Last month, the United States Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works held a full committee hearing on the topic, “Climate Change: It’s Happening Now.”
In Chairperson Sen. Barbara Boxer’s opening statement, she referenced previous testimony from a range of witnesses—including scientists—who have attested to weather extremes and their impact upon the nation. Examples included the $65 billion cost of Superstorm Sandy, the recent Arizona wildfire which caused the deaths of nineteen firefighters, and the loss of more than a third of total sea ice volume over the past ten years in the Arctic region—which has created vulnerability for indigenous villages. Clearly, the outlook is serious.
Ten individuals were present to drill down on the issues. The first person to speak, Dr. Heidi Cullen, presented an overview that gave a basic understanding of what is at hand. Dr. Cullen is the Chief Climatologist at Climate Central, a Moms Clean Air Force partner, is an independent organization of scientists and journalists who are tasked with keeping the public apprised about current research on climate and energy. Dr. Cullen qualified that the impact of “human-caused” climate change was taking place “in our own backyards and neighborhoods.” Using visual aids to give a primer on the different elements needed to see “The Big Picture,” she began with an introduction on carbon dioxide (CO2). Cullen explained that the reason scientists focus on carbon dioxide is because “it is the most important long-lived global warming gas.” Carbon dioxide is emitted by such “human activities” as the burning of fossil fuels, the production of cement, and deforestation, Cullen stated that an emitted molecule of CO2 could actually remain in the atmosphere for several centuries. Carbon dioxide, along with other greenhouse gases, warm the planet because they absorb the sun’s energy and “prevent heat from escaping back into space.”
The 2012 global carbon dioxide reading was at 35.6 billion tons—a record high. Noting that with emissions remaining at the high end of the continuum, and without a substantial reduction of emissions, Cullen underscored that the planet’s “average temperature could climb as much as seven to nine degrees Fahrenheit by 2100. It was well publicized that in May 2013, for the first time in a minimum of 800,000 years, the amount of carbon dioxide in the air exceeded 400 parts per million (ppm). Why is this a problem? Because as Dr. Cullen pointed out, it demonstrates the “steady increase of human-caused carbon dioxide over the past century.” In addition, Cullen said, “Human induced warming is superimposed on a backdrop of natural climate variations.” A series of stats that Dr. Cullen submitted highlighted the following:
- 2012 was the tenth warmest year globally since record keeping began in 1880 (NOAA)
- Nationally, average temperatures have increased by approximately 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit since 1895, when documentation began
- The period from 2000 to 2011 was the country’s warmest on record
- The average temperature in the United States (lower 48) for 2012 was 3.2 Fahrenheit above the 20th century average (NOAA)
- Arctic sea ice extent has continued to decrease and is consistent with human-induced climate change
- There were eleven incidents of extreme weather and climate devastation in 2012, with each individual occurrence costing over one billion dollars
Cullen then broke down “extreme weather” into categories, summarizing each. They were:
- Heat Waves/Cold Waves: Extreme heat is the top “weather-related” killer in America
- Wildfires: Earlier snow melts and hotter/drier weather, combined with “land use changes” and other trends, will lead to wildfires occurring in the west starting earlier and lasting later into the fall season
- Heavy Downpours/Floods/Droughts: Dry regions will become drier and wet regions will become wetter. Infrastructure for flood management is not prepared to handle 21st century rainstorms.
- Sea Level Rise: Sea level has risen about eight inches around the world since 1880. It will continue to rise. New York City residents witnessed Sandy flooding an area that was 25 square miles larger than it would have been in 1880—putting Manhattan subways under 10.5 feet of water.
- Hurricanes: Superstorm Sandy was the second most damaging hurricane to hit the Atlantic coast on record.
- Tornadoes: Still being studied within the larger framework of global warming.
Dr. Cullen delivered the bad news that even if carbon dioxide emissions were cut to zero, what has transpired is irreversible. Her closing comment on continued procrastination was, “The longer we wait, the greater the risks we will face and the greater the costs will be to respond.” Hopefully, for the sake of our children and future children, our elected officials—from both parties—who attended the hearing were listening.