Natural Perspectives: Dire consequences if we don't curb emissions

Britain's Guardian newspaper reported recently that the construction of many new fossil fuel-burning power plants may prevent the world from keeping global temperature increases at a safe level.

A manageable temperature rise is thought by many scientists to be an increase of 2 degrees Celsius, or about 7 degrees Fahrenheit.

According to the Guardian article, the International Energy Agency (IEA) warned that if new international climate action isn't taken by 2017, people won't be able to keep future temperature increases at that so-called safe level. That means we have only five years left to act on a global scale to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

Building new fossil fuel-burning power plants and factories, and constructing energy inefficient buildings, will lock in production of greenhouse gas emissions throughout that structure's lifetime. In five years, we'll have so many new plants online that we will have committed ourselves to a temperature rise of more than 2 degrees Celsius. Any warming above that mark would cause even more devastating climate change than what is now occurring.

The article quoted Fatih Birol, chief economist at the IEA, as saying "The door is closing. If we don't change direction now on how we use energy, we will end up beyond what scientists tell us is the minimum (safe level). The door will be closed forever."

That is a powerful prediction of dire consequences if we don't act immediately on a global scale to curb emissions. And yet many people still don't believe that global warming is real. They deny climate change.

Vic and I recently read that 70% of Republicans don't believe that man-made climate change is occurring. Only 30% of Democrats hold that opinion. But those are just opinions of non-scientists. Climate change isn't political and it isn't an opinion. It is scientific fact.

I'm going to have to read a book coming out this spring by author Chris Mooney, "The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Don't Believe in Science."

A different article in The Guardian discussed a published report from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University.

A team of researchers analyzed how climate change is discussed in the media. They reviewed more than 3,000 articles from publications from Brazil, China, France, India, the United Kingdom and the U.S. They concluded that skepticism about climate change is primarily a phenomenon of the English-speaking world. The rest of the world, at least as they analyzed it, seems to accept that it is real.

The researchers noted that there are three different types of skeptics: those who deny that warming is occurring, those who accept that the planet is warming but deny that humans are causing it, and those who accept that the planet is warming but who believe that the impacts will be either benign or even beneficial.

No surprise, the researchers attributed the skepticism to active conservative political elements in both the U.S. and United Kingdom. In countries where conservative parties are not prominent, people are more inclined to believe the scientific facts of global climate change.

I just finished reading climatologist Heidi Cullen's book, "The Weather of the Future: Heat Waves, Extreme Storms, and Other Scenes from a Climate-Changed Planet." Cullen has a doctorate in climatology from Columbia University and is the senior research scientist with Climate Central, a nonprofit organization through which she reports on climate change for The Weather Channel and other news outlets.

In her book she writes, "The weather isn't what it used to be. In fact, all the data that we've collected over the past fifty years point to the fact that the weather is getting more extreme."

She discusses the deadly European heat wave of 2003. She points out that temperatures in the U.S. have gone up 2 degrees Fahrenheit during the past 50 years, and that we're experiencing more unusually hot days and nights, as well as heat waves.

A warmer climate increases water evaporation and increases the amount of moisture that air can hold. This will result in longer and more severe droughts in some areas and more severe flooding in other areas. Cullen explains why it is raining harder now than it used to, and why storms are more damaging. And, of course, with global warming comes melting of ice, expansion of the oceans due to warming of the water, and a sea level rise due to both of those factors.

As residents of a beach community, Vic and I are concerned about ocean rise. As taxpayers, we're concerned about storm damage that we all end up paying for one way or another.

We agree with Cullen's point that the forecasts for our future are changeable. The forecasts are based on the assumption of increasing amounts of greenhouse gases being poured into the air.

So the future is not written. It can be changed. But only if people learn to understand and respect science and respond to the call to reduce our carbon footprint.

We have the intelligence as a species to foresee our own future. But do we have the intelligence to act in time to change that future?

Time will tell.

VIC LEIPZIG and LOU MURRAY are Huntington Beach residents and environmentalists. They can be reached at

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