Common Dreams NewsCenter
Support Common Dreams
 Home | NewswireAbout Us | Donate | Sign-Up | Archives
   Featured Views  

Send this page to a friend
Published on Thursday, July 6, 2000 in the New York Times
Global Warming Pushes Earth To The Danger Point
by Bob Herbert

Most people who grew up in the second half of the 20th century believed that climate change was such a gradual process that it was almost imperceptible during the course of an ordinary lifetime.

There may have been times when that was true, but it is not the case now. The earth has recently warmed so much, and the rate of warming is now so fast, that the effects have become increasingly obvious to the scientist and the layman alike.

The decade of the 1990's was very likely the hottest of the last millennium. And 1998 -- which had temperatures spiked by a large El Niño phenomenon -- appears to have been the hottest year ever recorded.

The oceans are rising, mountain glaciers are shrinking, low-lying coastal areas are eroding, and the very timing of the seasons is changing, with spring coming as much as a week earlier in parts of the Northern Hemisphere. And all indications are that the warming of the earth in the 21st century will be significantly greater than it was in the 20th.

If there were such a thing as a global alarm bell, now would be an excellent time to ring it.

"With respect to the climate, we live in a different world than people lived in even 25 years ago," said Dr. Michael Oppenheimer, chief scientist of Environmental Defense, a national environmental research and advocacy organization.

For most of the last 1,000 years the earth's temperature varied only modestly, moving slowly up or down by less than one degree Fahrenheit. But that changed with the coming of the industrial era in the 19th century. At that point the earth started getting steadily warmer.

As Dr. Oppenheimer put it, "About 1860 we entered a period of about 140 years in which the rate of climate change kicked up, and most of the changes were in the positive direction. Between the late 19th century and now, the total warming has been about 0.7 to 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit -- a little more than a degree Fahrenheit if you take the average.

"Then, in the last 25 years, the rate of warming further accelerated, to about three times that rate of increase. The actual number is approximately 0.35 degrees Fahrenheit per decade. And if you look forward over the coming decades, the rate of increase could double again."

The effects are myriad. "There is a pervasive retraction of mountain glaciers worldwide," said Dr. Oppenheimer. "The glaciers in Glacier National Park are shrinking. And the projection is that if the trend continues, by the end of this century many of the glaciers will have simply disappeared.

"Another place where we see significant change is on the Antarctic Peninsula, the northernmost part of Antarctica where there's been a very large warming of 4 1/2 degrees Fahrenheit in the last 50 years alone. Ice shelves -- floating ice that's attached to the continent -- are starting to disintegrate, and huge chunks of ice shelf in recent years have simply and rapidly cracked apart and floated off into the ocean. The whole ecosystem around the peninsula is changing, and eventually this will have a significant effect on the wildlife. If the ice starts to disappear, the wildlife loses its habitat."

Another inevitable aspect of global warming is already well under way -- the swelling of the oceans. Sea level has been rising for the last century, and it's thought to be somewhere between four and eight inches higher globally than it was about 100 years ago.

Coastal erosion has already taken a terrible toll on beaches in the United States. And Dr. Oppenheimer offered another dramatic example of the price to be paid for global warming -- the potential damage to Everglades National Park in Florida.

"We're spending billions to preserve the ecosystem within which that park exists," he said. "But sometime later in this century, using median projections, not even the worst projections, a third of that park would be gone -- drowned, under water -- if we don't act to stem the buildup of the greenhouse gases."

What ultimately will happen if our heads remain in the sand is anybody's guess. Said Dr. Oppenheimer: "The last time it was as warm as it probably will be by the end of this century, globally speaking, was several million years ago. There is no way we can know for sure that that's a world we can safely cope with."

Copyright 2000 The New York Times Company


Send this page to a friend
  This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. We are making such material available in our efforts to advance understanding of environmental, political, human rights, economic, democracy, scientific, and social justice issues, etc. We believe this constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. For more information go to: If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.
Common Dreams NewsCenter
A non-profit news service providing breaking news & views for the progressive community.
 Home | NewswireAbout Us | Donate | Sign-Up | Archives

Copyrighted 1997-2003