The Nobel-Prize-winning former VP has an article in The New Republic, “The Crisis Comes Ashore: Why the oil spill could change everything.” Here are some excerpts:
The continuing undersea gusher of oil 50 miles off the shores of Louisiana is not the only source of dangerous uncontrolled pollution spewing into the environment. Worldwide, the amount of man-made CO2 being spilled every three seconds into the thin shell of atmosphere surrounding the planet equals the highest current estimate of the amount of oil spilling from the Macondo well every day. Indeed, the average American coal-fired power generating plant gushes more than three times as much global-warming pollution into the atmosphere each day””and there are over 1,400 of them.
Just as the oil companies told us that deep-water drilling was safe, they tell us that it’s perfectly all right to dump 90 million tons of CO2 into the air of the world every 24 hours….
The direct consequences of burning these vast and ever-growing amounts of oil and coal are a buildup of heat in the atmosphere worldwide and the increased acidity of the oceans. (Although the world has yet to focus on ocean acidification, the problem is terrifying. Thirty million of the 90 million tons of CO2 being spilled each day end up in the oceans as carbonic acid, changing the pH level by more than at any time in the last many millions of years, thus inflicting every form of life in the ocean that makes a shell or a reef with a kind of osteoporosis””interfering with their ability to transform calcium carbonate into the hard structures upon which their life depends””that threatens the survival of many species of zooplankton at the base of the ocean food chain.)
But rising global temperatures and increasing acidification in the ocean are only the beginning. These processes have triggered a cascading set of other impacts, which include:
- The melting of virtually all of the mountain glaciers in the world””already well underway””threatening the supplies of fresh water for drinking and agriculture in many parts of the world.
- The prospective disappearance of the North Polar Ice Cap, which for most of the last three million years has covered an area roughly the size of the continental United States. Approximately 25 percent-30 percent of this ice cap (measured by the area that it used to cover) has disappeared in the last 30 years during summer. The thickness of the remaining ice has also sharply diminished.
- The melting of the two largest masses of ice on the planet””on top of Greenland and Antarctica (especially West Antarctica, where the bottom of the ice rests under the sea atop submerged islands) is already accelerating far beyond earlier estimates””threatening catastrophic increases in sea level worldwide.
- As the seas rise more rapidly, many millions of climate refugees will be forced to flee from areas they have long called home. Indeed, thousands have already been forced to move from low-lying island nations. The government of the Maldives has included a new line item in this year’s budget for a fund to buy a new country. That option will not be available to Bangladesh.
- Deeper and longer droughts in mid-continent regions, as soil moisture evaporates more rapidly with higher temperatures.
- More and larger forest fires as drier vegetation becomes kindling for lightning””which, according to researchers at the University of Tel Aviv, is also predicted to increase at the rate of 10 percent with each additional degree of temperature.
- The migration of tropical diseases to temperate latitudes, as new ecological niches invite the intrusion of viruses and bacteria and the mosquitoes, ticks, and other “vectors” that carry these diseases. This process is also already underway.
- An accelerated extinction rate which, according to E. O. Wilson and other biologists, threatens to reach levels not seen since the dinosaurs were wiped out 65 million years ago.
- The increased destructive power of tropical storms coming off the ocean (hurricanes, cyclones, and typhoons””all different names for the same phenomenon). Though the number of these storms is not predicted to increase, their destructive power is””due to increases in wind speeds and moisture content.
- Increased large downpours of both rain and snow””with a steady shift from snow to rain””resulting in an increased frequency of large floods on every continent.
This last phenomenon””long understood by scientists to be one of the most confidently predictable consequences of global warming””hit home for many of my neighbors last week when Nashville, the city where I live, suffered what the Army Corps of Engineers described as “a 1,000 year rain event” that caused horrendous flooding, mostly in neighborhoods that had no flood insurance””because homeowners there had been assured that they lived well outside the historic flood plain. The tragic loss of many lives was accompanied by the ruination of thousands of homes and property damages that Mayor Karl Dean estimated at one and a half billion dollars.
Scientists are always careful in the way they describe the cause-and-effect relationship between global warming and such events: It is a mistake, they say, to attribute any single extreme weather event only to global warming, because there is large natural variability in weather””but the odds of extremely large downpours, scientists repeatedly insist, are steadily increasing with global warming, and such events are predicted to become far more common with each passing decade because when water evaporates from the warmer oceans, warmer air holds more of it. Average humidity worldwide has already increased by 4 percent since 1970, and each additional degree Fahrenheit increases it by another 3 percent-4 percent.
The whole piece is worth reading. Here’s the conclusion:
It is understandable that the administration will be focused on the immediate crisis in the Gulf of Mexico. But this is a consciousness-shifting event. It is one of those clarifying moments that brings a rare opportunity to take the longer view. Unless we change our present course soon, the future of human civilization will be in dire jeopardy. Just as we feel a sense of urgency in demanding that this ongoing oil spill be stopped, we should feel an even greater sense of urgency in demanding that the much larger and more dangerous ongoing emissions of global warming pollution must also be stopped to make the world safe from the climate crisis that is building all around us.