It struck me recently that while I strive to bring you practical reminders about living more environmentally minded—driving more efficiently, insulating your home and reducing the miles your food travels—the greatest impact I can hope to make is to demystify the sometimes clouded realities about global warming.
That's because once you grasp the gravity and immediacy of the issue, you can't not feel compelled to become an active part of the solution. For the sake of future generations, take the time to comprehend the fundamentals, and if something seems unclear, go explore it with someone who knows.
I did just that by reaching out to Ed Stern. A longtime Cinnaminson resident, 84-year-old Stern had a past life in clinical sociology, but in his later years has transformed into a whiz on the science of climate change. He's taught courses through Burlington County College's L.I.F.E. program for retirees on the topic, as well as at the . I visited Stern in his home, and among a collection of science volumes old and new, we dove headfirst into the facts.
What is global warming?
Global warming is a trend that has taken place since the Industrial Revolution, as evidenced by a worldwide rise in the average surface temperature (of about 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit). It is a result of the greenhouse effect, which describes the way carbon dioxide in our atmosphere holds in the planet's heat. The right amount of it makes it habitable for life—the great excesses we've released in the past 30 years specifically is set to leave us sweltering.
What is causing it?
To a small degree, warming (and cooling) happens as part of the planet's natural cycles, but the significant changes right in our face tell us the pace is quickening to a degree there must be an exogenous cause. That cause is us, and the vast systems that comprise our grand industrial machine. Greenhouse gas emissions—mostly from energy production, namely the burning of coal—are toxifying our one livable ecosystem.
Meanwhile, rampant deforestation is the speeding up the process, as trees are nature's way of collecting and storing carbon dioxide. Slashing forests debilitates Earth's mechanism for balancing itself.
Where's the evidence?
The reason the average person should believe in man-made global warming is the same reason we believe our cardiologist—we trust experts. But this is like having many thousands of cardiologists all poring over your charts. Every climate scientist is studying the matter, and they no longer seriously debate the theory's validity. Stating it conservatively, more than ninety percent of the experts agree on this one.
And the hard evidence is all around us, starting with the warming temperatures and creeping seasons, but also direct observation of the world tells us something just ain't right. The ocean's pH levels are trending too far toward acidic, ice sheets are melting as though in fast-forward, and the bleaching (i.e., dying) of coral reefs are all symptoms of the disease.
We can study nature's time capsules like tree rings and ice cores, and know what the world was like throughout thousands of years. We know, for instance that in pre-Industrial times, there used to be 280 molecules that were carbon dioxide out of a random sampling of a million. That number swelled throughout the past two centuries as we burned fossil fuels, and today there is about 391 parts per million.
Stern addresses a grim figure: "If we reach 450, that's the breaking point—there will be loads of human misery. There will be dislocations, there will be floods; all the symptoms we're seeing now will be much worse."
He refers to the refugees that will emerge as metropolitan areas are submerged by rising sea levels and as rural regions become drought-ridden. It's the likely repercussions of severe climate change, and frankly it's the path we're on.
What can be done?
Stern addresses this just as any trained clinical psychotherapist would:
"Human beings are designed to act on things they see, things that are palpable. We see things in front of our noses, but we hide from ourselves what's in the future," Stern says. "And [because of that], we're not doing enough—we're 'hypoactive.'"
The answer is simple, but the will to implement it herculean. It is:
- to power our planet with renewable and environmentally benign energy sources
- to shift to a transportation system that is sustainable and clean
- to rein in a consumption disorder that perversely lets us view finite resources as boundless and thus disposable
- to intelligently and ethically manage our growth in both population and carbon footprint at the personal, corporate and institutional, and national level (and don't forget !)
Stern's outlook included advice that's worth heeding:
"One of the primary things we should do is keep after our governments, and keep after the UN and the international movements, and get in touch with our legislator every time something comes up. Because individual actions are essential to creating bottom up pressure for institutional change, because that's what we need, institutional change."
Here at Patch, we focus on the local. And we should: local legislation, commerce and socialization drives the ebb and flow of our daily lives. But in 2012, with the science settled on global warming, we also need to think like a global village. So the question is: will this village band together and defend its home turf?