most likely path for significantly reducing GHG emissions. Please look up CCL on your browser (https://citizensclimatlobby.com), examine bill H.R. 673 if you have further questions on details, and write or call your congressional reps if you want to help pass H.R. 673.

John Eaton is a retired Fisheries Research Biologist who worked at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Mid-Continent Ecology Laboratory in Duluth for 31 years. He conducted research on the effects of climate change on freshwater fish, lakes, and streams and authored or - numerous scientific articles on these subjects. John and wife Barbara moved to Walker in 2009 from Two Harbors and have four grown children, one in Walker, and seven grandchildren.

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