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Solutions: Is the Earth doomed?

By Huck Fairman
For New Jerseyites who missed it (and I spied it only in my dentist’s office), New York Magazine published in its July 10-23 issue a harrowing list of effects of global warming. And then The New York Times, in the first week of August, published an article detailing one of those threats, to those working outside in extreme heat.
The author of the New York article is a journalist, David Wallace-Wells, who over a number of months interviewed “the most credentialed and tenured . . . sober-minded scientists” in the field. In addition, he cites a number of books written by a range of specialists who have been studying aspects of climate change. While temperature projections cannot be made with certainty, those projections made a decade or two ago have already been exceeded. Arctic ice is melting faster than projected, as are many glaciers; the great iceberg split off from Antarctica sooner than anticipated; ocean levels rising and extreme heat are already having impacts. It appears that 2017 will be warmest year on record.
But the impacts Wallace-Wells details are considerably more serious than mere discomfort from rising temperatures. The repercussions are many, and a number may well be devastating. His article summarizes them. It is not a pretty picture.
Most direct, among the impacts, are: Human deaths (not to mention the loss of other species) from extreme heat alone. Human bodies cannot withstand sustained heat much above 100 degrees. And heat and drought will make agriculture impossible in many regions. In others, productivity will plummet. Some African and Middle East nations are already withering from rampant starvation.
With warming climates, diseases can move around the world, and can mutate into forms we are not prepared to deal with. Malaria will not only be carried more widely by mosquitoes, but in a warmer world the parasite reproduces 10 times faster.
The air, from CO2 emissions and from forest fires on every continent, will be unhealthy and can increase birth defects as well as premature deaths.
Conflict between nations and regions will almost certainly increase as competition for food and living space — and the resulting immigration — will pit populations against each other. It’s already happening in the Mediterranean and the Middle East. In the latter, and in parts of Africa, we are witnessing perpetual war.
Economic impacts will follow. Wallace-Wells cites research predictions that the rise in temperatures will result in reductions of GDP — reaching declines as much as 50 percent. Articles in The New York Times have predicted reduced economic activity in our already-hot South. If economies significantly decline, so do the civilizations we’ve known.
Oceans, the birthplace of earliest species, could in turn do us in as they rise and flood communities and nations. At the same time, the acidification of the oceans is already killing off fish (food and protein for many) and coral reefs, the breeding grounds for numerous fish species. Additionally, as ocean waters warm, they produce dead zones, which “grow like cancers, choking off marine life,” and they produce Hydrogen sulfide, which is so toxic that it was responsible for one of the great extinctions.
And of course, as most now know, CO2 emissions are largely responsible for the warming that is leading to these potentially fatal, changes. Wallace-Wells reminds us that “. . . more than half of the carbon humanity has exhaled in its entire history has been emitted in just the past three decades; since the end of World War II, the figure is 85 percent. Which means that, in the length of a single generation, global warming has brought us to the brink of planetary catastrophe . . .”
So what to do? Many urge that we do everything we can. Maybe we need to replicate the war footing that the nation adopted at the beginning of the Second World War II. Societal mobilization. To a certain extent, California has begun. But many scientists don’t think that our current efforts or even the Paris Climate Accord will be nearly enough.
The good news is that polls show more than 60 percent of Americans believe that global warming is real and manmade. In many states, including New Jersey, companies and homeowners have installed solar panels and geothermal heating and cooling. Princeton University has installed a number of systems to reduce energy consumption and CO2 emissions. Its goal is zero emissions. James Hansen and other scientists believe we need to develop means of extracting carbon from the atmosphere.
In short, we know what to do and are learning how to do it, but will we do enough, and in time? Globally, emissions and temperatures continue to rise. So far, while there have been improvements in some regions and technologies, generally the responses have not been adequate.
Common sense suggests, therefore, that we all need to pitch in. Urge our political leaders to act. Turn to electric cars and hybrids, to solar panels, geothermal, and LED bulbs. Carbon sinks need to be established and expanded — our western prairie grasses’ deep roots are one. Towns, counties, and states need action plans — a number already have a plan or are working on one. Young scientists and technicians must develop clean, green technology. Forest, woods, fields, and water systems need to be preserved.
Some will argue that the Wallace-Wells article is a scare tactic, but if one follows the global developments in publications, journals, and books, the changes have been well documented. Our errors have been to underestimate the speed with which these changes are occurring. We are at a crucial juncture. There is a point at which global warming will not be reversible. Many of the studies conclude that we are closer to that tipping point than even most scientists want to admit. They try to remain optimistic, but we are at war with ourselves — our own technologies, and in some cases politically. We need to mobilize, adapt, develop, and switch.
We have met the enemy, and it is, indeed, us. It is to be fervently hoped that Wallace-Wells’ very useful warning, “The Doomed Earth Catalog” will not become our epitaph.

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