fresh voices from the front lines of change







It’s not news that we’re already feeling the impacts of global warming. As we noted in Making Sense, global warming has contributed to wildfires burning hotter and longer. the record number of Category 5 hurricanes in the Atlantic Ocean this decade and the drying up of Lake Mead which supplies water to Phoenix and Las Vegas — just to name a few American examples.

But today’s Washington Post reports on a new scientific report from federal government — which amazingly has seen the light of day — providing “the most detailed look in nearly eight years at how climate change is reshaping the American landscape.”

Some of the disturbing lowlights:

The researchers said that of 1,598 animal species examined in more than 800 studies, nearly 60 percent were found to have been affected by climate change.

In addition, the number and frequency of forest fires and insect outbreaks are “increasing in the interior West, the Southwest, and Alaska,” while “precipitation, stream flow, and stream temperatures are increasing in most of the continental United States” and snowpack is declining in the West.

The Agriculture Department, the study’s lead sponsor, issued a statement yesterday highlighting some of the report’s findings for farmers, noting that the higher temperatures mean that grain and oilseed crops will mature more rapidly but face an increased risk of failure and “will negatively affect livestock.”

“Management of Western reservoir systems is very likely to become more challenging as runoff patterns continue to change,” it states. “Arid areas are very likely to experience increased erosion and fire risk. In arid ecosystems that have not co-evolved with a fire cycle, the probability of loss of iconic, charismatic megaflora such as Saguaro cacti and Joshua trees will greatly increase.”

This is not the first federal government report to find that American land is suffering from global warming. In September, the General Accountability Office reported:

According to experts … warmer spring seasons–due at least partly to climate change–have already resulted in earlier snowmelt, longer summer dry periods, and increased wildland fire activity in western U.S. forest ecosystems, where the experts stated that fires are linked more to climatic conditions than to land management techniques. Both the frequency of large fire … and the area burned increased significantly in the western United States during the period of 1987 through 2003… wildland fire size and severity are likely to further increase with climate change…

…Drought conditions that are potentially caused by climate change are already affecting trees, shrubs, and water resources in some areas. For example, according to officials from the BLM Kingman Field Office, about 30 percent of old growth pinyon pine trees in the Cerbat Mountains of Arizona; extensive stands of black brush near Dolan Springs in Arizona; and shrubs, such as cliffrose and juniper on shallow soils on the Colorado Plateau, have died due to severe drought conditions. Similarly, officials from the Chugach National Forest told us that closed-basin lake levels in the Kenai Lowlands in south-central Alaska have declined by as much as 1 meter as a result of drought, and many ponds that appeared on 1950 maps and aerial photographs are now grassy basins with spruce and hardwood trees.

Experts … also identified ice and glacial melting as physical effects resulting from climate change. Experts said that there is evidence that sea ice retreat, accelerating glacier melt, and measurable coastal erosion in the Arctic–due, at least in part, to climate change–are now greater than they were just 5 years ago. These experts noted that there also has been a major loss of glaciers in the western United States, such as in Montana and Alaska. According to a scientist at Glacier National Park, the estimated number of glaciers in the park has dropped from 150 to 26 since 1850, and some projections suggest that if current trends in the rate of melting continue, the remaining glaciers will be gone in the next 25 to 30 years.

The situation is urgent, but don’t expect action in Washington this year. On Monday, the Senate is expected to take up the Lieberman-Warner global warming bill — a bill that has some good elements but falls short of what’s needed to avert a climate crisis. But it’s not expected to survive a filibuster, and further legislative action is unlikely before the general election.

What’s needed is an unmistakable mandate for comprehensive action — a firm cap on carbon emissions, a requirement making private companies pay for polluting public sky, and an Apollo project of major investment in green-collar jobs producing renewable energy and energy-efficiency.

So when a new president and Congress arrives in Washington come January, we can hit the ground running, before it’s too late.

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