By Jim Bloch
“I love the outdoors. I believe it’s something worth fighting for.”
With those words, Junko Usuba launched into a presentation on the causes and impacts of climate change, a global phenomenon so serious it should be referred to as a climate emergency.
According to the International Panel on Climate Change, the nations of the earth have until 2030 to stop adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere — or face climate emergency more serious than previously predicted.
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Usuba, a native of Japan who now lives and works in Port Huron, discussed the climate crisis at a Blue Water Sierra Club meeting at the county building on Nov. 21. Usuba, who holds a B.A. in international relations from International Christian University in Japan and a masters of business administration from Harvard Business School, is a member Climate Reality Project, founded by former vice president Al Gore.
Blue Water Sierra Club hosted Usuba as part of the group’s “24 Hours of Reality: Truth in Action,” observed on November 20-21. The non-profit OneTreePlanted will plant one tree for each of the 60+ attendees at the event.
Usuba gave a primer on the science behind the climate crisis and outlined some of its effects. Next week we’ll take a look at her suggested courses of action.
Poisoning the atmosphere
The level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was relatively stable for 800,000 years, ranging between 180 and 280 parts per million. With the birth of industrial revolution, and the massive burning of fossil fuels on which it was based, humans began injecting higher and higher amounts of C02 into the atmosphere.
In 2018, carbon emissions rose three percent.
This year, for the first time, the level of C02 in the atmosphere hit 415 ppm — the highest it has been in around three million years, since the Pliocene period, when the oceans were about 90 feet higher and the temperatures were between 3.6-5.8 degrees Fahrenheit hotter than today.
If it is working well, the earth’s atmosphere functions to supply oxygen, water, CO2 and other nutrients to plants and animals; it keeps the planet at a livable level of warmth and protects its residents from deadly ultraviolet rays. But as humans have indiscriminately burned fossil fuels over the past 150 years, the levels of CO2 and methane — the two main kinds of greenhouse gases — have dramatically increased. The molecules act to trap heat in the atmosphere; when they increase, the earth warms up.
“What we put in the air is difficult to take back,” said Usuba.
According to the Guardian, “Between 65 and 80 percent of CO2 released into the air dissolves into the ocean over a period of 20–200 years. The rest is removed by slower processes that take up to several hundreds of thousands of years, including chemical weathering and rock formation. This means that once in the atmosphere, carbon dioxide can continue to affect climate for thousands of years.”
In other words, if we immediately stop burning fossil fuels — which account for 85 percent of the energy we use — the world will continue to heat up.
Globally, the earth has increased in temperature by 1.8 degrees F over the past century.
If humans can’t reverse the emissions, the world may be looking at a 7.2 F increase by 2100.
A warmer global climate means melting glaciers and icepacks and rising oceans, which are 7.8 inches higher than 1901.
If Greenland melts, the oceans will rise 20 feet, Usuba said, and 10 times that much if Antarctica liquefies.
Of course, predicting the future is tricky business.
Some of the predictions of climate scientists could certainly be incorrect.
“My fear is that scientists have underestimated the impacts of climate change,” said Usuba.
For example, in 2017, scientists learned that Greenland’s ice was melting four times faster and oceans retained 60 percent more heat annually than previously thought.
How does climate change affect weather patterns?
With a warmer earth, evaporation increases from the land, lakes and oceans, putting more water into the atmosphere. The result is more extreme weather in the form of bigger storms, hurricanes and more intense droughts, which in turn feed unprecedented wildfires.
May-July 2018 was the hottest three month period in the U.S. in recorded history, 1880 to the present, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. July 2019 was the hottest month ever in the U.S. Three spots in Alaska set high-temperature records on July 4 — led by Anchorage at 90 degrees F.
The number of extreme weather catastrophes worldwide has risen from slightly more than 200 a year in 1980 to more than 800 in 2018, with economic losses in 2017-18 topping $500 billion.
“By 2050, the severity of widespread summer drought is projected to nearly triple in Michigan,” Asuba said. “The fire season in the U.S. west is now 105 days longer than it was in 1970.”
The Camp fire in Paradise, CA a year ago killed 86 people and incinerated 14,000 homes and businesses.
January-June 2019 in the U.S. was the wettest such period in the 125-year record, according to NOAA,
“Globally, floods and extreme rainfall events occur four times more often than 1980,” said Usuba.
Extreme weather affects the whole world, not just the U.S.
In May and June, for example, flooding on the Yangtze River in China killed 100 people and caused $1.3 million in damages.
Kuwait City hit 126 degrees F on June 8. The North Pole had three consecutive mid-winter heatwaves beginning in 2016, during which temperatures were 50 degrees warmer than normal.
According to the U.S. Department of Defense’s 2014 Climate Change Adaptation Roadmap, climate change “will likely lead to food and water shortages, pandemic disease, disputes over refugees and resources, and destruction by natural disasters in regions across the globe.”
Corn, wheat, rice and soybeans comprise about 66 percent of the calories eaten by humans worldwide. Crop scientists predict that for every 1.8 degree F jump in world temperatures, corn production will fall 7.4 percent, wheat will drop six percent, rice will decrease 3.2 percent and soybeans will decline 1.3 percent.
As the world heats up, water usage escalates.
“Water scarcity already affects 40 percent of the world’s population,” said Asuba.
Glaciers in the Himalayan Mountains provide water for about a quarter of the world’s people, yet one-third to two-thirds of the glaciers will disappear by 2100 if the world’s emissions of CO2 continue to rise.
Tropical diseases — such as West Nile Virus, Rift Valley Fever, Chikungunya, Dengue Fever and Zika Virus — rarely seen in the northern, are now moving into the newly warmer, wetter regions of the U.S. and Western Europe.
“The number of U.S. tick-borne and mosquito-borne infections increased nearly 10 times from 2004 to 2016,” Asuba said.
Climate change also increases the likelihood of contracting a waterborne infectious disease — such as cholera, dysentery, Hepatitis A, typhoid or E. coli — largely through flooding triggered by extreme rain events.
Who suffers the most from the heat of a warming world and its consequences?As Pope Francis said in his 2015 climate encyclical, it’s the poorest among us — which makes the climate emergency automatically a social justice issue. According to the pope, we must hear both “the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.”