Procrastination is not an option. Scientists agree that if we wait 10, 20 or 50 years, the problem will be much more difficult to address and the consequences for us will be that much more serious.
We’re treating our atmosphere like we once did our rivers. We used to dump waste thoughtlessly into our waterways, believing that they were infinite in their capacity to hold rubbish. But when entire fisheries were poisoned and rivers began to catch fire, we realized what a horrible mistake that was.
Our atmosphere has limits too. CO2 remains in the atmosphere for about 100 years. The longer we keep polluting, the longer it will take to recover and the more irreversible damage will be done.
Our climate is changing because humans are adding large amounts of heat-trapping gases to the atmosphere. Our fossil fuel use is the main source of these gases. Every time we drive a car, use electricity from coal-fired power plants, or heat our homes with oil or natural gas, we release carbon dioxide (CO2) and other heat-trapping gases. The second most important source of CO2 is deforestation, mainly in the tropics, and other land-use changes. These gases act like a blanket, trapping heat and warming the Earth. The more of these gases we release, the thicker the blanket becomes.
Since pre-industrial times (about 1750), the atmospheric concentration of CO2 has increased by 31 percent. Over the same period, atmospheric methane — another heat-trapping gas — has risen by 151 percent, mostly from agricultural activities like growing rice and raising cattle.
This heat-trapping blanket has warmed the Earth 1 F during the past century. This trend is rapidly increasing, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), an international body of the world’s leading climate experts. The IPCC concluded that average temperatures will likely increase 2.5 to 10.4 F by 2100 if heat-trapping emissions are not significantly reduced. But we don’t have to look into the distant future for climate change. The year 1998 was the warmest year, of the warmest decade, of the last 1,000 years. Global warming is here now, and it’s going to get worse if we do nothing.
How will climate change affect me?
Impacts will differ depending on where you live and warmer temperatures are only part of the problem.
- Coastal areas: Scientists predict average sea level will rise 1 to nearly 3 feet over the next 100 years. Seaside communities can expect more erosion, flooding during storms, and permanent submersion of low-lying areas and islands.
- Urban areas: Heat waves and poor air quality will bring a greater risk of heat-related illness and death for vulnerable people like the elderly, the poor and people with respiratory disease.
- Agricultural communities: Increased temperatures and the prospect of water shortages, prolonged drought and more intense rainfall may disrupt communities dependent on farming.
- Across the country: Many families and businesses, who have made their living from fishing, farming, and tourism could lose their livelihoods, and others who love hunting, boating, skiing, birdwatching, and just relaxing near lakes, streams, and wetlands will see some of their favorite places irretrievably changed.
With only 4 percent of the population, the United States now produces 25 percent of annual CO2 emissions — 6.7 billion metric tons annually — and will remain the chief climate change polluter worldwide for years to come. During the past century, the United States together with other industrialized countries such as Japan, Europe, the former Soviet Union, and Canada has produced more than 60 percent of the CO2 emissions that contribute to global warming.
While the United States has a clear-cut moral responsibility to lead the way internationally, we also have the financial and technical expertise that will help us reap the economic benefits of new markets for clean technology exports.