by SETH BORENSTEIN, The Associated Press, Seattle Times, November 23, 2009
WASHINGTON — As the world has talked for a dozen years about what to do next, new ship passages opened through the Arctic’s once-frozen summer sea ice. In Greenland and Antarctica, ice sheets have lost trillions of tons.
Mountain glaciers in Europe, South America, Asia and Africa are shrinking faster than before.
And it’s not just the frozen parts of the world that have felt the heat in the years leading up to next month’s climate summit in Copenhagen:
- The world’s oceans have risen about an inch and a half.
- Droughts and wildfires have turned more severe, from the U.S. West to Australia to the Sahel desert of North Africa.
- Species now in trouble because of changing climate include not just the polar bear, which has become a symbol of global warming, but also fragile butterflies, colorful frogs and entire stands of North American pine forests.
- Temperatures over the past 12 years are 0.4 degree warmer than in the dozen years leading up to 1997.
“The latest science is telling us we are in more trouble than we thought,” said Janos Pasztor, climate adviser to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.
Here’s why: Since an agreement to reduce greenhouse-gas pollution was signed in Kyoto, Japan, in December 1997, the level of carbon dioxide in the air has increased 6.5%.
From 1997 to 2008:
- World carbon-dioxide emissions from the burning of fossil fuels have increased 31%.
- U.S. emissions of this greenhouse gas rose 3.7%.
- Emissions from China, now the biggest producer of this pollution, have more than doubled in 12 years.
Key countries out
When the U.S. Senate balked at the accord and President George W. Bush withdrew from it, that meant the top three carbon polluters — the U.S., China and India — were not part of the pact’s emission reductions.
Developing countries were not covered by the Kyoto Protocol, and that is a major issue in Copenhagen.
And the effects of greenhouse gases are stronger and happening sooner than predicted, scientists said.
“Back in 1997, the impacts (of climate change) were underestimated; the rate of change has been faster,” said Virginia Burkett, chief scientist for global-change research at the U.S. Geological Survey.
That last part alarms former Vice President Al Gore, who helped broker a last-minute deal in Kyoto.
“By far the most serious differences that we’ve had is an acceleration of the crisis itself,” Gore said this month.
In 1997, global warming was an issue for climate scientists, environmentalists and policy wonks.
Now biologists, lawyers, economists, engineers, insurance analysts, risk managers, disaster professionals, commodity traders, nutritionists, ethicists and even psychologists are working on climate change.
“We’ve come from a time in 1997 where this was some abstract problem working its way around scientific circles to now, when the problem is in everyone’s face,” said Andrew Weaver, a climate scientist at the University of Victoria in British Columbia.
Back in 1997, “nobody in their wildest expectations” would have forecast the dramatic sudden loss of summer sea ice in the Arctic that started about five years ago, Weaver said.
From 1993 to 1997, sea ice would shrink on average in the summer to about 2.7 million square miles.
The average for the last five years is less than 2 million square miles. What’s been lost is the size of Alaska.
NC WARN Response, Letter to the Editor, News and Observer
Thanks for printing the Associated Press’s outstanding though disturbing article about climate change advancing faster than predicted in 1997 (“A hotter world arrived sooner than expected,” Nov. 23).
Corporate-funded naysayers are correct about climate models being problematic. However, the article explains how well-documented changes are surpassing the grimmest of warnings by scientists in 1997.
Along with the noted ecological devastation caused by increasing droughts, floods, rising tides and fires (which have doubled in average size), the human suffering has grown. Kofi Annan’s Global Humanitarian Forum reported in May that 300,000 people are dying annually from climate change-induced disasters.
The world’s leading experts now warn that long-term emission trends must start downward by 2015 or climate change could well become self-sustaining. As NASA’s James Hansen cautions, if we cross such a point of no return, the pace of changes, while impossible to predict, could be explosive.
It’s incomprehensible that North Carolina would allow Duke Energy to keep building a giant coal-fired global warming machine near Charlotte just so it can expand electricity sales in South Carolina.
Executive Director, NC WARN