Recently released climate assessment reports by the United States government and the United Nations verify that we are already experiencing incredibly destructive and disruptive impacts of global warming, over 90 percent of which is caused by human activity. We will see increased impacts in the future, many of which are now inevitable and irreversible. These impacts will continue to intensify in the near future. By our current actions and personal choices and current actions, we can choose to help mitigate future impacts and reduce the scale of future carnage.
In recent years, the U.S. has seen intensified hurricanes and wildfires, record heat and drought in the West. Continuing warming trends will exacerbate climate-related events and make them more frequent, intense and disruptive. For instance, high temperatures can intensify wildfires, and wildfires can provoke mudslides, which can disrupt roads and transportation, interrupting the flow of goods and services. Impacts, such as ice-sheet melting — leading to rising oceans and flooded coastal areas — may be irreversible for thousands of years. Others, such as species extinctions, will be permanent.
Large declines in snowpack have occurred since 1955 in the Western U.S. Sea levels across U.S. coastlines have risen by about 9 inches since 1900 as oceans have warmed and ice has melted. The world’s oceans have absorbed about 93 percent of the excess heat from human-induced warming and more than one-quarter of the CO2 emitted to the atmosphere, making oceans warmer and more acidic. Oceans have warmed by about 1.3 degrees Fahrenheit since 1900 and are expected to increase by as much as 5 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100 and to rise an additional 1-4 feet. These changes, combined with changing patterns of wind, precipitation, nutrients and ocean circulation, have and will also continue to contribute to major declines in oxygen concentrations in the ocean, inland seas and estuaries.
The Paris Agreement set a goal of 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit as the cap for temperature increases in order to avoid the most dire consequences of global warming. Slowing down or even halting the growth in annual CO2 emissions will not go nearly far enough. To avoid the most severe consequences, the world economy will require quick and drastic transformation, including cutting carbon emissions by half before 2030 and going totally carbon free by 2050. Politically, this seems very unlikely. With leadership lacking at the national level, cities and counties across the U.S. have stepped up and pledged to move to 100 percent renewable energy within next 15 years. Salt Lake City, Park City, Moab and Summit County have already made this commitment.
Building-code upgrades should instigate a green revolution for new construction. Buildings currently account for 39 percent of CO2 emissions in the U.S., while industry accounts for 29 percent. Transportation accounts for the remaining 33 percent, which can be reduced by creating incentives to electrify. Many countries — including Norway, Ireland, India and Israel — will start banning the sale of non-electric cars within 10-15 years. And many cities around the world will soon ban non-electric cars from their downtown.
Scientists are studying various potential technologies, hoping to “geo-engineer” CO2 levels, such as spraying reflective aerosols into the atmosphere to reflect more of the sun’s light. While these proposals may offer some hope for reversing CO2 buildup, they are risky and currently unproven.
On a personal level, we all need to do more. To reduce our individual carbon footprint, we can: reduce or eliminate meat and dairy from our diet, drive a fuel-efficient or electric vehicle and drive less, plant a garden, eat local and organic, install solar panels, insulate, reuse and recycle and use energy-efficient appliances. We can also organize to urge more cities to commit to renewable energy, to pressure our power company to replace coal plants with renewable energy and to vote for candidates and initiatives that reduce carbon emissions.
Michael Budig, Salt Lake City, is a volunteer for the Sierra Club Beyond Coal Campaign.