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White House Social Secretary Jeremy Bernard

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EARTH DAY FEATURE

ACLIMATEINCRISIS

AWAKEUPCALL FORPLANETEARTH The world has added 100 billion tons of carbon to the atmosphere since 2000 with no sign of slowing this pace. B Y L A U R A WA I N M A N

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The rate of global sea level rise per year in the last two decades is nearly double that of the preceding 80 years. This January marked the fourth-lowest Arctic sea ice level in the history of satellite measurements. (U.S. Geological Survey/ photo by Jessica Robertson)

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r. James Hansen first raised the alarm on our looming climate crisis long before it became a part of the national discussion. In 1981 he published his first warning that climate change was real, leading to a New York Times headline, “Study Finds Warming Trend That Could Raise Sea Levels.” In the sweltering summer of 1988 he spoke again, this time testifying before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. He unequivocally stated that there “was a strong cause-and-effect relationship between observed temperatures and human emissions into the atmosphere.” This time the Times headline read, “Global Warming Has Begun.” Hansen, a former director of NASA’s Institute for Space Studies, spoke out when no one wanted to listen and many wanted him to keep quiet. Joe Romm, editor of “Climate Progress,” likens him to “a modern day Paul Revere if Paul Revere’s midnight ride had taken place in 1750 and the message was,‘The British are coming, the British are coming in 25 years.’” In essence, he was trying to warn of the impending danger that a changing climate would bring, even though the devastation had yet to be seen. Three-plus decades after Hansen’s warnings, the world is arguably going in the wrong direction. In 2013 the United States witnessed a 2 percent increase in energy-related carbon emissions, which the Energy Information Administration blames on the increase in coal burning (39 percent in October 2013, up from 37 percent in 2012). Thanks in large part to Hansen’s early efforts, the dialogue in most academic circles no longer centers on proving the reality of climate change, but on what the appropriate response should be. According to Matt Larsen, the U.S. Geological Survey’s associate director of climate and land use change,

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This sculpture by Isaac Cordal is called “Politicians Discussing Global Warming” and reflects the artist’s view of how politicians continue to debate while the climate crisis accelerates (Photo courtesy Isaac Cordal)

approximately 97 percent of the scientific community now agrees that our climate is changing and that humans are the cause. The 2013 U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) made it clear that the most alarming aspect of the debate today is the accelerated rate of change contrasted with the lackadaisical response from the general public. In a Twitter-paced society, instant gratification is desired and scientists have found that individuals tend not to respond to incremental changes that they don’t think they can immediately rectify. Gavin Schmidt, a climatologist at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, argues that individuals can best effect change by holding accountable“the people who make the big decisions whether at the group, city, state or federal level,” Schmidt said. “Scientifically, we are much better at defining and recognising the fingerprints of change and in simulating the affects and future predictions. There has also been a lot of progress in having people think about climate change aspects in planning decisions, except in some parts of the federal

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government. Decisions made at the federal level are still our weakest area.” Even as we inch closer to the 2 degree Celsius increase in temperature that scientists have agreed would signify catastrophe for the planet as we know it, according to reports only a small portion of the population has engaged in meaningful action. A large part of the problem with the inadequate response to our current climate crisis is that it hasn’t yet been made tangible to the average citizen. We hear scientists citing the increased PPM levels of CO2 and watch on CNN as Congress engages in bickering matches over the course of action to take, but statistics and pointless yelling do not hammer the point home. Social scientists suggest that our visual society needs images in order to connect to the issue, and grasp the reality of what could happen. “Climate change is a very slow moving problem and anytime something is slow or distant we have a tendency to not deal with it,” Larsen said. “When we see an image of a polar bear struggling some people may have a gut

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reaction and say ‘oh that is terrible,’ but most of us have never seen a polar bear so it isn’t relatable. If the goal is to stir viewers to action, it’s important to use images that directly affect the majority of the population. For example we’ve all seen the image of the roller coaster out in the surf after hurricane Sandy. That image makes you think ‘wait a minute, I’ve been there’ and so you form a connection.” Whether or not society can picture the changes, they are there and occurring across all spectrums of life, according to reports from the CDC, IPCC, NASA, NOAA, USGS, WHO as well as the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which has mobilized to communicate the science of global climate destabilization to the general public and politicians. As the 2013 IPCC report stated, “the atmosphere and ocean have warmed, the amounts of snow and ice have diminished, sea level has risen and the concentrations of greenhouse gases have increased.” All 10 of the warmest years on record have occurred in the past 12 years and increases in average

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Massive forest die-off is projected to occur in the Southwest with increasing frequency as a result of climate change. ( U.S. Geological Survey/ photo by Craig D. Allen)

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temperature levels that have beem occurring since the 1970s are responsible for at least 150,000 extra deaths per year; global sea levels rose about 17 cm. in the last century, but the rate per year in the last two decades is almost double that of the preceding 80 years; today’s CO2 levels are 30 percent higher than the highest natural levels over the past 800,000 years and the world added roughly 100 billion tons of carbon to the atmosphere between 2000 and 2010, which is about a quarter of all the CO2 put there by humanity since 1750; the globally averaged combined land and ocean

surface temperature data show a warming of .85 degrees Celsius from 1880 to 2012. “We have the choice to rein it in, or let it grow at an alarming and dangerous rate, but we can’t stop it,” Schmidt said. “We can only try and keep it slow enough that it isn’t too expensive to adapt to.” However, Schmidt warns against using that as an excuse to become complacent, or worse, giving up hope altogether as he says “there will always be choices that will make the situation worse or better and we will need to keep making them.”

