A ‘hothouse’ Planet Earth is about to enter uncharted waters


There’s no doubt, at this point, that something of enormous consequence is happening with the planet and our climate. You could probably feel it in the air, if you lived in one of the parts of the United States that just went through a record-warm winter. Of course, it’s always important to note that weather is not the same thing as climate, but those record highs along the Eastern Seaboard and elsewhere were just one small part of a significant  shift in the world’s average temperature. And scientists are seeing signs that global warming — largely the result of human-caused greenhouse-gas pollution, most of that from burning fossil fuels — is accelerating at an alarming rate:

An “alarming” and “unprecedented” rate of climate change taking places across the planet, the World Meteorological Organization has warned.

The WMO, which is a United Nations body, reported on a number of climate and weather records that were broken last year. These included increased rainfall, droughts, unusual cyclone activities, heatwaves and global temperature highs. WMO secretary-general Petteri Taalas wrote: “The year 2015 will stand out in the historical record of the global climate in many ways.”

In a statement to coincide with the report’s release Taalas said: “The future is happening now. The alarming rate of change we are now witnessing in our climate as a result of greenhouse gas emission is unprecedented in modern records.”

There was a fascinating piece in the Washington Post this week that discussed in detail the one other time — according to scientific research — that the planet’s average temperatures spiked upwards at a rate comparable to what we’re experiencing in the 21st Century:

That was a time period, about 56 million years ago, when something mysterious happened — there are many ideas as to what — that suddenly caused concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to spike, far higher than they are right now.

The planet proceeded to warm rapidly, at least in geologic terms, and major die-offs of some marine organisms followed due to strong acidification of the oceans. The cause of the PETM has been widely debated. Some think it was an explosion of carbon from thawing Arctic permafrost. Some think there was a huge release of sub-sea methane that somehow made its way to the atmosphere — and that the series of events might have been kickstarted by major volcanic eruptions.

In any case, the result was a hothouse world from pole to pole, some 5 degrees Celsius warmer overall. But now, new research suggests, even the drama of the PETM falls short of our current period, in at least one key respect: We’re putting carbon into the atmosphere at an even faster rate than happened back then.

The problem, as noted by the Washington Post, is that extensive research is proving that humankind is releasing carbon into the atmosphere at a much greater pace than happened at the time of PETM.

[W]hile a gigantic volume of carbon entered the atmosphere during the PETM — between 2,000 and 4,500 billion tons — it played out over some 4,000 years. So only about 1 billion tons of carbon were emitted per year. In contrast, humans are now emitting about 10 billion tons annually — changing the planet much more rapidly.

“The anthropogenic release outpaces carbon release during the most extreme global warming event of the past 66 million years by at least an order of magnitude,” writes Peter Stassen, an Earth and environmental scientist at KU Leuven in Belgium, in an accompanying commentary on the new study.

The analogy between the PETM and the present, then, is less than perfect — and our own era might be worse in key ways. “The two main conclusions is that ocean acidification will be more severe, ecosystems may be hit harder because of the rate” of carbon release, Zeebe said.

The time has come to treat global warming, and our addiction to fossil fuels, as a public health emergency. Today, we clearly are not doing that. Across the United States, and especially in my home state of Louisiana, there are plans for literally dozens of refineries, processing centers, or other types of industrial facilities that will burn fossil fuels and spew fresh greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. But the time to start reversing the trend line is now, not five years from now or, heaven forbid, 30 years from now. The planet simply cannot endure the level of misery that scientists are forecasting.

Read more about the accelerated pace of global warming in 2016: http://www.thelondoneconomic.com/news/global-warming-increasing-at-alarming-rate-un-climate-body-warning/21/03/

You can check out Chris Mooney’s Washington Post report here: http://www.dispatch.com/content/stories/insight/2016/03/27/01-climate-change-study-suggests-earth-is-heading-toward-a-second-catastrophic-hot-house-event.html

Learn more about the need for worldwide action on fossil fuels in my new book, Crude Justice: How I Fought Big Oil and Won, and What You Should Know About the New Environmental Attack on Americahttp://shop.benbellabooks.com/crude-justice

© Stuart H. Smith, LLC 2015 – All Rights Reserved

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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