By Larry J. Schweiger
Pittsburgh Current Columnist
Planet Earth is at a climate crossroads. Will it become a hothouse with uninhabitable lands, flooded coastlines, fierce storms, and massive forest fires, or will the nations of the world unite to solve this existential threat to life on earth while there is still some hope?
The world has been fiddling for nearly thirty years while the earth burns. A. Guterres the United Nations Secretary-General wrote in a World Meteorological Organization “Statement on the State of the Global Climate in 2019” warning, “Climate change is the defining challenge of our time. Time is fast running out for us to avert the worst impacts of climate disruption and protect our societies from the inevitable impacts to come. Science tells us that, even if we are successful in limiting warming to 1.5 °C, we will face significantly increased risks to natural and human systems. Yet, the data in this report show that 2019 was already 1.1 °C warmer than the pre-industrial era. The consequences are already apparent. More severe and frequent floods, droughts and tropical storms, dangerous heatwaves and rising sea levels are already severely threatening lives and livelihoods across the planet.”
This year, the U.N. Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) will be hosted by the U.K. in Glasgow, Scotland this coming November. The COP26 summit will bring the party nations of the world together for the 26th time attempting once again to find a path forward. The world has waited on America for leadership and we have been absent without leave. The U. N. Conference of the Parties includes the nations that forged the U. N. Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1992. By signing on to the framework each nation is theoretically committed to acting together to stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations “at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic (human-induced) interference with the climate system.”
President Biden and most Democrats understand the moment we face. But the question facing America, will the do-nothing Republicans in the Senate respond appropriately and enact climate legislation? What happens in the deadlocked Senate will largely determine the fate of the planet. At a time when we need to lead the world to a clean energy future, we have a Senate filibuster problem.
At this moment, the U.S. Senate stands in the way of urgently needed progress cutting emission in America. Like gun control, voting rights, and many other needed reforms, climate policy has long been blocked by do-nothing Republican Senators through the filibuster. The world’s nations have been looking to America. If America stalls out on climate action, the world too will stall. All is riding on an archaic Senate rule that allows a minority of Senators to block progress on all things save for spending bills and appointments. It is time to end the filibuster rule.
The climate crisis is not waiting on a filibustered Senate. Looking around the world we can see that climate change is moving far faster than scientists could have imagined even a few years ago. Gloria Dickie writing for The Guardian warned “The Arctic is unravelling. And it’s happening faster than anyone could have imagined just a few decades ago. Northern Siberia and the Canadian Arctic are now warming three times faster than the rest of the world. In the past decade, Arctic temperatures have increased by nearly 1C.” As the Arctic warms, carbon dioxide, methane, and other greenhouse gases are released from the decaying tundra.
A recent Nature Climate Change study predicts that summer sea ice floating on the surface of the Arctic Ocean could disappear entirely by 2035. Scientists studying the Arctic did not think we would reach this point until 2050 or later. Last July, Canada’s last intact ice shelf collapsed on Ellesmere Island and calved nearly half of a 4,000-year-old Milne Ice Shelf into the sea. Canada’s St Patrick’s Bay ice caps have completely disappeared. The Hudson Bay normally freezes solid with deep ice in winter and thaws slowly each summer. During normal times, polar bears have a rhythm that mirrors the Bay ice. When there is sufficient ice cover, they travel over the melting sea ice to hunt for ringed seals and build fat for the summer. As the ice becomes increasingly scarce, the underweight bears are forced to fast early and wait for the ice to return.
Polar bears are the iconic mammals serving as our canary-in-the-coal-mine. They have been experiencing a shorter ring seal season and about one-third of the polar bear population in the Hudson Bay has disappeared since the 1980s with their numbers declining from about 1,200 to 800. The stress is accumulating as the summer ice melts faster leaving less time for bears to increase their fat reserves. When I visited Churchill on the Hudson Bay, hungry polar bears were increasingly threatening humans.
Melting ice on both ends of the earth have growing risks for all humanity. Since water expands as it warms, sea-level rise from warming oceans and melting ice will trigger the migration of untold millions since a large proportion of global populations live on the coasts.
Annual snowfall on Greenland is no longer able to replenish the ice loss during summer melting. Scientists studying ice melt on the Greenland Ice Sheet believe Greenland’s ice may have already passed the point of no return. Last year, the ice sheet lost a record one million metric tons every minute. The two-mile-thick ice covering two hundred and thirty-four Greenland glaciers have the potential to flood every coastal city on the planet and eliminate all beaches.
An ice tongue off Thwaites Glacier in West Antarctica has been fracturing into the Amundsen Sea for the past thirty years. Antarctic Ice moving from land to sea contributes to sea-level rise and the Thwaites ice flow has doubled in the span of three decades. An iceberg estimated to weigh 315 billion tons broke free from Antarctica’s Amery Ice Shelf and drifted into the Southern Ocean. This iceberg is the largest iceberg seen in decades and is roughly the size of the Hawaiian island of Oahu.
On Iceland, Okjökull is a fast-disappearing glacier on the Ok volcano that once spanned about 15 square miles. The glacier shrank to less than half a square mile when Icelandic people posted a plaque with the following declaration.
“A letter to the future: Ok is the first Icelandic glacier to lose its status as a glacier. In the next 200 years all our glaciers are expected to follow the same path. This monument is to acknowledge that we know what is happening and what needs to be done. Only you know if we did it.”