Midwest should embrace clean-energy opportunities

10/05/2010 at 11:20 am Leave a comment

Author: Kevin Gurney

The whirl of opinions on climate change is enough to make anyone dizzy. And with the Senate getting ready to consider energy and climate legislation, it’s easy to get bogged down in the politics of the moment and miss the big picture – especially when it comes to the scientific research that got us to this point in the first place.

As someone who has researched climate questions for 25 years, read thousands of scholarly articles and worked with researchers from around the globe, let me give you the scientific bottom line: Climate change is happening now, and we are primarily causing it.

We in Indiana need to remember that global warming won’t just affect polar bears and island nations. If climate change continues unchecked, science says our own state faces average summer temperatures as much as 13 degrees higher by the end of this century. Extreme weather events, such as flooding and droughts, will become more severe and more frequent. Growing zones for plants will shift, affecting our agricultural sector. Insect-borne diseases will shift northward as well.

How do we know that’s in our future? Here’s how we know the climate is changing:

First, we have multiple, consistent lines of recent evidence, all pointing in the same direction:

Temperatures are rising faster than they have in 400 years. Globally, the past 10 years have been the warmest on record. Polar ice is receding. High mountain glaciers are melting. Ocean temperatures are increasing. Sea levels are rising.

Second, we have historical data about the atmosphere – going back millennia – that we can compare with today’s atmosphere. Using Antarctic ice core samples, scientists have a more than 650,000-year record of Earth’s temperature and of the concentrations of carbon dioxide in the planet’s atmosphere.

The ice cores show us that carbon dioxide levels and global temperatures rise and fall in lockstep. And what is happening now in our atmosphere is unique: Today’s carbon dioxide levels are unprecedented in 650,000 years. And as today’s carbon dioxide levels rise, the Earth’s temperature is rising at the same rate.

Why are carbon dioxide levels rising? Since the Industrial Revolution, we have been burning fossil fuels – oil, coal and natural gas – to power our society. Burning fossil fuels puts heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere that form a kind of atmospheric blanket and warm the planet.

Third, we put all this data into ever-more-sophisticated computer models that simulate Earth’s climate. Scientists test their models for accuracy by running them back in time. If they predict what actually happened in the historical record, we can feel confident about their projections when we run these models forward into the future. And these models – ever-better at tracking the past – are bringing Earth’s future into focus ever more clearly.

Despite the measurable data, the historical record and our computer models, scientists continue to test other theories; that’s what scientists do. But tested against everything we know, by thousands of scientists around the world, only one theory can explain why carbon dioxide levels and temperatures are increasing: It’s climate change, caused by the heat-trapping gases we humans are adding to the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels to run our cars and computers.

A few holdouts

There are a few scientists who still claim all of this is wrong, just as there were a few scientists who continued to claim that smoking cigarettes was safe long after the science showed that smoking causes cancer. But manufacturing uncertainty about climate science isn’t just an academic game. It keeps us from acting, and that has serious consequences for all of us.

Although science has revealed this crucially important problem, science has also showed us that there is still time to avoid the worst effects of climate change.

The solutions, however, go beyond science; they require our political leaders to act. What we need are national policies that put a price on carbon dioxide pollution, and that will curb the amount of heat-trapping gases we put in the atmosphere. We also need to give businesses incentives to innovate and move away from fossil fuels.

In short, solving global warming requires us to transition to a clean energy future where we use low-polluting energy and we use it efficiently. Fortunately for us in the Midwest, we’re well positioned to thrive in this clean-energy future. We have the manufacturing experience to produce renewable energy technologies; we have renewable energy resources like wind and biomass to exploit; and we have the agricultural expertise to create clean fuels for our automobiles.

Addressing climate change offers a big opportunity to create jobs and boost profits while ushering in a more sustainable, more energy-independent future. It’s an opportunity we need to seize.

Entry filed under: Renewable Energy.

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