Climate Change: A Turning Point for Political Action at Last?

Climate Change: A Turning Point for Political Action at Last?
Wind turbines are a good alternative to traditional forms of producing energy that contribute to climate change.

By George B. Kauffman

Charles D. Keeling (1928–2005) was the first to alert the world to the anthropogenic contribution to the “greenhouse effect” and global warming. In 1958, he set up an infrared gas analyzer at Hawaii’s Mauna Loa Observatory and began to measure atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide (CO2), the most significant greenhouse gas (GHG) generated by human activities. He continued tracking daily averages. Over the years, a pattern emerged that showed steadily increasing levels of CO2 in the atmospheric. This rise, attributed to human activities like burning coal and other fossil fuels, has only accelerated ever since. The iconic Keeling curve laid the foundations for our present concern about the role of GHG emissions in global climate change.

The American Chemical Society designated the Keeling Curve as a National Chemical Landmark, a program begun in 1992 to enhance public appreciation for the contributions of chemistry to modern life (Chem. & Eng. News, Aug. 3, 2015, 93(31), p. 42; i31/Keeling-Curve-Named- Chemical-Landmark.html). Celebrations took place at both the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in Hilo on April 30 and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego, on June 12.

Before Keeling’s work, atmospheric CO2 measurements ranged from 150 to 350 parts per million (ppm). However, his methods were more precise and showed consistent values around 310 ppm. The Keeling Curve is the longest and most authoritative record of atmospheric CO2 concentrations collected in real time. Increasing attention to the role of GHGs in climate change led the United Nations to establish the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 1988 to prepare reports and recommendations about climate change based on scientific data. My article, “IPCC Issues ‘Final Word’ on Climate Warming,” appeared in the January 2015 Community Alliance (http://fresnoalliance. com/wordpress/?p=10428).

In 1992, the United Nations ratified the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), and in 1997 the Kyoto Protocol, which extended the UNFCCC to produce the first international agreement among member nations to reduce CO2 and other GHGs, was formed. This international treaty commits countries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions based on the premise that global warming exists and man-made CO2 emissions have caused it ( protocol/items/2830.php).

Two reports issued on July 20 have indicated that perhaps we have reached a turning point for political action on climate change; at least let’s hope so. However, in the past, no warnings seem to have had any effect on the climate change deniers!

James Hansen of Columbia University, former leading climate scientist at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and our planet’s most famous climate scientist, along with 16 coauthors, many considered among the best in their fields, concluded that glaciers in Greenland and Antarctica will melt 10 times faster than previous estimates, resulting in a sea level rise of at least 10 feet in as little as 50 years ( slatest/2015/07/20/sea_level_ study_james_hansen_issues_ dire_climate_warning.html). A feedback loop near Antarctica makes cooler freshwater from melting glaciers force warm, saltier water under the ice sheets, speeding up the melting rate.

The authors used paleoclimate records, computer models and observations of the current sea level rise. Hansen hoped that the new findings would be “substantially more persuasive than anything previously published,” and he stated that “the real world is moving somewhat faster than the model” and requires “emergency cooperation among nations.”

New York City, Miami Beach and every other coastal city might have only a few decades of habitability left. Social disruption and the economic consequences of this sea level rise could be devastating, and conflicts from forced migrations and economic collapse might make our planet ungovernable, threatening the very fabric of civilization.

Hansen’s complete article (“Ice melt, sea level rise and superstorms: Evidence that 2°C global warming is highly dangerous,” Atmos. Chem. Phys. Disc. 23, July 23, 2015) involved 16 coauthors, was 66 pages long and included more than 300 references. He stated that “there is no morally defensible excuse to delay [the] phase-out of fossil fuel emissions as rapidly as possible.” He discussed his latest report on Fareed Zakaria GPS (CNN). For a video and transcript, visit http://cnnpressroom.blogs.

Hansen left his NASA position in 2013 because “as a government employee, you can’t testify against the government.” In December 2013, he called for a “human tipping point,” essentially a social revolution, as one of the most effective ways of combating climate change. However, he still favors a bilateral carbon tax agreed upon by the United States and China as the best near-term policy.

Also on July 20, with the monthly update from the NOAA, three of the world’s official climate reporting agencies agree that June 2015 was the hottest on record and that this year will be the hottest year yet: “The June globally-averaged land surface temperature was 2.27ºF (1.26ºC) above the 20th century average. This was the highest for June in the 1880–2015 record, surpassing the previous record set in 2012 by 0.11ºF (0.06ºC).” According to journalist Andrew Freeman, “the heat in 2015 isn’t just breaking records, it’s smashing them.”

Deke Arndt, chief of the monitoring branch of the NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI), explained how climate change interacts with an El Niño weather pattern to drive overall temperature increases: “Climate change is a long-term driver, so that’s like standing on an escalator as it goes up [and El Niño] is like jumping up and down while you’re on that escalator. So, the longer that we go into history, we’re riding up the escalator. And now that we’re getting an El Niño event, we happen to be jumping up at the same time, and so they play together to produce outcomes like what is likely to be the warmest year on record.”

According to ThinkProgress, an American liberal political news blog that provides a forum that advances progressive ideas and policies, there is a more than 85% chance that this current El Niño will last until May 2016: “If this pattern plays out, then 2016 would likely top whatever temperature record 2015 sets—again, possibly by a wide margin.”

For an accessible historical account of the development of climate change in scientific and political circles in the United States detailing how the solution to a problem that should be based on science has become embroiled with politics, see Joshua P. Howe, Behind the Curve: Science and the Politics of Global Warming (Weyerhaeuser Environmental Books); University of Washington Press: Seattle/London, 2014, xviii + 290 pp.

Dante Alighieri, in his Inferno, describes the nine circles of hell, each for the different kinds of sinners. The outermost were occupied by those who didn’t know any better, while the innermost were reserved for the most treacherous sinners. Dante would surely place in the deepest circle those climate deniers who borrow against our Earth’s future in the name of economic growth and accumulate an environmental debt by burning fossil fuels, the consequences of which will be left for our children and grandchildren.


George B. Kauffman, Ph.D., chemistry professor emeritus at Fresno State and Guggenheim Fellow, is a recipient of the American Chemical Society’s George C. Pimentel Award in Chemical Education, the Helen M. Free Award for Public Outreach and the Award for Research at an Undergraduate Institution, and numerous domestic and international honors. In 2002 and 2011, he was appointed a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Chemical Society, respectively.


  • Community Alliance

    The Community Alliance is a monthly newspaper that has been published in Fresno, California, since 1996. The purpose of the newspaper is to help build a progressive movement for social and economic justice.

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