(Orange, Texas)


May 17, 2013

We've become our own worst enemies

ORANGE — The past couple months have been marked by a seeming unprecedented number of man-made tragedies, as distinct from those caused by violent outbursts of the natural world, such as earthquakes, hurricanes and tsunamis.

You don’t want to dwell too long on the negative, but we do have to take notice of horrific human events and we owe it to ourselves to respond to them in some way. We don’t always agree on those responses, however, and that usually exacerbates the problem.

The previous month began April 15 with the Boston Marathon bombings, which was quickly followed by the fiery fertilizer plant explosion in Texas. Then, on April 24, the building housing several garment factories collapsed in Bangladesh. These tragedies left more than 1,000 dead and hundreds more injured.

The four-week span concluded recently  with an announcement that has yet to result directly in deadly disasters, though they are certainly waiting to happen and eventually will pale the earlier catastrophes.

Scientists reported  that the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere reached levels not occurring since the Earth was a tumultuous mix of volcanoes and bubbling seas, spewing noxious gases and ash into the planet’s young biosphere. That was at least three billion years ago.

While the chaotic phenomena at that time may have led to the development of the earliest forms of life, the levels of pollution we have put into the atmosphere today may contribute to an end of life for many species.

Scientists at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego, make the carbon dioxide measurements with National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration instruments. The carbon dioxide reading of 400 parts per million was the highest since measurements began in 1958.

Most experts agree that the gas gets into the atmosphere primarily by fossil fuel burning and is the most significant greenhouse gas contributing to global warming and climate change.

NOAA senior scientist Pieter Tans, with the Global Monitoring Division of NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory in Boulder, Colo., said “the evidence is conclusive that the strong growth of global CO2 emissions from the burning of coal, oil, and natural gas is driving the acceleration” in the measurements.

And once it’s emitted, carbon dioxide remains in the atmosphere and oceans for thousands of years. That’s why doom-and-gloom forecasters say it’s too late to help ourselves, though we can try to save the planet for our descendants.

Ralph Keeling, a geochemist at Scripps, said the latest negative milestone is “a done deal. But what happens from here on still matters to climate, and it’s still under our control. It mainly comes down to how much we continue to rely on fossil fuels for energy.”

The problem is that we’ve been hearing such warnings for decades but, while making some progress in limiting emissions, we have not done nearly enough to wean ourselves from fossil fuels. In fact, with proposed oil pipelines and natural gas drilling, we continue to push for expanding our dependence.

And now, as former Vice President Al Gore warned on his blog Friday, “we are reaping the consequences of our recklessness.”

“Our food systems, our cities, our people and our very way of life developed within a stable range of climatic conditions on Earth,” he continued. “Without immediate and decisive action, these favorable conditions on Earth could become a memory if we continue to make the climate crisis worse day after day after day.”

Despite the need for decisive action, the outlook for it occurring is not good. The chances of government and business working together for the changes necessary are slim indeed, for what is needed is an overhaul in our views of nature, our planet, and ourselves, not more lobbying by the fossil-fuel industry.

Experts consider the safe level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to be 350 parts per million. To reduce our emissions to get back to that level will require a slowdown in the global economy, and a move away from fossil fuels and into renewable energy. We must be more energy-efficient. We must return to and modernize more sustainable farming methods.

As environmentalist Bill McKibben wrote Friday on “The only question now is whether the relentless rise in carbon can be matched by a relentless rise in the activism necessary to stop it.”

Cary Brunswick is a columnist for The Daily Star in Oneonta, N.Y. Contact him at

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