Science and Politics Clash as Humanity Nears Climate Change Tipping Point

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Despite having had a heart transplant three years before, Lonnie Thompson ascended to 22,000 feet and braved -35 degree F temperatures on a mountain peak in far western China in 2015 to do his job as an ice-core paleoclimatologist. The renowned professor from the Ohio State University has extracted and examined ice cores from around the world since 1974. He testified before the U.S. Senate about global warming in 1992, detailing the havoc climate change is wreaking on the planet.

Individual consumer and voting choices loom large in the climate change battle and can directly influence the fate of the planet. If enough people demand Earth-friendly products and energy solutions (and politicians who support such solutions), grassroots movements can become groundswells, then economic tsunamis. Whether the political capital from the Paris summit is enough to power a consumer movement to catalyze the clean energy revolution needed to halt global temperature rise may well determine the fate of the free world.

The testimony came in the wake of Thompson’s 1991 realization that something unprecedented was happening when he observed melting taking place at the summit of the Quelccaya ice cap in Peru. The melting was washing away vital historic data, something that hadn’t happened in 1,800 years of records there. “That was the first time that [I said] ok, there’s something really significant going on here on a longer time scale,” Thompson said, who noted that a recent visit in 2015 revealed the ice cap is now smaller than it has been in at least 6,600 years.

By examining ancient ice cores and their surroundings, Thompson assesses how rapidly ecosystems changed in the past, then compares those systems to today’s systems to forecast the climate changes that await current and future generations. “I enjoy what we do and I believe what we do is extremely important,” said Thompson, 67. “Many of these ice fields that we drill, particularly in the tropics in low latitudes, will disappear.” A large majority of scientists are now convinced that global warming poses “a clear and present danger to civilization,” according to Thompson.

“Ice is fine up until you reach the melting point and then everything changes. And it changes very abruptly. Every system that has been studied has thresholds in it, and a lot of those thresholds in the future we don’t know,” Thompson said. “Those surprises are what’s most difficult for societies to adapt to.”

Thompson’s concern about the unknown is tempered however by his faith in humanity to alter course.

“At the end of the day, we advance as we go through time. We didn’t leave the stone age because we ran out of stones, we found a better way to produce energy … This is ultimately what happens now,” Thompson said, noting that Ohio State now gets 25 percent of its electricity from wind and has installed geothermal fields to heat and cool its dorms. “So the change is coming and it will be fought, and the last people to change will be our government on this issue, but the change is coming from bottom up …”

The COP21 United Nations Climate Summit

To address the global threat and resistance to change, representatives from 196 nations attended the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21), held in Paris late last year as part of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

COP21 was widely billed as humanity’s last chance to draft a plan to prevent the most catastrophic effects of climate change. The ultimate goal was to have the participating nations agree to reduce global greenhouse-gas emissions to the extent that the average global temperature would not rise more than 2 degrees Celsius above the average pre-industrial temperature. Though that 2-degree goal has generally been deemed by scientists to be sufficient to contain the damage done by climate change, many particularly vulnerable nations advocated for a 1.5-degree target (which remains a UN goal.). Germany proposed the 2-degree threshold in the 1990s, and more than 100 countries agreed on that limit at the Copenhagen Accord at COP15 in 2009. The global temperature has risen .85 of a degree C since 1885, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

The scientific community generally agrees that if the world continues to burn fossil fuels at its current rate, the 2-degree increase could be reached by mid-century, and 2100 could see an increase by as many as 5 degrees. Reports from the IPCC, World Bank and National Research Council indicate that the 2-degree rise would lead to much larger wildfires, more intense hurricanes, a reduction of important food crops, extreme drought, continued Arctic melting, a drastic rise in sea level and increased flooding.

The IPCC has said that a 5-degree rise would lead to “major extinctions around the globe” and to a “reconfiguration of coastlines worldwide.” A recent report published by the National Academy of Sciences indicated that doing nothing to reduce climate change would lead to a sea-level rise that would pose an “existential threat” to cities such as Boston, New York, Miami and New Orleans.

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