Last year's Paris Agreement on climate change seems like a distant memory. Political leaders focus is on the here-and-now. The scientific community, though, have been doing their job in calling our attention to the multiple ways in which environmental degradation threatens our planet.
Five scientists from the Global Change Research Institute, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, in College Park, Maryland, gave findings on the rate of climate change increase --"unprecedented for at least the past 1,000 years"-- and therefore the need for an accelerated response.
The melting of the Arctic ice packs -- which the most recent study shows is likely to cause a sea level rise of "at least several meters" -- should be added the equally if not more dangerous thawing of the permafrost, which means increasing emissions of methane and carbon dioxide.
"Indeed," Chris Mooney reports, "scientists have discovered a simple statistic that underscores the scale of the potential problem: There may be more than twice as much carbon contained in northern permafrost as there is in the atmosphere itself. That's a staggering thought." (Methane, by the way, seems to be the unsung villain: all the attention to carbon dioxide detracts from methane's equally potent heat trapping. Increased use of natural gas, plus fracking, are significantly increasing methane emissions in the US.)
The world's largest forest "carbon sink," the Amazon basin, is losing its ability to soak up excess carbon dioxide, a British study reports. In a nutshell, growth -- i.e., conversion of forest land to agriculture -- is outpacing forest sustainability. Human expansion, such as in the Amazon basin, is imperiling the ecosystem itself. A study by European scientists finds that biodiversity levels have fallen below the point where the ecosystem can remain intact. Species decline of 10 percent, the scientists estimate, is dangerous; "but their study found that overall, across the globe, the average decline is already more like 15 percent. In other words, original species are only about 85 percent as abundant (84.6 percent to be precise) as they were before human land-use changes." Climate change will add substantially to this sobering assessment.
A new UN Environment Programme report covering all parts of the globe found that well-known problems are intensifying. Two problems in particular: "One was worsening air pollution problems, driven, again, by large populations and the swelling of urban cores. Another was widespread water scarcity problems, exacerbated by climate change but also greater demand in growing cities." More than 1,200 scientists from 160 countries participated in the study.
The first-ever international report on declining populations of bees, butterflies and other pollinators underscores the looming threat to world food supplies and the agricultural system that supports it. The causes of pollinator extinction are well known: global warming, pesticides and overuse of agricultural land.
New studies of flooding confirm that rising sea levels as the result of global warming are occurring at a faster rate than ever before. The coastal flooding witnessed in recent years in Miami, Charleston, and Norfolk is likely to be more frequent and prolonged in the future. Ocean levels may rise up three to four feet by 2100.
China, while promising to draw 20 percent of its energy from renewable sources, is, in fact, continuing to construct coal-fired plants -- on average, one plant a week until 2020, according to the latest Greenpeace report. The extraordinary fact about this new construction is that it creates huge excess capacity, the result not of central government dictates, but rather of permits for investment in coal-fired plants by leaders in distant provinces. Unless this trend stops, as much as $200 billion will be wasted, and water availability will dramatically decline.
It is, of course, not all bad news and some developments herald some hope for the future. The ozone "hole" over the Antarctic is starting to heal, thanks to the 1987 Montreal Protocol that phased out ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons, the ozone layer is growing back -- a sign that international agreements backed by a coalition of scientists do sometimes work.
While the latest "World Nuclear Industry Status Report" details the numerous nuclear power plants that have been or in a short time will be shut down. Financing problems, aging plants and technical breakdowns are a big part of the reason; but competition from renewable energy sources is becoming the most important factor. The future energy picture is captured in this notation: "Globally, wind power output grew by 17 percent, solar by 33 percent, nuclear by 1.3 percent" in the past year, and "Brazil, China, India, Japan and the Netherlands now all generate more electricity from wind turbines alone than from nuclear power plants."
We need to remind ourselves that expressions of concern don't equate to what people are willing to do to combat the problems. And if many of them are inclined to "let the politicians figure it out," or hide behind "I'm not a scientist" disclaimers, we're in great trouble.
A final thought, which comes from William Gail, former president of the American Meteorological Society: Future generations may have to start from scratch in grappling with the "new dark age" of climate-altering changes. Their learning process will have been disrupted. Models, technologies and other resources used to identify patterns, and predict and act on Earth's dramatic changes, will be largely useless. Our children and grandchildren have no idea what they are inheriting.