Published on Friday, December 19, 2003 by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer
Nothing Virtual About Global Warming
by Richard Steiner
President Bush recently chided Saddam Hussein for his cowardly attempt to hide, saying that "when the heat got on, you dug yourself a hole and you crawled in it." These same words also describe the attempts by Bush and friends to evade the issue of global warming. It's time for them to crawl out of their hole.
The overwhelming scientific consensus is that global warming is real, it's serious, it's caused mostly by humans and it is to some extent correctable. But due to the intransigence of the Bush administration and comrades, virtually nothing has been done to correct it.
These folks have not only tried to scuttle the Kyoto Protocol but the U.S. Senate recently voted down an even more modest attempt to cap greenhouse gas emissions -- the Climate Stewardship Act of 2003 -- in the United States at the year 2000 levels by year 2010. That would be far less extensive than cuts proposed by Kyoto. The act was broadly supported by mayors, unions and insurers and would have saved the U.S. economy some $48 billion a year in energy savings alone. But the administration and Senate conservatives would have nothing of it.
Worse, Congress is on the verge of passing a disastrous energy bill that only digs our fossil-energy hole deeper. This was the bill that was drawn up behind closed doors by Vice President Cheney's energy task force -- a group of old-guard fossil-fuel tycoons. Such policy is steering us to a train wreck, and it is time all Americans said enough is enough.
On global warming, the science is clear and unequivocal. In Alaska the warming over just the past 40 years has been astonishing. Arctic air temperatures have increased over 5 degrees, sea ice cover is shrinking at a rate of 3 percent per decade and the thickness of the arctic ice cap has decreased from 10 feet to 6 feet. Glaciers are receding and thinning across the arctic and elsewhere, contributing to a measurable sea level rise.
Storm surge is causing "an unprecedented coastal retreat," according to the U.S. Global Change Research Program; that's up to 150 feet in five years at one location. Thawing permafrost is causing serious ground subsidence, adding huge costs to infrastructure maintenance. Forest fires and insect infestations have increased, and warm water in the Bering Sea has caused seabird die-offs, rare algal blooms and dramatic declines in salmon runs. Scientists now fear that the Arctic Ocean may be ice-free by century's end.
Science is also clear that most of this recent warming is caused by human activities. Globally, burning of fossil fuels has increased almost five-fold in the past 50 years, releasing about 6.5 billion tons of carbon as CO2 into the atmosphere each year. Atmospheric CO2 levels are 31 percent higher today than pre-industrial levels, higher than at any time in the last 400,000 years and perhaps the past 20 million years. The U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded that "most of the observed warming over the past 50 years is attributable to human activities," a conclusion confirmed by the National Academy of Sciences and other scientific bodies.
The American Geophysical Union recently said greenhouse warming is a "virtual certainty" and that it "constitutes a real basis for concern." And the World Meteorological Organization reports that the three hottest years since the beginning of record keeping in 1861 have all been in the past six years, with 2003 the third hottest.
If the present impacts of global warming are of concern, the future looks far worse. But instead of acting on this information, the current administration is issuing calls for more studies and voluntary actions. Administration officials have fabricated "scientific uncertainty" as a reason to do nothing. With an issue so important to the future of humanity, such paralysis-by-analysis is outrageous.
We need to reduce global carbon emissions by about two-thirds, and we know exactly how to do this: more energy efficient cars and power plants, mass transit and alternative energy sources, improved building and appliance standards, efficiency subsidies, and so on. We need an energy bill to do precisely that, and Americans should insist that Congress kill the current energy bill and make a real attempt to solve the energy/warming problem.
Despite the administration's deceits, such precautionary action would not only alleviate global warming but also help relieve our energy crisis, reduce health impacts of air pollution and improve our economy as well.
The only real question left in the global warming debate is how long we will let Bush and his political allies hide in their hole.
Richard Steiner is a conservation specialist with the University of Alaska Marine Advisory Program in Anchorage.
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