On Nature column– climate crisis imperils civilization

The following is an excellent column in The Herald Bulletin by Kevin Tungesvick, a co-founder of Heart of the River coalition

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On Nature column: Current climate spiral detrimental to our civilization

  • May 20, 2017

When I was born in 1968, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was approximately 322 parts per million (ppm). It has steadily risen throughout my lifetime, reaching 400 ppm on May 9, 2013, just a few weeks before my 45th birthday. On April 18 of this year, the concentration pushed through 410 ppm.

These figures compare to an approximate concentration of 280 ppm prior to the Industrial Revolution. While deforestation and other changes in land use have contributed significantly to this increase, the majority of this change has resulted from the burning of fossil fuels. Much of the carbon stored in these fuels has been sequestered underground since the Paleozoic era, long before the age of the dinosaurs. Releasing this carbon back into the atmosphere has profound consequences for our climate, our ecosystems and, most of all, for our civilization.

Carbon dioxide, along with water vapor, methane, ozone and a few other minor gases, are known as greenhouse gases for their ability to trap heat in the atmosphere. The sun bathes our planet in visible and ultraviolet light, warming the surface. The Earth radiates this energy back to space in the form of infrared radiation. Greenhouse gases have the ability to absorb some of this radiation and radiate it back toward Earth, warming the planet. In their absence, the average surface temperature of the Earth would be well below freezing. This science was theorized in the early to mid 1800s and began to be quantified in 1864 when John Tyndall found that water vapor, hydrocarbons and carbon dioxide strongly blocked the transmission of infrared radiation. The science of global warming from greenhouse gases is neither new nor controversial in scientific research.

Unfortunately, while some greenhouse gases are necessary to make the planet habitable, the current upward spiral in their concentrations will warm the planet in ways highly detrimental to civilization. The fact that 2014, 2015 and 2016 each broke the previous record for warmest global average temperature shows the warming process is accelerating. The laws of physics dictate this warming will continue as long as greenhouse gas concentrations continue to rise.

For the past several thousand years, the remarkably stable climate of the Holocene Epoch has allowed humankind to flourish. Steady temperatures and sea levels permitted the development of coastal cities and seafaring trade that facilitated the colonization of all of the habitable continents and islands. Sea level rise from the melting of the ice sheets on Greenland and Antarctica will combine with disruptive droughts and extreme weather to bring this prosperous era to a close by creating millions of climate refugees that will threaten geopolitical stability. The plummeting costs of renewable energy have given us the tools to avoid the worst of these disruptive effects. We must now implement these technologies without delay. It is our moral obligation to future generations.

Kevin Tungesvick, a lifelong resident of Madison County, is an avid naturalist and self-taught botanist. He is a founding director of Heart of the River Coalition.