Four years have passed since NASA scientist James Hansen sounded this warning: “Multiple lines of evidence indicate that the Earth’s climate is nearing ... a point of no return, beyond which it will be impossible to avoid climate change with far-ranging undesirable consequences.”
Increasingly, the chorus coming from the scientific community is harder and harder to drown out—the brutal facts are that we are running out of time. In January 2007, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists moved its Doomsday Clock two minutes closer to midnight—it now stands at five minutes to midnight—not only because of the ongoing threat of the world’s nuclear arsenal, but also the growing threat to all of life posed by climate change.
The pace of climate change is turning out to be much faster than expected. We seem to be witnessing a perfect storm of triggers. Emissions have gone up faster than expected, leading to more warming. The warming causes the release of carbon from the arctic permafrost, which speeds up the warming, which causes more release from permafrost. As the oceans warm up, the great ice sheets are melting faster, which causes the earth to absorb rather than reflect more of the sun’s energy. This reinforces the warming trend. And on top of all this, the increase in wildfires and the destruction of the tropical rainforests releases the carbon stored in millions of trees.
The human and ecological costs of a warming planet stagger the mind. A 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report predicts that 20 to 30 percent of all known species are at increased risk for extinction if the average global temperature rises by more than 2 degrees Celsius from pre-industrial levels. The world’s poor will suffer disproportionate effects including loss of critical water and food supplies in Africa and Asia. We are running out of time to avoid a climate catastrophe.