Last week I invited renowned climatologist Paul Mayewski to speak on climate change at my "Peace Studies" class. He is the Director of the Climate Change Institute at the University of Maine and over the years has conducted numerous field climate expeditions to the Arctic, Antarctic, Himalayas, Tibetan Plateau and the Andes.
Using slides from his expeditions Professor Mayewski introduced us to views of melting glaciers in the Himalayan Mountains, an area with more than 5500 glaciers that, in some cases, are melting faster than any in Europe, with the rate of melting doubling in the past ten years. Over two billion people are dependent upon the Himalayan glaciers which feed the major rivers of Asia, including the Ganges, the Brahmaputra and the Indus in India; the Mekong stretching the length of Vietnam, and the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers in China.
Mayewski noted that in the fifty-five years given over to studying these glaciers, increasing melting has seen a sharp increase. In addition, levels of greenhouse gases have accelerated 100 times faster than at any time in the past 800,000 years. Added to this are increased levels of toxic substances, human-made chemicals and much more that has made our modern atmosphere without parallel in earth history.
Shifting his focus, Mayewski pointed out that with rapid melting in Siberia and the Arctic, there is the very real probability of considerable release of methane gas from permafrost - methane is 30x more potent than CO2 in terms of heat trapping. As grim as this scenario appears to be, Mayewski pointed out that environmental degradation has been mitigated by legislation in some landmark cases in the past leading to improvements in the health and well-being of Americans. In President Nixon's administration the Clean Air Act was established in 1970 which created the "Environmental Protection Act" (EPA) and the "National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration"(NOAA) to oversee national emission standards. In 1972 the Clean Water Act was passed by Congress resulting in a rapid reduction of pollutants (including lead and cadmium) in the nation's water although clearly there are still significant regions with major concerns.
In his discussion of issues closer to home, Mayewski said that, unless changes are made to significantly reduce emissions, Maine will see a tripling of 95 degree days in the next few decades resulting in more such events as Lyme Disease and heat related hospital admissions. And as the Gulf of Maine's waters warm higher temperatures will result in lobsters migrating farther north to cooler waters in Canada.
When asked to explain how fast climate change is taking place, Professor Mayewski used Greenland as an example. He and his team drilled ice cores from 1989 to 1993 that revealed a year by year climate history extending back over 100,000 years. In some cases the climate has changed dramatically. Modern climate change is being accelerated by increased levels of greenhouse gases and loss of ozone over Antarctica and the Arctic. Recently, massive decreases in Arctic sea ice extent demonstrate that human activity can force very rapid climate change. At present vast quantities of ice on Greenland are melting, much of it through surface melt, while about a third is by way of "glacier calving".
Paradoxically, warming in other parts of the world has resulted in desertification, which removes land from agricultural use and forces farmers to migrate into urban areas. This took place in Syria helping to precipitate the civil war now wracking the country. Similar events are taking place in Yemen, Northeast Nigeria, South Sudan and Somalia forcing millions of people into serious risk of starvation. Mayewski completed his talk by noting that those who are engaged in denial or skepticism concerning human influenced climate change ignore all the evidence or refuse to believe the science. The public continues to be swayed by misinformation campaigns that fabricate controversies and sow seeds of doubt and confusion which deflects from the fact that there is a clear scientific consensus on human-caused climate change.
We are one planet and one human species and desperately need to develop a more conscientious planetary consciousness, especially where climate change is concerned. Each year the U.S. is releasing 6.5 billion metric tons of carbon which precipitates rising seas, more intense storms and greater levels of flooding. In the Paris Agreement the U.S. committed itself to a significant reduction of emissions by 2025 and the process has gotten well underway. Next to China the U.S. is the largest emitter of greenhouse gases. President Trump is apparently mulling over the possibility of withdrawing from this very important Agreement that was signed by 195 countries. It is imperative that the Paris Agreement be honored and every possible effort be made to reduce carbon emissions by any and all means possible.Hugh Curran teaches in Peace & Reconciliation Studies at the University of Maine