The Polar Vortex Mystery The White House’s John Holdren explains why an unseasonably cold winter is an important component of the climate destabilization discussion.

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ashington-area residents know that the winter of 2013/2014 was one of the harshest and longest in years, with significant snowfalls in late March and weeks of blisteringly cold temperatures. But the Washington area was not alone in experiencing this phenomenon. According to the National Weather Service, “on January 6, 2014, alone, approximately 50 daily record low temperatures were set, from Colorado to Alabama to New York.” In some places around the country temperature averages were measured at 40 degrees below the norms for the region. Yet on January 27, 2014, Alaska’s Port Alsworth recorded the warmest temperature ever measured in the state during January, with a high of 62 degrees Fahrenheit. “If you’ve been hearing that extreme cold spells like the one we’re having in the United States now disprove global warming, don’t believe it,” said President Obama’s science advisor, John Holdren, in a popular White House YouTube video explaining the polar vortex. Holdren goes on to state that “no single weather episode can either prove or disprove global climate change” as climate relates to a pattern of weather that is observed geographically over the seasons.

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So why the arctic-like temps in our region while Alaskans experienced balmy, summertime temperatures in January? The proverbial finger wagging can be directed at the polar vortex, which Holdren defines as the “great counter-clockwise swirling mass of cold air that hovers over the Arctic.” Due to the fact that the Arctic is warming twice as rapidly as the mid-latitude regions (such as the U.S.), the temperature differences between the regions are shrinking, causing the polar vortex to weaken and send larger excursions of cold air southward and warmer air northward. Though we may have moved into spring for this year, we’d suggest keeping the winter coats on hand as Holdren predicts that we will continue to see more extreme weather patterns in the near future. “Computer models tell us there are many different factors influencing these patterns,” Holdren said. “But I believe the odds are that we can expect, as a result of global warming, to see more of this pattern of extreme cold in the mid-latitudes and some extreme warmth in the far North.”

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What can an Individual Do?

The Jet Star Roller Coaster was found in the ocean after part of New Jersey’s Funtown Pier was destroyed during Superstorm Sandy. (AP Photo/Mel Evans, File)

stark climate realities 1. Ice loss in northeast Greenland, a region that had been stable for 25 years, has nearly tripled since 2003, according to a March 2014 study in Nature Climate Change. If Greenland’s ice sheet completely melts, approximately 23 feet worth of sea level would be pushed into the ocean over the coming centuries, in which case many of the world’s major population centers near sea level would be rendered uninhabitable. 2. In order to stay below the 2 degree Celsius temperature rise that scientists have agreed would spell disaster, CO2 emissions must remain below 1,000 billion tons of carbon; approximately half of that has already been put into the atmosphere according to the IPCC. CO2 levels are now above 400 parts per million for the first time in the 165,000-year history of humanity according to data from the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii.

melts completely, it will release a carbon bomb approximately 6 times the size of the one Hansen said would be “game over.” 5. The Danish Meteorological Institute found that average temperatures in the Arctic were 9 to 27 degrees Fahrenheit above average in the months of January and February 2014, soaring over 60 degrees F, while the midlatitudes (such as the U.S.) experienced a blast of cold weather with temperature changes as great as 40 degrees below the norms for the region. 6. Ocean acidity, which is threatening marine life such as plankton, oysters, clams and corals, has increased by approximately 30 percent since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution according to NOAA.

3. According to former NASA scientist James Hansen, the dirty carbon-intensive tar sands in Canada contain 240 gigatons of Carbon, which if tapped will release a carbon bomb adding 120 ppm to the atmosphere and “it will be game over for the climate.”

7. According to the CDC, wetter and warmer climates correlate with higher rates of reproduction among insect pests, such as mosquitoes, which can carry dangerous human parasites such as Plasmodium, the causative agent of Malaria. The same correlation is also found for other dangerous pathogens of humans, other animals and crops.

4. The permafrost that covers approximately 20 to 25 percent of surface area in the northern hemisphere is estimated to contain up to 1,600 gigatons of carbon. As it thaws, carbon is released into the atmosphere as methane, a greenhouse gas that is 20 times more potent than CO2 according to the E.P.A. If the permafrost

8. California, the supplier of more than 90 percent of the country’s almonds, walnuts, pistachios, broccoli, strawberries, grapes and tomatoes, is in the midst of a threeyear drought, which is on track to be its “worst drought in 500 years” according to University of California-Berkeley professor B. Lynn Ingram.

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New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina (Photo by Jocelyn Augustino, FEMA)

The easiest way for an individual to help lessen the effects of climate change is to focus on reducing greenhouse gases. Here are some practical options to consider: CALCULATEYOURHOUSE’S CARBONFOOTPRINT

Find out the amount of greenhouse gas emissions your household generates and then identify ways to reduce them at http://www.epa.gov/ climatechange/ghgemissions/indcalculator.html SWITCH YOUR HOME TO RENEWABLEENERGY  Consider switching home electricity sources to renewable energy through companies such as Ethical Electric, Virdian Energy and Washington Gas Energy Services. In many communities this can be easily accomplished online at minimal extra cost. CHANGEFIVELIGHTS

Replace light fixtures with bulbs that have earned the E.P.A’s ENERGY STAR designation. They generate 75 percent less heat, use 75 percent less energy and last 10 to 50 times longer. EVALUATETHECARYOUDRIVE

See Washington Life’s companion piece on electric vehicles on p. 52.

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A Climate in Crisis  

From the April 2014 issue of Washington Life Magazine

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