Today I am in our nation’s capital with 10 other New York State citizens and hundreds of others from across the United States. On Tuesday, we will meet with our elected representatives to ask for their support in reducing our nation’s greenhouse gas emissions, most notably carbon dioxide and methane. These are released into Earth’s atmosphere in enormous quantities during the extraction and combustion of fossil fuels, including oil, coal and natural gas.
But our presence in Washington should not be necessary, because exactly 25 years ago today, scientists from NASA, NOAA and other leading research institutions told the U.S. Senate that man-made global warming was no longer theory, but reality.
Man-made global warming is not a recent theory. It was implied in 1862, and explicitly predicted in 1896. By 1964, we knew just how quickly and steadily carbon dioxide was building up in our atmosphere.
In their historic testimony on June 23, 1988, scientists emphasized that if we didn’t lower carbon dioxide emissions, the warming would continue and the consequences would be dire. They also said that rather than a simple, gradual “global warming” evenly distributed around the world, we would see an assortment of “climate change” phenomena involving precipitation as well as temperature:
• A growing ratio of record-high temperatures and record-low temperatures.
• Increased crop-damaging droughts and heatwaves, especially in some important agricultural areas, including the Southeast and the Midwest.
• Amplified warming near the North and South Poles.
• Melting glaciers and polar ice.
• Earlier snow-melts and lake-ice thaws.
• A lowering of the levels of the Great Lakes and other important freshwater lakes and rivers.
• Increased heavy precipitation events, including hurricanes and other destructive storms, that would cause unprecedented flooding.
They warned that forests would become more susceptible to disease and wildfire, which would release even more carbon dioxide. The scientists said that we must reduce our burning of fossil fuels or face more rapid warming than nature – and human civilization – could adapt to.
Why has productive action not resulted from scientists’ warnings? Part of it is public apathy. Those of us who are focused on this problem are alarmed, but most people largely ignore it. Our elected representatives hear more from their constituents about a dozen other concerns.
The free press certainly could do better. Instead, many American news outlets give nearly as much attention to the relatively rare scientists who are “climate-change skeptics” as they do to the overwhelming majority of scientists who are seriously concerned, implying a scientific debate that does not exist. There has also been a well-documented propaganda effort by the fossil fuels industry and its supporters to confuse the public about this.
Because the impacts have taken decades to become obvious, the situation is all the more dire. Carbon dioxide stays in the atmosphere for centuries, so the warming – and the rising climate instability that comes with it – will continue throughout and beyond the life of my grandson, who is a toddler.
If any scientists had an honest, scientifically sensible revelation that we needn’t be worried about fossil fuel emissions, they would produce the most celebrated research paper ever published. Literally hundreds of other scientists would happily validate it, and its authors would become the most famously celebrated scientists in history.
Every last one of us – scientist or layperson, conservative or liberal, religious or not – would strongly prefer that this problem were not real and not serious. Those of us who do understand the science would stand in line to shake the heroes’ hands and thank them for delivering the best news civilization has ever gotten.
But that’s not reality. We are experiencing, all at once, not just global warming but all the climate change phenomena that come with it: Unprecedented droughts and heatwaves; unprecedented storms and floods; and such a high ratio of new record-high temperatures to new record-low temperatures that it would be statistically impossible without a definite global warming trend (and that ratio is growing). Earth’s north polar ice cap is but a remnant: Arctic sea ice volume is less than 25 percent of what it was in 1979. What’s left is thin, cracked, slushy, dark and rapidly failing. The impacts of a largely open Arctic Ocean on Northern Hemisphere weather are startling.
The impacts in the Northeast are already clear. Farmers and orchardists face increasingly chaotic weather patterns that threaten their crops. Reduced water levels in Lake Ontario and the other Great Lakes have become a major concern. Oneida Lake, the biggest lake inside New York State’s borders, is particularly susceptible to global warming impacts because it is very shallow, with an average depth of about 22 feet. The average summer water temperature at a depth of six feet has risen about three and a half degrees since 1975, perhaps as much as five degrees since 1800.
Some of this warming is due to other factors, but much of it is the result of global warming. In the past 12 years, Oneida Lake has twice failed to freeze over. This had never happened before 2001, according to the data, which extend back to 1827. My son clearly remembers hiking out to one of the two large islands with me when he was 5 or so – a wintertime adventure I may never feel safe sharing with my grandson.
The only people who predicted, 25 years ago, that these things were going to happen are the same scientists who say that carbon emissions from fossil fuels are causing global warming, as first predicted well over a century ago. I hope we won’t wait another quarter century before we seriously address this problem. As a biologist, I understand the risks all too well. As a father and grandfather, I am deeply worried about what Earth’s future climate will be like if we don’t take action soon.
David William Fischer, of Syracuse, is a biologist and founder of GlobalEcologist.org.