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Climate Change: It's bad and getting worse
Severe weather events are wracking the planet, and experts warn of even greater consequences to come.
Last Modified: 23 Jun 2011 07:46
Flooding in China is currently affecting approximately five million people [GALLO/GETTY]

The rate of ice loss in two of Greenland's largest glaciers has increased so much in the last 10 years that the amount of melted water would be enough to completely fill Lake Erie, one of the five Great Lakes in North America.

West Texas is currently undergoing its worst drought since the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, leaving wheat and cotton crops in the state in an extremely dire situation due to lack of soil moisture, as wildfires continue to burn.

Central China recently experienced its worst drought in more than 50 years. Regional authorities have declared more than 1,300 lakes "dead", meaning they are out of use for both irrigation and drinking water supply.

Floods have struck Eastern and Southern China, killing at least 52 and forcing the evacuation of hundreds of thousands, followed by severe flooding that again hit Eastern China, displacing or otherwise affecting five million people.

Meanwhile in Europe, crops in the northwest are suffering the driest weather in decades.

Scientific research confirms that, so far, humankind has raised the Earth's temperature, and the aforementioned events are a sign of what is to come.

"If you had a satellite view of the planet in the summer, there is about 40 per cent less ice in the Arctic than when Apollo 8 [in 1968] first sent back those photos [of Earth]," Bill McKibben, world renowned environmentalist and fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences told Al Jazeera, "Oceans are 30 per cent more acidic than they were 40 years ago. The atmosphere is four per cent more wet than 40 years ago because warm air holds more water than cold air. That means more deluge and downpour in wet areas and more dryness in dry areas. So we're seeing more destructive mega floods and storms, increasing thunderstorms, and increasing lightning strikes."

So far human greenhouse gas emissions have raised the temperature of the planet by one degree Celsius.

"Climatologists tell us unless we get off gas, coal, and oil, that number will be four to five degrees before the end of this century," said McKibben, "If one degree is enough to melt the Arctic, we'd be best not to hit four degrees."

Climate change is bad for you

Brian Schwartz is a professor in the Department of Environmental Health Sciences at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

"Increasing temperatures cause direct health effects related to heat; there will be more common events like the 30,000 to 50,000 persons who died in Europe in 2003 due to the heat wave there," Professor Schwartz told Al Jazeera, "Increasing temperatures also cause more air pollution, due to photochemical reactions that increase with higher temperatures. This will cause more morbidity and mortality from pulmonary and cardiovascular diseases." 

Schwartz, who is also the co-director of the Programme on Global Sustainability and Health, said that lack of clean water, a phenomenon that is also a product of climate change, will lead to increases in morbidity and mortality from a variety of water-borne diseases.

In addition, vector-borne diseases, diseases in which the pathogenic microorganism is transmitted from an infected individual to another individual by an arthropod or other agent, will change in their distribution as the climate changes. 

"Populations will be on the move as food and water production is threatened; these so-called environmental refugees, that the world has already seen, suffer a variety of increased health risks," added Schwartz, "How climate change affects economies and sociopolitical systems will contribute to other physical and mental health stresses for populations."   

Professor Cindy Parker co-directs the Programme on Global Environmental Sustainability and Health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, and is the Associate Director of the Johns Hopkins Environment, Energy, Sustainability, and Health Institute.

Like Professor Schwartz, she also sees an increase in vector-borne diseases as climate change progresses.

"Infectious diseases carried by insects, like malaria, Lyme disease, Dengue fever, these are all expected to worsen," Parker told Al Jazeera, "These diseases will likely worsen, like malaria, at higher elevations in virgin populations who've not developed resistance to these diseases, so there will be greater effect on these populations."

Wildfires have ravaged the US southwest this year, and a record-size fire continues to burn in Arizona [GALLO/GETTY]

She believes that diseases that have yet to arise will begin to develop as the planet continues warming. "The biggest threat is the disease we're not yet expecting, but that will develop and we'll be ill equipped to handle."

Parker fears other far-reaching health impacts resulting from our heating up of the planet.

"Everything that affects our environment affects our health," Parker said, "As fancy as our technology is, we still cannot live without clean water, air, and food, and we rely on our environment for these."

This fact is primarily why she believes that climate change is the most health-damaging problem humanity has ever faced.

Parker cited Hurricane Katrina that struck New Orleans in 2005, killing nearly 2,000 and pegged as the costliest natural disaster in US history, as a weather warning example.

"If you look at the health impacts on the Gulf of Mexico's population that was impacted by the storm, mental health illnesses are much worse than the rest of country, chronic illnesses are greater, mostly because trauma has great effects on our psyches and physical bodies," she explained, "But also because prior to Katrina there were seven hospitals in New Orleans, and now there are 2.5 hospitals operating. Those that were lost didn't come back. They are gone."

