Are Humans the Earth’s Worst Enemy?

By David L. Brown

A new meta-study of climate change literature has delved into 30,000 different subjects and come to the conclusion that not only is global warming real but that “it is highly unlikely that any force but man-made climate change can be blamed.” The study appeared in the journal Nature and was reported on the United Kingdom’s Daily Telegraph newspaper web page yesterday (you can read it here.)

The study involved research reports dating back as far as 1970, concluding that “man was responsible for changes that ranged from the loss of ice sheets to the collapse in numbers of many species of wildlife.” The Telegraph news story continued:

“Humans are influencing climate through increasing greenhouse gas emissions, and the warming world is causing impacts on physical and biological systems,” said Cynthia Rosenzweig, at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies.

The effects on living things include the earlier appearance of leaves on trees and plants; the movement of animals and birds to more northerly latitudes and to higher altitudes in the northern hemisphere; rapid advances in flowering time and earlier egg-laying in Britain; and changes in bird migrations in Europe, North America and Australia.

On a planetary scale the changes include the melting of glaciers on all continents; earlier spring river run-off; and the warming of oceans, lakes and rivers.

The study analyzed data from published papers on 829 physical systems of the Earth, such as glaciers and ice sheets, and a staggering total of 28,800 plant and animal systems. The authors, including Ms. Rosenzweig and other specialists from ten institutions around the world, created a picture of the climate changes taking place on each of the world’s continents. They concluded that change was the most evident in North America, Asia and Europe, but concluded that was mainly because far more studies have been done in those regions. They called for more work in South America, Australia and Africa.

Here are brief highlights from the Telegraph report:

In North America, the researchers found that 89 species of plants were flowering earlier, such as the American holly and box elder maple; a decline in the population of polar bears; and the rapid melting of Alaskan glaciers.

In Europe, they found evidence of glaciers melting in the Alps; earlier pollen release in the Netherlands; and apple trees producing leaves 35 days earlier in Spain.

In Asia they reported a change in the freeze depth of permafrost in Russia; and the earlier flowering of ginkgo in Japan.

In Antarctica, the population of emperor penguins had declined by 50 per cent. In South America, the melting of the Patagonia ice-fields were contributing to a rise in sea levels.

The paper goes farther than last year’s report from the IPCC, stating unequivocally that climate change is the result of human actions, and that “natural climate variations cannot explain the changes to the Earth’s natural systems.”

Ominously, many climate scientists agree that although the changes that are being observed are significant, we may have seen only a hint of what is to come. As we have discussed here many times, the very real possibility exists for the climate to reach tipping points and feedback effects that could spin the planet into runaway change.

For example, last year’s IPCC report concluded that the Greenland Ice Sheet was unlikely to melt for up to 1000 years — and yet recent events hint that the ice could break up much faster. A large lake of meltwater on the surface of the mile-thick ice was recently observed to rapidly drain through a fissure, with water gushing down through the ice at a greater rate than Niagara Falls. There have been other hints that the ice sheet might not melt but rather break up into thousands of icebergs. In Antarctica, too, floating sea ice that has been stable for thousands of years has been breaking up and floating away, leaving flowing glaciers free to speed up their race to the sea.

There is no doubt that the Earth is in the throes of sudden and unprecedented change. We live in a perilous and challenging time, a time when the world as we know it may be approaching an end.

When Robert Frost wrote his well-known poem “Fire and Ice” I suspect that he had no inkling that the cataclysm on which he pondered could happen anytime soon. Of course his real subject was human foibles, using an end-of-the-world analogy. Here are his words:

Some say the world will end in fire;
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To know that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

The analogy is interesting in light of recent developments, because the present prospects for climate change contain elements of all that he addresses. Fire, of course, in the sense of a planet growing warmer. And ice is playing a major role, too, not only in the disappearance of glaciers, ice sheets and sea ice, but also for example if the Atlantic conveyor that cycles tropical heat to Western Europe should reverse and plunge that region into a new Ice Age while other parts of the planet heat up. And not to overlook human failings such as desire (in the sense of greed and avarice) and hate, which are not only part of the picture but as the new study concludes are critical to the entire unrolling environmental disaster.

And Frost was probably wrong because the world seems unlikely to end with dramatic special effects, but rather in the manner described by another famous 20th Century poet, T.S. Eliot, who wrote: “this is the way the world ends … not with a bang but a whimper.”

The headline for the Telegraph article tells it all: “Mankind is the Earth’s Biggest Threat.” What a fine mess we’ve made of our only home in the vast and majestic Universe.

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