Once more the pictures say it all: Oil-covered wildlife struggle to survive. Sludge doesn't just clog the waterways, now it slinks like a threatening snake down suburban streets. People wonder if they will recover and worry that their homes may not be livable.
The potential for disaster should a pipeline be allowed to run from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico was made clear by the recent oil spill in Arkansas. It also, as Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said, "raises the broader question of "whether we continue to be a carbon-based economy or whether we finally recognize that if we don't get a handle on greenhouse gas emissions that this planet is going to be facing some disastrous problems in years to come."
Sen. Sanders told an MSNBC audience last month that according to scientists who have testified at Energy and Environment Committees, the damage coming from global warming is worse than previously thought. "What they're now saying is if we don't get our act together and start cutting in a very significant way greenhouse gas emissions, we're talking about this planet heating up by eight degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century. That is calamitous for this planet."
Mr. Sanders isn't the only source of alarm. Climatepath, an organization comprised of environmental and climate scientists, lists several facts on its website that should worry us. Based on their report "Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis: Contribution of Working Group I to the 4th Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC)," a group of scientists has concluded that "we have not yet seen the more dramatic changes resulting from warming, which has led many to complacency. Like a tsunami, we may not recognize the threat until it is on top of us. The truth is out there."
Among the conclusions in the report submitted to the IPCC, the leading body for assessment of climate change established by the United Nations and the World Meteorological Organization, are these: Fossil fuel and agriculture have drastically increased greenhouse gases, the radiant forces of increasing these gases is warming the planet, the warming will continue and accelerate if no action is taken, and it will have severe consequences.
"The current warming trend is of particular significance because most of it is very likely human-induced and proceeding at a rate that is unprecedented in the past 1,300 years," the report says.
Evidence for rapid climate change is compelling. For example, global sea levels rose about 6.7 inches over the past century. The rate in the last decade is nearly double that. Global temperatures are also rising. The twenty warmest years have occurred since 1981 and all ten of the warmest years have occurred in the past twelve years.
According to an article published in The New York Times in January this year, 2012 -- a year in which we saw a March heat wave, severe drought in the Corn Belt, and a huge storm that brought utter devastation to the Middle Atlantic States -- was the hottest year ever recorded in the contiguous U.S.
More than 34,000 daily high records were set at weather stations across the country last year with only 6,664 record lows recorded. That ratio is seriously "out of whack," one scientist said. "The heat was remarkable, according to another scientist with the National Climatic Data Center. "It was prolonged [and the fact] that we beat the record by [a full) degree is quite a big deal." It certainly was a big deal for a third of the nation's population which suffered through ten or more days of summer temperatures exceeding 100 degrees.
Last year was not only the country's warmest year. It was also the second-worst on the Climate Extremes Index, which measures climate-linked disasters. At least eleven disasters including several severe tornadoes, Hurricanes Isaac and Sandy, and fast-moving thunder storms that killed over twenty people occurred in 2012. The estimated damage surpasses $1 billion.
The consensus seems to be that last year is a taste of things to come. The government simply must see climate change for what it is -- a looming disaster requiring immediate, serious, sufficiently funded attention. Given the disbelievers on the far right, and the inability of Congress to get anything done these days, the words of famous nature photographer Ansel Adams are sobering: "It is horrifying that we have to fight our own government to save the environment."
Horrifying,yes. But never more urgent for all of us.