By Erica Laidler (Editor in Chief).
In 1987, Earth Overshoot Day, which annually marks the date when human resource consumption for the year has officially surpassed the amount the earth can naturally generate in the full 365 days, took place on December 19. Last year, it was August 8.
The day has consistently creeped earlier every year, meaning that people are utilizing a greater amount of materials even as the earth, with its climate crisis, has provided less.
President of BCC Solar Energy Advantage Dewitt Jones says climate change is not just an imminent threat but an already active force. “Climate related long term drought conditions in the Middle East and parts of Central Africa are stressing food and agricultural production, driving up food prices, creating food shortages and dislocating many thousands of people,” he said.
David Billesbach, an earth scientist at the University of the Nebraska, notes similar conditions in the US. “Here in the Great Plains, agriculture is beginning to shift to different crops and we are seeing an increase in irrigation,” he said. “Many other regions of the U.S. (including the West Coast) are feeling more frequent and severe droughts causing water rationing and increased wild fire danger.”
But climate change has not effectuated land desiccation alone. “Closer to home, potential climate-related storms and sea level rise are already triggering significant insurance policy increases for properties in potential flood plains,” said Jones.
Billesbach adds that more frequent storms has spurred movement away from coastal areas. “While it cannot be said with 100% certainty that any particular event was caused by climate change, the overall trend certainly correlates with increasing global temperatures,” he said.
Many argue that Irene and Sandy were linked to climate change, and with sea levels facing a predicted rise of 1 to 4 feet by 2100, future storms will lead to greater flooding and destruction.
It might seem strange that climate change generates drought in some areas and storms and flooding in others. This sort of paradox is what attracted Matthias Ruth, Northeastern director of Public Policy and member of Climate Ready Boston, to the field of study.
At first, says Ruth, scientists thought ‘global warming’ was an apt title for the crisis because CO₂ and other gases trap infrared radiation and drive an increase in overall global temperature. But most now agree that ‘climate change’ is a better name, because temperatures are not rising evenly throughout the world.
“As the globe warms, evaporation of water…varies across space in part because of latitudinal differences, elevation differences, and differences in land cover,” said Ruth. “Changes in the water cycle trigger major spatial and temporal patterns associated with regional heat budgets, resulting in more frequent and severe extreme conditions such as heat and cold in some places at some times; drought and rainfall in others.”
In 2016, global temperatures were at a record-high for the third consecutive year.
In polar regions, which are warming nearly twice as fast as most other parts of the planet, ice retreat robs polar bears and walruses of the edible algae normally on glacier surfaces and contributes to major sea level rise. Last month, Arctic sea ice extent averaged 12.10 million sq km, the second lowest for December on record.
Communications Coordinator of the Northern Alaska Environmental Center Kristen Hendricks says her team, along with the campaign Keep it In the Ground, have advocated against oil and gas development (drilling) in the Arctic. “Fossil fuels are the number one contributor to climate change and oil and gas development itself (and all of the associated emissions) is another contributor,” she said.
Aside from contributing to the “greenhouse effect,” fossil fuel-released gases also dissolve in the ocean, increasing the acidity and limiting oxygen concentration.
Liz Delaney, director of the Environmental Defense Fund Climate Corps, says the longer people wait to slow climate change, the more expensive it will be. “There [will be] significant impacts on the world’s poorest and most vulnerable populations, and indirect effects like conflict and mass migration as droughts and extreme weather wreak havoc on natural resources,” she said.
But Pat Michaels, a director of science at the Cato Institute, says regulation on the fossil fuel industry is about 95% misguided, because coal, natural gas, and oil supply 80% of the world’s energy and “green plants grow faster with more CO2 ” anyway.
Billesbach, who has studied the release of carbon from melting permafrost in the Arctic, says he has been most struck by how fast ecosystems can change.
He has worked in the Arctic for just five years, yet he can “already see obvious changes…that the sea ice in the Arctic Ocean is becoming thinner and more scarce.”
Hendricks’ colleague, Program Director Jessica Girard says that one well-known glacier, a historically-trusted ice bridge, has collapsed and research huts have been left ‘marooned’ on plateaus and cliff-sides due to receding ice.
“When these huts were built the glaciers were level with these structures, but they now sit dozens (if not hundreds) of feet above the ice,” she said.
Bob Kern, vice president of Friends of Hanauma Bay in Hawaii, fears that continued rises in sea level will threaten the ecology and tourism opportunities on the Hanauma Bay shoreline.
He says human activity has disrupted Hawaii’s natural beauty since their arrival in 800 AD. “Introduced species of plants and animals grew aggressively and brought diseases and with few or no natural defenses, the native plants and animals were defenseless,” said Kern, adding that rats, mongooses, and feral cats still pose a threat to wildlife.
And like Billesbach and Girard, Hanauma Bay Preserve recreation specialist Kaipo Perez has “witnessed negative changes to the ocean environment…within my short lifetime.”
Perez, raised in a traditional Hawaiian fishing family that still hunts and gathers their own ocean resources, says he believes habitat degradation and declines in fish diversity are linked to anthropogenic activity.