Population Matters

Don’t “Runaway” from Climate Change Action

September 25th, 2009

According to today’s Washington Post, a new scientific study conducted for the United Nations Environment Program predicts that even if developed and developing nations do everything they have pledged to do to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, global temperatures will still rise by 6.3 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century.

If that analysis is correct, it is truly alarming, for it would lead to rising sea levels and other climatic changes that are far worse than what has been anticipated to date.

For the past few decades scientists have expressed concern about potential “runaway” climate change.  To date, most of the increase in global temperatures has been linked to escalating human activity, most notably fossil-fuel consumption and destruction of tropical forests and other ‘carbon sinks’.   But there are natural feedback mechanisms, such as the melting of the permafrost, which could–at some point–create sharp, non-linear changes in the level of greenhouse gas emissions, creating a “runaway” effect on global temperatures.

British scientists this week release a study in Nature suggesting that we already may be seeing a ‘runaway’ melting of the glaciers around the perimeter of Greenland and in western Antarctica.  Based upon measurements taken by NASA’s gravity-mapping satellite, known as GRACE, it appears that the glaciers are experiencing “seaward motion” in addition to the melting caused by rising temperatures.  As a consequence, Greenland is now experiencing a net loss of “about a Lake Erie’s worth of ice” every six months.

The danger in these ‘doomsday’ reports is that popular willingness to take action will flag, and governments will simply give up.  But the presence of “runaway” effects does not make action less urgent, it only makes matters more so.  The UNEP report indicates that if no action is taken to limit greenhouse gas emissions, temperatures will rise even further…8.1 degrees Fahrenheit by the close of the century.  The less we do, the greater the risk of “runaway” effects.

With respect to population, these forecasts only heighten the need to expand family planning in developed and developing nations alike.  Expanded family planning, particularly in developed nations like the U.S., may be one of the least expensive means available for limiting long-term greenhouse gas emissions. At the same time, educating women and expanding family planning options may be one of the least expensive–and compassionate–means of adapting to, or coping with, the now inevitable effects of climate change in areas like sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.

Runaway climate change doesn’t mean we should run away from the problem.  Now, more then ever, action is needed on all fronts.

Posted by Robert J. Walker, Executive Vice President

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