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Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Elizabeth Kolbert sounds alarm on climate change

At the University of Rhode Island, author sounds alarm on climate change

by Peter B. Lord, Journal Environment Writer, September 11, 2008

SOUTH KINGSTOWN, RI, U.S.A. — For seven years, Elizabeth Kolbert has been researching the consequences of climate change by documenting melting glaciers in Greenland and dwindling sea ice in the Arctic. She has written prize-winning stories for The New Yorker magazine and a highly acclaimed book, Field Notes From a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change.

Asked what surprised her the most during all that time, Kolbert said: “With the accumulation of evidence and the growing public consciousness — the lack of tangible results. I expected a little bit of action by now. But I don’t see any action.”

Kolbert was the first speaker, Tuesday night, of the University of Rhode Island’s Fall 2008 Honors Colloquium, called “People and Planet — Global Environmental Change,” and the turnout looked more like that of a rock concert than a science lecture.

The parking lot outside Chafee Auditorium filled as people streamed inside. When the auditorium’s capacity of 530 was quickly reached, an auditorium next door was opened, and its 200 seats were filled. Then, people sat in the aisles.

University President Robert L. Carothers opened the event by quipping that he wanted to quell the rumor that Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin would soon arrive to offer her views. Palin has said she doesn’t believe climate change is man-made.

“It ain’t going to happen,” said Carothers.

Kolbert then spent the next hour and a half explaining how much science has done to show that those who share Palin’s views are simply wrong and that mankind is unequivocally causing climate change on an unprecedented scale.

She described how scientists have drilled cores of ice 2 miles deep in the Greenland glacier, providing evidence of the earth’s atmosphere that goes back 100,000 years. The results show a strong correlation between average temperatures and quantities of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

The levels of carbon dioxide are now higher than ever, she said, and the earth’s average temperature has also recorded record highs in the last decade.

Already in New England, Kolbert said, winter comes later, and spring comes earlier. There is more rain and less snow.

But she said the most dramatic consequences are being seen in the far North. She showed pictures of a coastline in Seward, Alaska, being battered by fall storms because the sea ice hasn’t formed to protect it, as it used to.

All over Alaska, she said, homes are sinking, roads are buckling, and trees are tipping over because the permafrost — frozen for 100,000 years — is now close to thawing.

The Greenland ice sheet, which holds enough water to raise sea levels around the world by 20 feet, is melting dramatically, Kolbert said.

“It’s only in recent years that you could see the effects of climate change, so people think we’re in the early stages of global warming,” Kolbert said. “But that is a big misunderstanding.”

She said that planet is already way out of energy balance, and it will take huge efforts and many years to bring back that balance.

“We have already determined the climate for our children,” Kolbert said. “Now we’re working on the climate for our grandchildren.”

Kolbert said there is no precedent for the climate change now occurring, so there is no way to judge whether the earth is passing some tipping point from which there is no return.

This is the first year in recorded history that both the northwest and northeast passages opened around the sea ice in the Arctic, she said.

Frustratingly, Kolbert said she knows of no simple solutions.

The world has to cut its emissions of greenhouse gases by 70-80% just to stabilize atmospheric conditions.

“So we need to do everything,” to reduce emissions, she said. “As a mother and a fellow inhabitant of this planet, we have an obligation to my kids and your kids not to throw up our hands and do nothing.”

The sad fact, she said, is that the United States is the only industrialized country to refuse to launch a national effort to reduce emissions.

A student asked if China and India should be asked to do more. Yes, said Kolbert. But the industrialized world has the wealth and the ability to go first and show the way. It, particularly the United States, has not.

Another asked if the world wasn’t simply entering a cycle of natural climate change. No, said Kolbert. People have overwhelmed the natural forces causing climate change.

If the evidence is so overwhelming, asked another student, why do so many people deny anything is happening?

“You’re asking me to play the global shrink,” joked Kolbert. “The obvious answer is it’s hard. It’s easier just to say ‘I didn’t see it happening.’ We’ve never been at a point before where we could change the whole global environment. That’s scary.”

Next Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. the colloquium continues with two scientists debunking a documentary film favored by climate skeptics.

Attendance was so overwhelming Tuesday that next week’s venue may be moved, so check the Web site or call 874-2381 for details.

For more information, go to Local libraries have related books and other materials as well.

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