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Voices / Column

Demanding climate action

Organizations push globally for action on climate change

Saxtons River

The recent cataclysmic weather events, ranging from Dust Bowl drought and rampant fires in the west to raging rivers and record rainfall in the east, seem cosmic if not biblical to me and, I know, to others.

A subtle sense of fear is palpable, and we no longer joke so cavalierly about the Mayan prediction that the world will end on 12/12/12. Does this mean our collective consciousness has been raised sufficiently to make us take global climate change seriously and to do something about it in order to ensure the survival of the fragile planet we share?

I’m not so sure, especially when I listen to corporate, political and private naysayers.

I also have to wonder why the media doesn’t give more front-page prominence or prime-time coverage to the issue, especially when major grassroots events are taking place globally to draw attention to the ever-more-dire predictions about the earth’s demise.

Why did only social media seem to be aware of, or care about, the “24 Hours of Reality” event produced by Al Gore’s Climate Reality Project on Sept. 14?

How much of mainstream media paid attention to what was happening all over the world, during a 24-hour period over 24 time zones in 13 languages, as people from all walks of life connected the dots between recent extreme weather events and man-made pollution that is changing our climate?

I logged on during the live stream and watched the number of people signing on rise from 45,000 to 60,000 in about a minute. That was encouraging, as were the messages they posted. Still, I wonder how many folks knew, or cared about, the event.

* * *

One of the main issues in the climate change debate is that fossil-fuel companies continue to deny that climate change is happening, despite the fact that we know fossil fuels pollute the environment in ways that cause real damage.

That’s why Moving Planet Day on Sept. 24, organized by 350.org, was linked to the Climate Reality Project. The goal was to demand climate action globally, both symbolically and politically.

Bill McKibben, a well-respected environmentalist and author, founded the grassroots climate campaign 350.org, which helped organize Moving Planet Day. He and the 350.org website say that until about 200 years ago, the atmosphere contained 275 parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide (CO2). (Parts per million measures the concentration of different gases and assesses the ratio of carbon dioxide molecules to all the molecules in the atmosphere.)

But largely because of the Industrial Revolution and an overall increased demand for energy, the amount of carbon and other heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere began to rise quite quickly.

Additionally, we’re taking millions of years worth of carbon, stored beneath the earth as fossil fuels, and releasing it into the atmosphere. The planet now has about 392 ppm of carbon dioxide, a number that is rising by about 2 ppm every year.

Scientists say that’s too much; we’re already seeing disastrous impacts all over the world. Glaciers are melting; mosquitoes, who like warmth, are spreading and spreading disease; drought is making food harder to grow; and sea levels have begun to rise.

Oceans are growing more acidic because of the carbon dioxide they are absorbing, making it harder for corals and clams to build and maintain their shells and skeletons.

Such ecological events are why some of the world’s leading climate scientists have revised the highest safe level of carbon dioxide to 350 ppm. “It’s the safety zone for planet earth,” McKibben says.

James Hansen of NASA, the first scientist to warn about global warming, agrees: “If humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on Earth is adapted ...CO2 will need to be reduced from its current 385 ppm to at most 350 ppm.”

That will be a difficult but not impossible task, said McKibben and his colleagues.

“We need to stop taking carbon out of the ground and putting it into the air,” the 350.org website says “Above all, we need to stop burning so much coal and start using solar and wind energy and other such sources of renewable energy.

“If we do, the earth’s soils and forests will slowly cycle some of that extra carbon out of the atmosphere, and eventually CO2 concentrations will return to a safe level.

“By decreasing use of other fossil fuels, and improving agricultural and forestry practices around the world, scientists believe we could get back below 350 by mid-century. But the longer we remain in the danger zone — above 350 — the more likely that we will see disastrous and irreversible climate impacts.”

In other words, we are fast approaching a tipping point. If we don’t act now, climate change will become irreversible.

Are enough of us ready to prevent that from happening and to face reality – for more than a day?

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Originally published in The Commons issue #121 (Wednesday, October 5, 2011).

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