As the planet warms, its atmosphere becomes more turbulent. We see changed weather patterns. Extreme events, for example severe droughts, wildfires, deadly storms, and floods, become more likely. Sad to say, such possibilities are right at hand.
Jump back to Sept. 4, when a deadly wildfire scorched Yosemite, our treasured national park, and rained toxic ash on San Francisco's water supply. "Experts," the New York Times reported, "say this is just a foretaste of major fires to come." In Colorado, two weeks later, torrential rain, on mountains scarred by recent fires, sent walls of water down the slopes, cut whole towns off, and left seven people dead. In Boulder alone, 6 inches fell in just 12 hours. Days later, with more than 800 Boulder and Larimer county residents still unaccounted for, a second storm grounded the rescue helicopters.
As evidence accumulates, consensus builds. "More likely" means exactly what it says: A warming planet loads the climate's dice against the world we know and in some measure understand.
First let's think about the short run. Right here, on the Western edge of the same Rockies, Colorado's fires and floods should wake us up. Fire on high canyon forests, followed by heavy rain, could bring special hardship here. Along the Wasatch Front, canyons house vital watersheds. Are we ready for big slides? How might we best protect the forests that protect our water?
There's the long run, too. To avoid the worst impacts of warming, it's urgent that we reduce drastically the use of fossil fuels. These, when burned, increase the greenhouse gases that have already caused excessive warming. The science has been clear for decades, and it's only getting clearer. On Sept. 27, the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued its fifth report.
It synthesizes research by hundreds of climate scientists worldwide, refined through repeated rounds of peer review and critical revision, to reach a final version that participating governments approved. In other words, the IPCC bent over backward for consensus.
It's good the panel did, because the stakes are high. Given the science, the IPCC urges a "carbon budget" for humanity. Since the 1800s, burning fossil fuels has sent roughly half a trillion tons of carbon dioxide (CO2), the main greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere. At present rates, we'll exceed a trillion tons around 2040. To avoid the worst impacts, some irreversible, we'll need to limit future CO2 emissions to half of that amount. And it's urgent that we start now.
Given that urgency, we need public discussion, based on solid evidence, about how to limit burning fossil fuels enough to stop the worst. One way, as urged by the Citizens Climate Lobby, is to put a price on carbon at the source and share the proceeds per capita with the public, and it deserves careful consideration. So do other possibilities. The main thing is to follow through and make a difference big enough to matter.
For the next half-century or more, ready or not, every aspect of our lives will be affected by climate change. Salt Lake City's Mayor Ralph Becker recently joined a national panel to address the climate challenge, both for resilience at the local level and to reduce greenhouse emissions.
If we want to do better than just survive, we need to see the climate challenge as the chance we've all been waiting for, a special opportunity for innovation and productive enterprise. Are we up for that?
Robert Speiser, a retired mathematician and educator, is active in the Citizens Climate Lobby.