Pope Francis has invested tireless effort into making the world aware of the impacts of climate change. He has also acted as a herald for the historic climate change summit, called Conference of Parties 21, which has just taken place in Paris. Despite recent events in Paris, 151 world leaders, including President Obama, met for the opening remarks beginning on November 30. Since that time representatives of nearly 200 nations have been working on an agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. They reached an agreement on December 12 to work to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to levels that will attempt to halt the rise in global temperatures to 20 C.
Some argue that we shouldn’t be spending our time on climate change when so many other issues seem to be more important. Let me put this in perspective. In the U.S. Department of Defense 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review Report they stated that, “climate change, energy security, and economic stability are inextricably linked. Climate related changes are already being observed in every region of the world. Climate change could have significant geopolitical impacts around the world, contributing to poverty, environmental degradation and the further weakening of fragile governments. Climatic change will contribute to food and water scarcity, will increase the spread of disease and may spur or exacerbate mass migration.” Although not the only cause, climate change has been linked to the conflict in Syria due to the destabilization brought about by a severe drought. It has increased unemployment, exacerbated famine and water scarcity, and forced 1.5 million farmers to move into urban areas intensifying the unrest.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a group of thousands of scientists from around the world who review existing climatic data, issued a report in 2014 called the Climate Change 2014 Synthesis Report. In that report they stated that, “Human influence on the climate system is clear and recent anthropogenic (human caused) emissions of greenhouse gases are the highest in history. Recent climate changes have had widespread impacts on human and natural systems. Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, and since the 1950s many of the observed changes are unprecedented over decades to millennia. The atmosphere and ocean have warmed, the amounts of snow and ice have diminished and sea level has risen.” The current level of greenhouse gases (the gases in the atmosphere that act like a blanket to hold in the heat radiated from the earth) are at unprecedented levels in at least the last 800,000 years. Half of the carbon dioxide emissions between 1750 and 2011 have occurred in the last 40 years.
The impacts of climate change are many. The increase in global temperature has led to an increase in the frequency, intensity and length of heat waves, heat stress, and heat-related deaths. Droughts are reducing water availability for people and increasing crop failures. There are increases in wildfires. In other areas, there are increases in heavy rain events and flooding. Rapid melting of the ice caps and glaciers is occurring in most regions. This melting, together with the increase in the heat absorbed by the oceans, is causing the oceans to expand and sea level to rise, resulting in more coastal flooding and erosion.
Some island nations, such as the Marshall Islands, are already disappearing. Warmer temperatures are leading to changes in migrations of organisms, and declines in fisheries. Diseases are being spread into areas of the world where they haven’t been able to survive in the past. Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is being absorbed by the oceans causing ocean acidification, making it difficult for some organisms to live. The warmer temperatures are also reducing the amount of oxygen available for organisms living in water environments. Some projections estimate that the changing environments will produce millions of environmental refugees.
Locally, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency already reports a 1.10C (20F) rise in temperature in the Northeast since 1895, with projections of a 2.50 – 5.60F (4.50 – 10.00 F) rise by the 2080s. We are experiencing heavier rainfall events. There are projected increases in frequency, intensity, and length of heat waves. Changes in precipitation timetables could result in more droughts in the summer months leading to reduced crop yield and stress on farm animals. Growing seasons have already changed. Warmer and wetter environments are increasing the habitat for ticks and mosquitoes fostering the spread of Lyme disease and West Nile Virus. Sea level has already risen by one foot since 1900 with projections of 1-4 feet by 2100, resulting in more coastal flooding and erosion during storm surges. Warming of our coastal waters (Faster than 99 percent of the world’s oceans) has resulted in a decline of cod stocks and lobster stocks. Winter resorts are projected to be facing troubling times as it will be more difficult to maintain snow at resorts.
Pope Francis is most concerned with these impacts because it is the poor who are the most vulnerable. While the rich can more readily adapt to the effects of climate change, the poor cannot. They are thus exposed to the severe weather events and their consequences of food shortages, water scarcity and heat waves and floods. China, the United States, and Europe emit 50 percent of the greenhouse gases. The top 10 emitters produce 72 percent of the greenhouse gases. The lower 100 countries emit only three percent of the total greenhouse gases yet they are impacted the most. This is what the pope wants us all to address. Some of our leaders say it is too expensive and it will cost jobs. This is misleading. They are just pushing the burden to future generations and at a tremendously greater cost if we delay action now. Remember Jesus told us, “What you do for the least of My people, that you do unto Me.” By working to combat climate change, we are working to help the poor and vulnerable here and around the world. In my next article, I will show how we can each do our part.
Professor Rak is a Fall River native and a parishioner of St. Mary’s Parish in Fall River. He is a professor of Environmental Technology and coordinator of the Environmental Science and Technology Program at Bristol Community College in Fall River.