Hurricane Katrina also caused job loss, which led to loss of health insurance, which led to peoples' health indicators worsening.

"Homelessness is a big contributor, and these problems are still going on, people have not recovered," Parker continued, "And with extreme weather events around the world, there are these huge health effects which persist."

Parker is concerned about what the future has in store for us if climate change continues unabated, as it currently appears to be doing, given that most governments continue to fail to implement an actionable plan to avert it.

"People think technology is going to save us from climate change, but there is no technology on the horizon that will allow us to adapt ourselves out of this mess," Parker said, "We can physiologically adapt to higher temperatures, but all that adaptation is not going to save us unless we also get the climate stabilised."

"If this continues unabated this planet will not be habitable by the species that are on it, including humans," she concluded, "It will be a very different planet. One that is not very conducive to human life."

Global overpopulation

"The rule of thumb is that every degree increase in temperature decreases the wheat harvest by 10 per cent," said McKibben, speaking about the effect climate change has on global food production, "Food cost has increased between 70 and 80 per cent in the last year for basic grains. For millions around the world, they are already affected by not having enough."

Another important factor that contributes to climate change is global overpopulation. The UN has set October 31 of this year as the date the Earth's population is expected to surpass seven billion people.

The world's population is growing by roughly 80 million people per year, and at the current rates of birth and death, the world's population is on a trajectory to double in 49 years.

William Ryerson is the president of the Population Institute, a non-profit organisation that works to educate policymakers and the public about population, and the need to achieve a world population that is in balance with a healthy global environment and resource base.

"The projected growth rate is 9.3 billion by 2050," Ryerson told Al Jazeera, "The additional 2.5 billion [onto our current 6.8 billion] is the climate equivalent to adding two USA's to the planet. Even though most of those people are in low greenhouse gas emitting countries, the sheer number of people adds to a huge impact on the environment."

Ryerson pointed out that countries like China and the US have higher consumption and emissions, and as their populations grow, their impacts are even greater than in less developed countries.

Overpopulation also strains already overstretched water resources.

"We have 225,000 people at the dinner table tonight who weren't there last night, so to maintain our current population we're already over-pumping underground aquifers," added Ryerson, "India is over-pumping, and we have over 100 million people in India dependent on over-pumping, so this can't be sustained. And climate change is making this all even more untenable, as the glaciers in the Himalayas that provide water for India and China are melting rapidly."

Unpublished estimates from the International Energy Agency (IEA) recently revealed that greenhouse gas emissions increased by a record amount last year to the highest carbon output in history, despite the most serious economic recession in 80 years.

This means that the aim of holding global temperatures to safe levels are now all but out of reach. The goal of preventing a temperature rise of more than two degrees Celsius, which scientists say is the threshold for potentially "dangerous climate change" is now most likely just "a nice Utopia", according to Fatih Birol, a chief economist of the IEA.

"Population is the multiplier of everything else," explained Ryerson, who believes climate change cannot adequately be addressed until the overpopulation problem is solved.

"Clearly the current number of people and per capita behaviour is unsustainable and this is obvious in what has happened to the climate already," he said, "There are severe consequences already. And the cost of solving this problem of overpopulation is small compared to the cost of solving climate change as it progresses."

Long Road Ahead

McKibben is deeply concerned about what he sees when he looks into the future of what we should expect with climate change.

"We're going to keep seeing increased amounts of these extreme kinds of droughts, floods, and storms," he said, "Everything that happens that isn't volcanic or tectonic draws its power from the sun and we are getting more of everything by amping up the sun's power in the atmosphere by adding more CO2."

Ryerson sees a bleak future for water-starved countries like Saudi Arabia.

"Saudi Arabia has announced that the water they've been depending on, their underground aquifer for crops and drinking, will be gone by 2020," he explained, "They are dependent on imports, and can pay for it now, but in the future when oil declines, that country faces a serious issue of sustainability."

He is also concerned about increasing biodiversity loss.

"The key issue is the large populations of plants and animals that make the planet inhabitable," Ryerson explained, "We need oxygen to breathe and water to drink. A  three billion year evolution of plants and animals have made the planet habitable, and we are systematically destroying this biodiversity by plowing, cutting, and burning areas."

Ryerson believes ongoing demand for products and the encroachment on wilderness areas this causes "will make life on the planet much more difficult. All of this together means the future of humanity, even with assumed innovation, has some very serious concerns. None of these problems are made easier by adding more people. The only way to achieve sustainability is to hold population growth, and have it decline."

McKibben says everybody should be adopting an emergency response geared towards ending our reliance on fossil fuels.

"This will only be done if we charge carbon for the damage it does in the atmosphere," he said, "The power of the fossil fuel companies is the power to keep us from doing that. As long as our governments won't stand up to that industry, I'm afraid we've got a long road ahead of us."

Follow Dahr Jamail on Twitter: @DahrJamail

Source:
Al Jazeera
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