Sunday, February 04, 2007

Chicago Sun Times Editorial - We must do all we can to cool off climate change

Chicago Sun Times Editorial - We must do all we can to cool off climate change
Copyright by The Chicago Sun Times
February 4, 2007

By adding the small but significant word "very" to their long-awaited report last week, a body of international scientists took a major step toward erasing doubt about the causes of global warming. Rather than saying it was "likely" that global warming is caused by human activity, as they did six years ago, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change asserted in a landmark analysis that it is "very likely," meaning they now are more than 90 percent certain. While there will still be flat-Earthers who dispute that conclusion, the question for the rest of us becomes, "What on Earth are we going to do about it?"

Scientists representing the United States and more than 100 other countries say the world will get hotter and the seas will get higher no matter what we do to control the burning of fossil fuels. The scientists said their best estimate is that temperatures will rise 3.2 to 7.1 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100. Ocean levels could go up between 3 to 23 inches in the same time frame, and up to 7.8 inches more if the recent and surprising melting of polar ice sheets continues, they said.

Their report also says it is "virtually certain" that there will be fewer cold days and nights over most land areas, and warmer and more frequent hot days and nights. It said it is "very likely" there will be more frequent heat waves, and more frequent heavy rainfalls, over most areas. It is "likely" that there will be more tropical storms and droughts.

Such gloomy forecasts might lead some to throw up their hands and say there's nothing to be done. But that's precisely the wrong conclusion. The effects of man-made pollution can't be reversed, but they can be slowed, the scientists argue. "The point here is to highlight what will happen if we don't do something and what will happen if we do something," said Jonathan Overpeck at the University of Arizona, one of the authors of the study. "I can tell you if you will decide not to do something, the impacts will be much larger than if we do something."

The scientists are expected to issue another report later this year detailing the best ways to slow global warming. But it's no secret what needs to be done -- humans and their governments will have to find ways to cut greenhouse gases and adapt to a warmer world.

It won't be easy. So far we've taken only baby steps -- things such as President Bush's proposals in his State of the Union speech last month, which critics say are way too little and very late, or the new $500 million BP Energy Biosciences Institute announced last week, where scientists in Illinois and California will conduct research on alternative energy sources. But making a huge reduction in our fossil fuel emissions could very likely hurt our economy, especially if the United States acts but emerging economies like China and India refuse. Who would be willing to give up their job, when their sacrifice's impact may only be incrementally apparent? Our guess is that few people will. Still, societies can adjust if scientists and political leaders, acting on the latest research, can convince citizens of the greater good. Last week's report takes a major step toward that goal.


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