By Larry J. Schweiger
Pittsburgh Current Climate Columnist
As a teenager, I once stood stunned and disheartened on a Lake Erie beach, blackened by slime, littered with decaying fishes, broken bottles, and heaps of driftwood. The air reeked of the stench of raw sewage as each churning breaker released its anoxic cargo. Flies and mosquitoes hovered over the rotting remains. I witnessed the near-death of one of the world’s great lakes, and the extinction of Lake Erie’s famed blue pike as they rotted in the surf.
Lake Erie was rife with oxygen-depleting algae from raw sewage from lakeside cities, and towns. Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River flowing into Lake Erie had so much petroleum and other flammable liquids that it caught on fire on eight separate occasions. The last fire was so hot that it warped the steel undercarriage on a bridge.
Mark Twain once observed, “The two most important days in your life are the day you are born, and the day you find out why.” That was my day to find out why, as I made a vow to spend my life defending our environment. I went to work as a volunteer and later as legislative staff pushing for a National Clean Water Law. The public responded to this threat by enabling the passage of the 1972 Clean Water Act that included $18-billion to build new sewage treatment plants.
I have a love of nature and I am deeply troubled by the projected rates and magnitude of species extinction and the planetary-scale human agency of this loss. Many factors are involved including pollution, habitat loss, invasive species, toxics, and overharvesting, but the linkage to the climate crisis is unmistakable. No matter where I look in the world, fish, and wildlife are in retreat in the face of human population expansion. Climate change is the trump card. The 2004 IPCC report cited published science from a team of leading ecological scientists warned that up to 70 percent of all species could be extinct if the climate crisis is not addressed.
Fifty-nine of the world’s foremost wildlife experts warned that the annihilation of wildlife is now an emergency threatening civilization. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment warned that the climate crisis is likely to become one of the most significant drivers of biodiversity loss by the end of the century. The total number of mammals, birds, fish, and reptiles have declined by 60% since 1970. The climate crisis is also putting additional pressure on already vulnerable amphibians, including most frog species. Sex selection among turtles is temperature driven. A two-degree rise in egg temperature turns all newborn turtles female. Studies show 40% of the insect species may be on the road to extinction. With their demise, a long list of fish, and wildlife that depend on protein from insects. Human life is dependent upon insects like pollinators, so this biodiversity collapse should earn our attention.
Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services recently issued an urgent report entitled: Nature’s Dangerous Decline ‘Unprecedented’ Species Extinction Rates ‘Accelerating’ compiled by 145 expert authors from 50 countries over three years, with inputs from another 310 contributing authors. Based on the systematic review of about 15,000 scientific and government sources and local indigenous knowledge, the study found a million species are threatened with extinction. “Nature is declining globally at rates unprecedented in human history, and the rate of species extinction is accelerating, with grave impacts on people around the world now likely. More than 40% of amphibian species, almost 33% of reef-forming corals, and more than a third of all marine mammals are threatened. Coral reefs occupy one percent of the ocean, yet they are critical habitat for twenty-five percent of the world’s marine fishery. Warming and acidifying waters, destructive fishing practices, and agricultural and urban runoff are destroying reefs all over the world.”
“The IPCC report issued on October 8, 2018 does not mince words about the state of our planet: we must act now to achieve global change at a scale that has “no documented historical precedent” in order to avoid the climate catastrophe that would result from a 20 C. rise in average global temperature.” Our politicians have heard from the world’s top climate scientists and yet collectively ignored or failed to heed compelling scientific warnings. While under the influence of Fossil fuel money, Congress has been unable to enact carbon pollution controls at a scale that will save life on Earth.
Current CO2 levels of about 414 parts per million were last seen on Earth over three million years ago according to the most detailed reconstruction of the Earth’s climate by researchers at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research published in Science Advances. We are rolling back to the Mid-Pliocene when the average global temperatures were between 2 and 3 degrees C. warmer than present levels. The Arctic Sea was free of ice, and much of the Greenland ice sheet melted. Sea levels were higher by between 13, and 37 meters.
The Arctic is experiencing radical changes with widespread fires in Alaska tundra, Canada’s boral forests, and unprecedented fires in the Siberian tundra. Ice melt in Greenland may be unstoppable now. Every coastal city, mega-delta, low-lying coastal land, and every island are at impending danger as sea levels climb, and storm winds amplify wave heights.
The climate crisis has been increasing linearly, but as the cryosphere deteriorates, and releases its long-frozen methane, and carbon dioxide, and burns we will experience more dramatic change. As the Earth’s albedo (light reflection) declines, we should prepare abrupt changes that will make life miserable. We are failing to respect the magnifying risks of the ice-albedo feedbacks that are pushing the Arctic to an ice-free tipping point. Life as we know it would become unbearable if the Arctic permafrost gives up its stores of CO2 and methane.
Daniel Rothman, professor of geophysics and co-director of the Lorenz Center in MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, warned of the sixth mass extinction in 2017. He has found that when the rate at which carbon dioxide enters the oceans pushes past a certain threshold—whether as the result of a sudden burst or a slow, steady influx—the Earth may respond with a runaway cascade of chemical feedbacks, leading to extreme ocean acidification that dramatically amplifies the effects of the original trigger.”9
With hubris towards nature, humanity is failing to act. We are trashing oceans with heat, plastics, sediments, toxics, and pharmaceuticals. Mussels from Puget Sound, for example, harbor estrogen, oxycodone, and a chemotherapy drug Melphalan, and even illegal opioids. Ninety-three percent of total global warming heat is absorbed into the oceans where it spawns bigger storms. Trillions of tons of carbon in its various forms have been spewed into the biosphere where CO2 disrupts the climate system causing more violent weather conditions including floods, droughts, and fires. Carbonic acid from excess CO2 is acidifying the oceans, harming all life in the oceans.
Things on planet earth are bad now as we set new records for heat again this year. They will only get much worse if we fail to grasp the truth that we are fast approaching a climate cliff. We have been too distracted by Trump’s many threats to our democracy and his failure to have a robust national strategy to address the pandemic to let alone to respond with rational climate policy.
In the face of particular danger ahead, there is good news. While Trump thinks the climate crisis is a hoax and has systematically dismantled EPA’s ongoing climate efforts, Joe Biden has come up with a solid climate platform that will launch an energy revolution in America.
With the right National leadership and public policies, we can create up to 25 million new jobs and cut our emissions by 85% in 15 years, according to Rewiring America. Through careful and rigorous analysis, Rewiring America started with the question of “what is technologically necessary?” to avoid a climate crisis. They have concluded that decarbonization through the rapid electrification of the economy is not only possible but economically desirable. The average American household with available technologies can save $1,000 to $2,000 per year while reducing our nation’s greenhouse emissions by 85% in 15 years. In the process, 25 million net new jobs will be created in the near term, and 5 million net new jobs in the long run. Given the fuel savings, these new jobs will be good-paying and life-enriching. They will necessarily be local, as much of the work will be replacing the infrastructure of homes and buildings.
Society has collectively ignored climate science for decades. Now we need to decarbonize our lives at an unprecedented speed and scale. It is not enough to lament our failures and senseless acts; we must find a new way to move forward rapidly. Albert Einstein once warned, “The world is a dangerous place to live; not because of the people who are evil, but because of the people who don’t do anything about it. Our continued failure to confront the climate crisis is a betrayal of our children and grandchildren as they will experience more melting glaciers, severe ocean acidification, and dramatic sea-level rise. They will surely witness more powerful storms, floods, devastating fires, and mass extinctions and live in a world with a more hostile climate system from our past failures. For their sake, we must act now by voting for change in November.