Editorial other views

The following editorial published on Aug. 9 in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:

How many times must the world’s scientific community warn that climate catastrophe is coming before the world’s governments and citizens listen? A new United Nations report paints the most dire picture yet, predicting that the recent years’ unprecedented increases in global average temperature — and resulting intensification of hurricanes, droughts, wildfires and rising sea levels — are edging toward the point where the climate damage will become irreversible. In America and around the globe, it’s time to stop debating with those who ignore ominous facts and take action to drastically cut greenhouse gas emissions.

The report by the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, released Monday, isn’t some scare tactic by a small klatch of agenda-driven activists. It’s the work of more than 230 experts from around the world, drawing on information from some 14,000 studies. They conclude that humanity is barreling down a road that will ultimately lead to an unlivable planet if drastic cuts in greenhouse gas emissions aren’t made immediately.

Greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide, which is produced by burning fossil fuels, trap the sun’s heat so it can’t radiate back out into space, raising temperatures in Earth’s seas, air and land. Today, greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and average global temperatures are both at their highest levels in recorded history. Already, global average temperatures have risen by more than 1 degree Celsius (about 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) since the dawn of industrialization in the 1800s — a massive swing in a tiny span of time, by historical climate standards.

“Global surface temperature has increased faster since 1970 than in any other 50-year period over at least the last 2,000 years,” states the report. The past decade has seen several of the warmest years on record.

Warmer air makes droughts and wildfires more frequent and more powerful. Warmer oceans intensify the strength of hurricanes. Melting sea ice is already raising sea levels globally, threatening infrastructure in coastal regions. These aren’t theoretical dangers. They’re happening now.

The report predicts average global temperatures by the 2030s will have risen by 1.5 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial times, no matter what mitigation happens today. A rise much beyond that, it warns, could trigger a feedback loop in which greenhouse-gas levels rise on their own, produced by more frequent wildfires, melting permafrost and other self-perpetuating phenomena. That could put ever-rising temperatures beyond the capability of humans to stop it.

The U.S. is the world’s second-highest producer of greenhouse gases, after China. America can’t fix the problem alone, but the world can’t fix it without a fundamental shift in American culture — a shift away from coal, oil, gasoline and other polluting energy sources, and toward renewable ones like wind and solar. America and the world face an existential threat of our own making. There is no longer a valid argument to be made for inaction.

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