If you or someone you know needs proof that global climate change is real and is happening before our very eyes, you could go to the “State of the Climate Report” put together by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
But just turning on the television or opening the newspaper these days should be enough to raise alarms.
Over the weekend for instance, Ellicott City, just up the road in Maryland, was nearly washed away in a 1000-year flooding event similar to what recently happened in West Virginia.
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Across the world, more than 150 people were killed in floods in India and 1.1 million more Indians were displaced in flooding that wiped out large swatches of infrastructure and agricultural land.
Out in the Western United States, firefighters north of Los Angeles were finally able to control the “Sand Fire” that burned for nearly two weeks, destroyed 18 homes and burned a total of more than 41,000 acres, meanwhile the “Soberanes Fire” has already scorched more than 43,000 acres and has only been 18 percent contained.
And in fact, 10 of the 20 largest wildfires in California’s history have burned in the last 10 years.
Then there are the risks of climate change that don’t have to do with extreme weather events, like the toxic algal blooms off of the coast of Florida, or the dormant anthrax that’s been released from the melting soils in Siberia, or the Cold War-era nuclear research site in the Greenland ice sheet that could leech biological, chemical and radioactive waste into the environment as that ice sheet melts.
In response to the State of the Climate report that NOAA released, renowned climate scientist Dr. Michael Mann told the Guardian that, “The impacts of climate change are no longer subtle. They are playing out before us, in real time. The 2015 numbers drive that home.”
The report describes a “toppling of several symbolic mileposts” in 2015, and makes it clearer than ever that climate change is real, that human activity is the primary driver and that we’re watching the effects play out in real time.
The year 2015 was one-tenth of a degree Celsius hotter than 2014, making it the warmest year on record; but, based on the fact that the last 14 months have all been record-breaking months, 2016 is likely to take that record from 2015.
Our oceans also saw record breaking oceanic temperatures in 2015: The Pacific was 2 degrees Celsius warmer than the long-term average, and the Arctic reached a shocking 8 degrees Celsius above average.
Other significant changes described in the State of the Climate report for 2015 include the Arctic hitting its lowest recorded maximum sea ice extent in February of 2015, the world’s alpine glaciers registering a net annual loss of ice for the 36th year in a row, and the Greenland ice sheet melting over more than 50 percent of its surface.
This year, Greenland’s melt season started two months earlier than usual and scientists are now very concerned about what could happen if this rate of warming continues, or accelerates.
But what’s really terrifying isn’t the melting itself, it’s what will be released if we don’t take immediate action to curb the climate change that’s happened because of the 350 billion tons of carbon we’ve already burned into the atmosphere since 1850.
Dr. Charles Miller with NASA’s Carbon in Arctic Reservoirs Vulnerability Experiment (CARVE) astonished me recently when he estimated that there are 1,500 BILLION tons of carbon locked in the Arctic soils, and nearly 10,000 BILLION tons of methane clathrates trapped at the bottom of the Arctic sea.
Right now we’ve already warmed the planet by 1 degree Celsius, and because of the delayed impacts of dumping carbon into the atmosphere, we’ve likely already locked in another 1 degree Celsius of warming on top of that, and what Dr. Miller’s data suggests is that we could see another 1 degree Celsius of warming if just 10 to 20 percent of the permafrost melts in the Arctic.
And all over the planet we’re already experiencing the effects of ice melt in the Arctic as more open water in the Arctic leads to more evaporation: like the collapse of the jet stream and the extremely cold winters we’ve seen on the East Coast of the United States.
Some scientists now fear that as ice-melt accelerates in the Arctic, we could see that 1,500 billion tons of land-based carbon and 10,000 billion tons of sea-based methane released into the atmosphere from the permafrost and from beneath the Arctic Sea where it’s been trapped for hundreds of thousands or even millions of years.
If that happens, some scientists estimate that we would see a mass extinction event on the level of the Permian extinction, when up to 96 percent of the all marine species and 70 percent of all land-based species on the planet were wiped out, and it’s unlikely that humans would be one of the surviving species.
That path to extinction though, started with our use of fossil fuels.
To save human and other life as we know it on this planet, we need to put a price on carbon NOW, and we need to hold those who fund climate deniers accountable for knowing the risks of fossil fuels for decades, and lying to the public about it.
Our next president needs to get serious about taking the lead to fight climate change by investing in a modern-day Manhattan Project-scale effort to capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and to aggressively transform our energy infrastructure to 100 percent renewable as soon as possible.
Our survival as a species may well depend on it.