Climate change is here, but action lags

April 5, 2014 

Recent reports on climate change are confirming what many people feel intuitively – something is happening to the weather.

Summers are hotter. There’s more snow. Drought grips the western United States. Storms are more intense.

The weather, of course, is fickle by its nature and known by its extremes. But this is something more.

A report last week from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a United Nations group, gave a stark picture of what is happening. Under a section of “Observer impacts, vulnerability and exposure,” the report identified these developments:

• “Glaciers continue to shrink almost worldwide ... Climate change is causing permafrost warming and thawing in high latitude regions and in high elevation regions.”

• “Many terrestrial, freshwater and marine species have shifted their geographic ranges, seasonal activities, migration patterns, abundances and species interactions in response to ongoing climate change.”

• “Based on many studies covering a wide range of regions and crops, negative impacts of climate change on crop yields have been more common than positive impacts.”

• “Recent climate-related extremes, such as heat waves, droughts, floods, cyclones and wildfires, reveal significant vulnerability and exposure of some ecosystems and many human systems to current climate variability.”

In other words, the world is warming, ice is melting, water flow is surging, animals are changing their range and behaviors, crop production is falling and once rare and deadly natural events are occurring with unnatural frequency.

Scientists’ rising concern

A report issued in March by the American Association for the Advancement of Science also emphasized that global warming is no longer a theory. It is a fact, and it is upon on.

Dr. James McCarthy, a professor of biological oceanography at Harvard who chaired the climate science panel that generated the AAAS report, said the public needs to pay closer attention to the rising risk. “Even among members of the broader public who already know about the evidence for climate change and what is causing it,” he said, “some do not know the degree to which many climate scientists are concerned about the risks of possibly rapid and abrupt climate change.”

A lack of action

Despite the mounting evidence, there is not a mounting urgency. Congressional Republicans have balked at approving a national response. Frustrated by obstructionists in Congress, President Obama has had to act through his executive authority to curb greenhouse gases. He recently announced a specific plan to reduce methane gas releases using his authority under the Clean Air Act.

At least one speaker at the recent Conservative Leadership Conference in Raleigh called efforts to respond to global warming “a scam.” Some in the General Assembly want to end supports for renewable energy development and the legislature has let tax breaks for the low-energy appliances expire.

It’s clearly time for government officials in the nation and state to recognize that climate change is a real threat.

Next year there will be a climate change summit in Paris. But it’s also time for a North Carolina summit. The state’s impressive environmental diversity also makes it especially vulnerable to changes in climate. For one, rising seas will reshape its coast and reduce fresh water supplies.

Jane B. Preyer, director of the Southeast office of the Environmental Defense Fund in Raleigh, said North Carolina’s laws and policies promoting energy conservation and renewable energy have the added effect of responding to global warming. The state needs to stand by those setps and take more, she said.

As a center of science, education and technology, North Carolina should be leading the way in debating and discovering what state and local governments can do to subdue the threat that is already upon us.

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