Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Rate of Change
distributed 2/11/05 - ©2005

If I'm driving down the highway at 55 miles per hour, I may start slowing down a couple of blocks before a traffic light. That's a safe and comfortable way to come to a stop.

If I'm cruising along at highway speeds, and hit a bridge abutment, my car will come to a somewhat more sudden stop. Instead of using 1/6 of a mile to come to a halt, all of that deceleration would happen in about 6 feet.

A gradual stop using the brakes is routine and uneventful. The sudden stop from hitting an immovable object may well be fatal. In both cases, the car goes from 55 to zero, but in one case the process takes several seconds. In the other case, it happens almost instantly.

I use that illustration fairly often to show the importance of the rate of change. How quickly or gradually a change happens makes a big difference. That's a practical consideration on the highway, of course. It is also a major consideration in the crisis of global warming.

Almost everybody who has studied the matter now agrees -- human influences, primarily from the burning of fossil fuels, are changing the Earth's climate. Rising concentrations of "greenhouse gasses" such as carbon dioxide are leading to rising average temperatures across the planet.

Those who downplay the significance of global climate change point out that the Earth's climate has always had large fluctuations. There have been ice ages, and very warm periods. They're right about that.

What is remarkable in the case of human-caused climate change, though, is the rate of the change. A graph plotting atmospheric carbon dioxide levels over the last 160,000 years shows lots of peaks and valleys, with values ranging from 180 to 300 parts per million. At the right hand edge of the graph, where history becomes current events, the line goes vertical. The jagged line of peaks and valleys becomes a cliff.

In 1958 the global level of carbon dioxide was already high at 314 parts per million. Now it is over 380 ppm. If the industrial world keeps burning coal and oil the way we have been, predictions for the year 2100 put CO2 levels between 650 and 970 ppm.

There always have been fluctuations in carbon dioxide levels, and average global temperatures always have moved up and down in tandem with CO2. The problem today is that the Earth's biosphere is slamming into the vertical cliff of an abrupt change. And just like driving your car into a cliff, such a sudden change may be fatal.

When climate shifts by a couple of degrees across several thousand years, it is possible for species to adapt. Plants and animals can spread into where they can thrive. Predator and prey relationships can shift when change is gradual. But when that change is abrupt, there's no opportunity to adapt.

The sugar maples of New England can't pick themselves up and move several hundred miles north in just a couple of decades. The human communities that depend on those trees for tourism and syrup production will be in big trouble when the trees start to die.

Glaciers that have provided a stable water supply -- in the Himalayas, the Andes, the Alps and the Rockies -- are melting abruptly. Communities that depend on the glacier's year-round water -- human and other species alike -- will suddenly find dry riverbeds.

Those sorts of changes in climate are stressful when they happen gradually. They are catastrophic when they happen suddenly. The astounding rate of change in temperature is the reason why global warming is such an urgent concern.

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There is some good news. Next week, the Kyoto Protocols will go into effect. Most of the world's industrialized nations have recognized the crisis of human-caused global warming, and they are acting to slow the rate of change, however slightly.

But the US has refused to face the facts. Politicians of both parties have flatly rejected any consideration of Kyoto. They have refused to address the way our profligate use of energy is accelerating climate change.

In a remarkable piece of timing, next week, just as the rest of the world implements Kyoto, the US Senate will begin debate on the misnamed "Clear Skies Act." That legislation deals (badly!) with power plant pollution -- and it says nothing at all about massive amounts of carbon dioxide released from those sources. Later this spring, as the rest of the world acts to reduce their carbon emissions, the US Congress will take up the Bush administration's energy bill which seeks to increase the production -- and the burning -- of fossil fuels.

The dramatic increase in global carbon dioxide is a threat to all of the life systems on this planet. Rather than slowing as we head toward this ecological cliff, the US (along with China) is speeding up the process. It is an act of suicide and ecocide.

With all the tools at our disposal -- political, economic, technological, moral and cultural -- we need to call STOP! The coming crash is unavoidable, but hitting the brakes hard now will make it less intense. Slowing the rate of this dangerous ecological change is a moral and practical necessity.

As citizens and community leaders in the US, may we do everything in our power to change our nation's reckless policies.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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