Mike McKibbin

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August 22, 2012
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Climate change real, has real impacts and will be hard to solve

The earth and its human inhabitants are headed for very serious challenges due to the warming of the planet, but humanity will survive, according to a University of Colorado climate scientist.

In conjunction with the "Discover Earth: A Century of Change" exhibit, James White, director of the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research at CU-Boulder, addressed climate change to about 25 people at the Rifle Branch Library on Thursday, Aug. 16.

White said his message is climate change is real, has real impacts and will continue to be a hard problem to solve.

"Looking back with hindsight, it's obvious we grossly underestimated the growth this planet would see," White added. "So we haven't trained the problem solvers we need and we have to move slower than we need."

Climate is largely determined by energy from the sun, how much is reflected into space and the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere that traps that energy, White explained.

"When the earth has lots of ice, there's more energy reflected and the planet stays colder," he said. "The oceans and plants absorb more of the earth's energy, making us warmer."

Greenhouse gases are both natural and manmade, and are important to life on earth, White said. Without any such gases, the earth's average temperature is estimated to be 18 degrees below zero Centigrade; with those gases, the average temperature is 15 degrees above zero Centigrade, he added.

"So it's simple physics," White said. "Gravity is gravity and we have no choice with it. If we add more greenhouse gases, the temperature goes up."

The real impacts of climate change have been seen with dramatic shrinking of the Arctic sea ice in the last 20 years, he said.

"The old ice has melted, but the new ice that forms in the winter is not as thick," White added. "So it goes away each summer. That affects the reflectivity of the planet, and we warm up."

Villages have fallen into the sea due to the loss of permafrost, White said.

Climate change has affected weather patterns in places as far apart as Colorado and in Europe, too.

"A very cold Arctic creates a cold jet stream," White explained. "As the earth warms, that pushes the jet stream further south, and that's been stuck like that this year."

The change also results in cold snaps in areas where they haven't occurred before, he added.

"So what we've started to see is competition over things like mining, transportation and oil and gas in the Arctic, as more of the ice melts," White said. "There's lots of carbon in cold regions, but it doesn't decay because it's too cold and it's caught in the permafrost. As it melts, the carbon is released."

White said scientists estimate there is as much carbon in the Arctic permafrost as all the coal and oil and gas that's been found to date.

As the permafrost continues to melt, sea levels are predicted to rise higher than the last post-glacial era, 125 million years ago, White said. By the end of this century, sea levels are projected to rise three feet.

"The city of Miami will basically not function any more due to the loss of infrastructure," White said. "It will pretty much be uninhabitable. And the sea level won't stop rising once it reaches three feet."

Eventually, White said, the entire state of Delaware, California's state capital of Sacramento, the southern end of Florida and the country of Bangladesh will all be under water.

The U.S. Department of Defense spends a lot of time on climate change, White said, "Because there will be war when entire populations of countries move due to the high sea level."

Climate change is difficult to solve because it's become political and the influence - and money - of the energy industry, which disputes much of the responsibility for affecting it, White said.

"And the impacts come about 50 years after the cause," he added. "The cause and effect are not immediate, and that always seems to be when we react to a crisis. So it's hard to promote action."

It's also a global problem and an international challenge, meaning international agreements will be needed, White said.

"We don't deal with those very well, either," he noted.

While some gases are produced by plant life and animals, humans are the biggest cause of climate change, he stressed.

"We are big [greenhouse gas contributors] on this planet, and we're not managing it," White said. "There's seven billion of us and the amount of energy produced per person shows the U.S. is much higher than either India or China."

Despite the facts and figures White cited in this presentation, he said humanity is not in danger of destroying the planet.

"I just think we have so much technology, we can survive," he said. "I'm optimistic by nature and we're smart creatures that react to challenges. And I'm sure there's money to be made by some business in all this."

"We will definitely suffer the consequences, but we will deal with it," White continued. "Civilization will go on. We won't be like the Mayans."

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The Post Independent Updated Aug 22, 2012 05:40PM Published Aug 22, 2012 05:39PM Copyright 2012 The Post Independent. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.