Kilimanjaro Snow Melt

Kilimanjaro Snow Melt

A week ago, on Monday Sept. 21, the world premier of “The age of stupid,” a new documentary on environmental behavior (or lack thereof) took place in New York. Troubled by the prospects environmental scientists are presenting, frustrated with the hesitant position of policymakers, and convinced that individual people are not taking the right steps to lead more sustainable lifestyles, I made it my mission to go out and talk to as many people as I could about the dangerous situation we are currently facing. First stop was a skype date with my parents who live in Montevideo, Uruguay, largely oblivious to the goings-on of climate change policy, and climate change itself. For them, like for most ordinary people, climate change is just not high on their priority list. After listening to about twenty minutes of my ramblings, my mother declared, with sincere hope in her voice, that “[my] generation would fix it.”

I stared at her image on my computer in disbelief, not really knowing how to explain to her that there just isn’t enough time. (I desperately tried to avoid the “mom, you just don’t get it” teenager tone and opt for a more pragmatic approach.) What this conversation made me realize is that, in truth, the collection of observed facts, statistic predictions and climate simulation models is rather overwhelming and mostly inaccessible to people who lack the scientific training necessary to interpret it. However, there is some basic information that everyone should be exposed to, mainly because within a not-so-long time span, their strong effects will be sorely felt. Here are a few things M. E. Mann and L. R. Kump suggest we should keep in mind:

Kids in Paris during the 2003 heat wave

Kids in Paris during the 2003 heat wave

1. Temperatures measured on Earth’s ground, atmosphere and oceans show that the planet is already warmer than it was before industrialization (by almost 1o C) and that warming rates have doubled over the last 25 years.

2. The observed warming can be explained as the effect of human influence, mostly due emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases, and not by the pattern of variations in the natural factors affecting climate, such as solar radiation or Earth’s orbit. (Human-produced CO2 molecules have a particular fingerprint which differentiates it from other CO2 molecules.)

3. Initial changes to Earth’s ecosystems set off feedback loops, which sometimes amplify warming tendencies, making the effects of human interference with climate more long-term and more difficult to evaluate.

4. The consequences of climate change are already being experienced: the 2003 European heat wave, the melting of the Kilimanjaro snows, and the drought in western North America are all related to global warming.

5. To some extent, climate change is irreversible and sea level rises as well as extreme weather conditions will be experienced in the next century. However, if human-generated greenhouse gas emissions peak by the year 2020, and are significantly reduced over the following few decades, it will be possible to stabilize global temperatures at a level compatible with human life and development.

The difference between my position on environmental issues and my mother’s is that, beyond knowledge on the scientific aspects of climate change, I am aware that the political decisions that determine whether we face this problem head on, or cross our arms and whine about lost innocence (and income), are being made now. Copenhagen is only a few months away and my worry is that, not only are we disregarding the science, we are completely disengaged with the times.

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