Human beings are on the cusp of entering a new epic geologic era due to our effect on the climate, and time is running out—in fact it may be too late—to do anything about it, said environmental reporter Elizabeth Colbert at a Peninsula Open Space Trust lecture Monday night.
The relatively temperate, predictable period of time that began 12,000 years ago, known as the Holocene, is rapidly coming to an end, according to a growing body of geologists, and is giving rise to a human-dominated new era known as the Anthropocene.
The root cause of the shift? Big surprise—it’s you, me, and the rest of the nearly 7 billion people who have managed to find every way possible to destroy the planet.
“We are digging it up, we are paving it over, we are turning more diverse ecosystems into monocultures,” began Kolbert, who delivered a 2012 Wallace Stegner Lecture at the Mountain View Center for Performing Arts. “We have dammed or diverted most of the worlds major rivers, we are moving around thousands and thousands of species in a way that they could not possibly have moved themselves around, we are creating all sorts of manmade compounds that wouldn’t have existed without us.
“Climate change is just one of the ways in which we are changing the planet,” she said. “But it is the most serious one.”
Kolbert, whose three-part series on climate change for the New Yorker led to her critically acclaimed book, “Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change,” highlighted a dramatic series of findings supporting the idea that humans are behind the exponential rise in carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere—levels higher than have been seen for at least 400,000 years.
That fact alone is incredibly dangerous, she said, because our species evolved under predominantly stable and pleasant conditions, but will soon face an environment that none of us are adapted for.
“We are in the process of determining the climate for our children and grandchildren and for many generations to come,” she said.
Kolbert then vigorously defended the importance of and science behind climate modeling—the favorite target of climate deniers, who argue that there is far too much uncertainty to make any valid predictions, let alone policy prescriptions.
But without modeling, humans will stick their heads in the sand, she said, because change is happening too slowly today to provoke a rapid response.
“When we want to predict what’s going to happen, we can’t just look out the window and observe what is happening,” she said. “We have to rely on models.”
The most commonly accepted models that forecast climate change in the next 80 years all follow a similar trend line. The best-case scenario, according to the data, is that the planet will warm by two to four and a half degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century. The higher end of the range puts it at ten degrees.
Kolbert then showed a dramatic video produced by NASA depicting the heating of Earth’s atmosphere since the industrial revolution.
The ten hottest years on record, in order from last to first, were 2001, 2004, 2007, 2006, 2009, 2002, 2003, 1998, 2005, and 2010. All of these occurred within the last 15 years, she said, and the evidence is all around us.
The polar ice cap, for example, recedes to a point every year that opens up the Northwest Passage like an igloo in a toaster oven.
"A lot of our ancestors lost their lives trying to find the Northwest Passage," she said. "Now it’s very easy to find.”
The polar ice cap, furthermore, was once predicted to fully disappear by 2100. “Now there are predictions that the Arctic Ocean could be ice free in the summer by 2030,” she said. “This is geological change on the scale of a human lifetime.”
Meanwhile, on Greenland, ancient glaciers that are two miles thick with ice are melting at an alarming rate. If all the ice on Greenland were to melt, she said, the world’s oceans would rise by 20 feet. She noted that at the highest points on Greenland, at nearly 10,000 feet, the ice creates its own ecosystem, causing seasonal snow. As it warms, however, it may set off a feedback loop of warm rain cycles, which would warm the ice and accelerate the melt.
“As you start losing that elevation, you could start setting in motion this cycle in which you lose the whole ice sheet,” she said.
Kolbert went on to detail other runaway effects of climate change, such as invasive forest-killing beetles in North America and the acidification of the world’s oceans, wreaking havoc on creatures that grow shells.
Even here in California, changes are being noticed, such as the die-off of Joshua Trees.
“Eventually there will be no more Joshua Trees in Joshua Tree National Park just as there will be no more glaciers in Glacier National Park,” she said.
All hope is not long, however. California, said Kolbert, continues to lead the nation in mitigating the effects of climate change. Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger laid out a first-in-the-nation goal of reducing the state’s carbon emissions by 80 percent by 2050.
“That is just a fantastically ambitious goal,” said Kolbert.
And the California Air Resources Board, which pioneered the Clean Car Standard for Passenger Vehicles and the Low Carbon Fuel Standard Program, now stands ready to launch the first state-administered cap and trade program for carbon emitters.
What’s more, said Kolbert is that a recent report in Science suggests that these ambitious targets are actually doable, provided Californians decided to step up.
“It is not going to be easy,” she said. “It will require concerted action on a number of different fronts.”
But if people are ready to make it a priority, both in their personal lives and at the ballot box, we might just save the planet before it is too late.
“If Californians really want to do it, I think it can be done,” she said.