Bill McKibben has written an utterly arresting op-ed for the LA Times in which he argues from scientific evidence that humanity is budging up against its last chance to get atmospheric CO2 below 350 parts per million (ppm) before a number of climate tipping points take out our capacity to stop the greenhouse effect.
A few weeks ago, NASA's chief climatologist, James Hansen, submitted a paper to Science magazine with several coauthors. The abstract attached to it argued - and I have never read stronger language in a scientific paper - that "if humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on Earth is adapted, paleoclimate evidence and ongoing climate change suggest that CO2 will need to be reduced from its current 385 ppm to at most 350 ppm."
McKibbon returns to the key phrase, "if humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization developed" in a desperate plea to pull ourselves back before it's too late.
One tipping point is the arctic ice cap, which reflects 80 percent of solar energy back into space. Once it melts, the sea will absorb 80 percent of solar energy.
Another tipping point is the arctic tundra in which vast amounts of methane gas are sequestered in the permafrost. Once that permafrost thaws, the methane will pour into the atmosphere and intensify the greenhouse effect.
Yet another is changing rainfall patterns and migration of insects to new regions, which threatens the carbon sequestered in millions of acres of forest.
[W]e have, at best, a few years to short-circuit them -- to reverse course. Here's the Indian scientist and economist Rajendra Pachauri, who accepted the Nobel Prize on behalf of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change last year (and, by the way, got his job when the Bush administration, at the behest of Exxon Mobil, forced out his predecessor): "If there's no action before 2012, that's too late. What we do in the next two to three years will determine our future. This is the defining moment."
Not only are we not taking action, but we're actually accelerating our greenhouse gas production. While politicians at all levels stall and balk over banal procedural issues, we continue to approach the drop-dead date, that point at which it no longer matters whether we try to stop feeding the cycle.
Is there any way to pull ourselves back from the brink in time?
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