Climate change: no longer “if”

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By David Whitlock

During summer breaks my last two years in college, I sold cemetery property door to door in Houston, Texas. One of my favorite sales pitches was the line, “It’s not a matter of if, but when and where and under what circumstances you will need cemetery property.”

I am not a salesperson trying to convince people that global warming (the very words make some people bristle) is “out there,” like death awaiting us someday in the future. In fact, it’s not a matter of “if” you will experience it in your lifetime. That’s because the “when” has arrived. And unless we respond in appropriate ways, the “circumstances” will only get worse for us and Mother Earth.

That’s essentially the message the latest National Climate Assessment made public earlier this month. Most climate reports, relying heavily on projections, try and cast predictions for the future.

This 1,300 page document, the result of some 300 scientists over four years, focused on changes already underway.

From farmers in the midwest planting earlier because of shorter winters to extreme drought and fires in the southwest to torrential rains and flooding in the southeast, the report assesses changes already affecting every region of the United States.

The state where I live, Kentucky, has fared better than other parts of the nation, like where I grew up, Oklahoma, which has experienced drought and water shortages in some areas. But every region has in some way been affected.

Less than a week after this jolt of realism, two new scientific studies, in the journals Science and Geophysical Research Letters, reported that the retreat of ice in major glaciers that are part of the west Antarctic ice sheet appear to be unstoppable with the result that sea levels will rise one more meter worldwide. What’s more, the shrinking of these glaciers could trigger the collapse of the rest of the West Antarctic ice sheet raising sea levels another three to five meters.  It all may take a couple of centuries, but the demise of West Antarctica’s sea sector appears inevitable.

“It’s not a matter of if…” I thought as I heard these alarming reports.

Our options are not pleasant: We can ignore the scientific evidence, but to so would involve buying into a conspiracy theory that thousands of scientists from around the world are in collusion to intentionally misrepresent what they know to be false.

We can agree that there is something called climate change but that it is not human-made, that God or Mother Nature will correct the problem, and therefore we should do nothing.

But, as Los Angeles Times columnist Doyle McManus observes, “Noah’s flood wasn’t man-made, but he still spent the money (or at least the timber) to build an ark.”

Or we can face the sobering truth:  Carbon emissions have resulted in catastrophic damage to our climate. Consider that 97 percent of climatologists who are active in research agree that humans have played a role in climate change.

I may feel small and helpless in all this. All my recycling, growing an organic garden, composting, conserving energy seem to be of no avail. Even if I rode a bike to work, what difference would it make?

And yet I refuse to lose hope that small efforts can make a difference. Though we may have to suffer consequences for how we have abused God’s creation, reversals can be made. We can help repair the Giving Tree we have so carelessly ravaged.

But it won’t happen if we ignore the scientific facts that won’t go away. We must do what we can where we can with all we can.

William Wilberforce, who fought in the late 18th century for the abolition of slavery in Great Britain, faced seemingly insurmountable odds. The economics of slavery were so entrenched that only a handful of people thought anything could be done about it. Yet even though he was defeated time and time again, his efforts led to the Slavery Abolition Act in 1833, which abolished slavery in most of the British Empire.

It was Wilberforce who said, “You may choose to look the other way but you can never say again that you did not know.”

That’s where we are in regard to climate change. Whatever we choose to do, we can never tell our grandchildren we did not know.