It's the End of the World As You Know It, and I Don't Feel Fine

How can Clockwork possibly get all worked up about Irvine's school tax, toll-road sponsorships and other stuff we had planned to write about after attending the global-climate discussion at UC Irvine on April 14? Local issues don't matter much when you consider what the esteemed panelists had to say about our future.

F. Sherwood Rowland, the UCI atmospheric chemist who won a Nobel Prize in 1995 for his work in ozone depletion, was among those in the audience for "Global Climate Change and Public Policy: What Are the Implications for You?"

We believe the technical term for the implications for us is this:

We're screwed!

Robert T. Watson, an environmental scientist with the World Bank, said the challenge before us is to feed the world without destroying it. As more and more species disappear, scientists are discovering more and more food crops are being lost. This is coming at a time of increased population, energy consumption and atmospheric temperatures. Rising temperatures have undeniably been caused by mankind expelling more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, said Watson. That point was underscored a few days later in a report issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, an international collaboration of several hundred scientists sponsored by the United Nations and the World Meteorological Organization.

"We have changed from being passive tenants of the Earth to being landlords—pretty poor landlords at that," William J. Merrell, president of the H. John Heinz III Center for Science, Economics and the Environment, told the Irvine audience.

Africa and Latin America—where most of the planet's poorest inhabitants live—are expected to be 5 degrees hotter by 2050. That may not sound like much, but it will be enough to wipe out agriculture on those continents. Damage to coastlines wrought by global warming will create 10 million to 50 million "environmental refugees," Watson said.

Merrell outlined what the climate changes will mean to Southern California by 2050. Annual rainfall totals won't change much, but 40 percent more rain will drop in winter—pounding rain that will bring floodwaters, mudslides, the works. There will be little if any precipitation the rest of the year, so longer dry spells—coupled with our usual Santa Ana winds—will increase fire dangers dramatically.

One thing that won't rise is snowfall in the mountains (it'll be too warm), so we'll have to make do with less drinking water from the annual snowmelt. Deserts and wetlands—which play vital ecological roles in SoCal—are expected to disappear completely. Rising sea levels will swallow up more coastline, representing $500 million in lost real estate annually. We will be forced to decide whether to tear down houses so that we can still have beaches or create bulkheads to stop encroaching water.

At least we won't be alone. All countries will be hit hard by the climate changes, according to Eileen Claussen, president of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change.

Naturally, few countries currently agree on what to do about it. We in the U.S. love to point at poorer countries and demand they control their explosive population growth. But these countries point right back at us and demand we control our explosive energy consumption. Meanwhile, no one's stopping either (except Europe, to a degree).

Merrell said technological answers to our global growing pains are being studied at places such as UCI. And Claussen said leadership on the issue is coming from an unlikely source: the business community. "If it solves the problem," she said, "that's the horse we're going to have to ride."

Gitty up.


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