Why Global Warming
Is A Burning Issue
By Chris Spence



Global warming: Is it a global catastrophe poised to strike, or just a lot of hot air? Reading the news these days, it can sometimes be hard to tell. One moment, experts are calling it a planetary crisis. Another, the skeptics are telling us not to worry. Even friends don’t always seem to agree: while George Bush apparently remains unconvinced, global warming tops Tony Blair’s list of global threats.

With such different opinions on the matter, it is no wonder Americans are unsure what to believe. In an ABC News/Washington Post survey in late 2005, 56 percent said that they believe global warming is happening, while 40 percent disagreed. Only 41 percent think it requires urgent action.

So what is really going on? Are the experts as uncertain as the public?

Sadly, no. Ask almost any mainstream scientist these days, and you will get the same answer. Fifteen or twenty years ago, it was a different story — the jury was still out on whether global warming was happening. Now, the verdict is in. Thousands of studies, computer models, tests and trials later, there is a clear consensus among respected scientists that global warming is happening, and that humans are the major cause.

During this past century, we have been using ever-greater amounts of fossil fuels such as oil, coal and gas that produce vast amounts of carbon dioxide and other “greenhouse gases” that are in turn trapping more and more heat in the atmosphere. Any survey of legitimate experts would likely show that 98 or 99 percent believe in global warming. Only a dwindling handful of mostly-discredited skeptics now remain to tout their tired denials.

The evidence is frightening, almost overwhelming. It continues to pile up, giving weight to earlier fears that more dangerous and extreme weather events such as heat waves and storms are on the horizon, bringing devastation in their wake.

Now, those fears have been justified. Hundreds — even thousands — of studies from around the world point to rapidly rising temperatures and dramatic sea level rise, not to mention devastating downpours, flooding, and droughts (which is why the experts refer to it as climate change rather than global warming, as there is more to it than just temperature hikes).

According to most, changes have already started: 2005 was the hottest year since records began 150 years ago, while the next four warmest years have all occurred since the late nineties. More worriesome still, is the number of weather-related disasters, which experts blame on climate change, is on the rise. In 2005, such disasters caused record financial losses in excess of $200 billion.

Recently, the World Health Organization claimed that 150,000 people are already dying each year because of diseases and other problems spread by global warming. While this is mostly affecting the poor and vulnerable in Africa and Asia, its impacts will increasingly be felt here in the United States, too. These changes will affect our homes, our families, our jobs, our transportation systems, and our water and food supplies, as well as bringing new diseases and other health risks.

Sounds bad? It gets worse. Until very recently, scientists were talking of change over many decades, even centuries. Now, there are rising concerns the planet may soon reach a “tipping point” where the climate system veers out of control.

While scientists are still unsure that an abrupt or rapid change like this will happen anytime soon, even the Pentagon is taking the possibility seriously: It produced an internal report in 2004 warning of the potential for massive droughts, a rise in hunger and malnutrition, social unrest, economic recession and even the outbreak of war as countries fight over dwindling resources caused by dramatic changes in the climate.

Britain’s chief scientific advisor, Sir David King, believes global warming represents a far greater threat to world safety than terrorism. Meanwhile, in early 2006, well-known scientist James Love-lock predicted that billions could die from climate change.

It all sounds grim, but isn’t their a chance that the experts are wrong?

Of course. Some of the most dire predictions might be too far-fetched. Abrupt climate change may not happen. The tipping point, if it comes at all, might be decades, even centuries, away. Yet while there is no consensus on these apocalyptic scenarios, even the less extreme possibilities — for which there is far more evidence — are bad enough. Thousands of experts are unanimous that temperatures are already rising, extreme weather events are on the increase, and climate change is now killing people.

It is the same story around the world: From heat waves in western Europe that have taken thousands of lives to more powerful hurricanes striking the U.S. and polar ice caps and glaciers melting rapidly, the evidence has already reaching the point of no return. Even if we wanted to believe the skeptics, it would be foolish to take their advice. Wait? Do nothing? The risks are just too great.

With such a bleak picture of our future, it is no surprise that many people just switch off. The problem seems almost too big to comprehend, let alone deal with. What can individuals do about it, anyway? If we accept that it is happening, then we have to start worrying — about our health, our finances, our families, our future. Probably, we already have enough to worry about. Moms and Dads don’t want to have yet another reason to fret about their kid’s future.

Business owners and workers don’t want to hear that their incomes could take a dive. And homeowners living near the coast definitely don’t want to think about sea level rise or flooding, or any of the other problems global warming could bring in its wake.

When I first started working on these issues in the early 1990s, my instinctive reaction was to deny it. Sometimes even now the problem seems so vast that it is tempting not to think about it — to ignore it and bury my head in the sand in the hope that it just goes away.

Sadly, it won’t. Scientists agree. Climate change is happening and it will make its presence felt in our lives whether we like it or not. It is probably the greatest threat facing humanity in the 21st century and if we fail to act by addressing society’s addiction to oil, coal and gas, our own health and financial situation will probably be affected; those of our children certainly will.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that we can solve this problem. It is not too late. Most scientists believe we can still avoid the doomsday scenarios if we act together and act now. Government and big business are a part of the answer. So are individual Americans.

There are literally dozens of ways we can make a difference, from using our power as voters, investors and consumers to making small changes around our homes, gardens, and while traveling. Some will even save us money. (A quick tip: Make sure your car’s tires are properly inflated, and it will improve fuel efficiency significantly and save you dollars at the gas station).

By acting together, we can keep a lid on the problem and head off the worst of it. For the 40 percent of people who are still in denial, accepting that there is a problem will be the first — and perhaps most important — step.

Chris Spence is a climate change expert and author of “Global Warming: Personal Solutions for a Healthy Planet” (Palgrave MacMillan, 2005).

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