Caught in the storm 

Is nature, sick of us, finally pushing back?

This week, Earth's population hit an all-time high of 7 billion humans. If the folks that make their living compiling such information are correct, the 7 billionth person was probably born in India, where children are coming into the world at the rate of just slightly less than one every second. Also making news was a report by a host of international climate scientists who say humans are causing global warming and that we can expect a future filled with monster storms, killer floods and devastating droughts and heat waves. Taken together, it's pretty clear that our breeding, consumption and pollution are pushing Earth to its limits, with radical effects for the human race. In the meantime, our progress on climate policy is in reverse.

There's not much more to be said about hitting the 7-billion-people mark except that the graph showing human population since we began to walk on two legs is basically flat for millions of years and then rockets upward in the last two centuries. As late as 1994, when the world's population was roughly 5.5 billion, scientists projected population would peak at 7.8 billion by about 2050. Current projections are now for 9.3 billion by 2050.

There's been a long-standing debate about whether or not the this planet's resources can sustain the demands that feeding, housing, clothing and transporting 7 billion people requires. While many scientists and institutions feel it can handle that many people if we make significant changes in our consumption and pollution levels, many others are considerably less optimistic and believe we may have already reached a number of tipping points.

That's where the report on what's in store for the future environment comes in—and the picture isn't pretty.

The report, by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which was assembled by the United Nations and the World Meteorological Organization, won't be released in its final form until later this month. But the preliminary findings are more than a little alarming.

According to the Associated Press, the report says "scientists are 'virtually certain'—99 percent—that the world will have more extreme spells of heat and fewer of cold. Heat waves could peak as much as 5 degrees hotter by mid-century and even 9 degrees hotter by the end of the century."

The result? It's likely that certain parts of Earth may become "increasingly marginal as places to live."

When you consider that our blue planet is more than 70 percent covered by oceans and that ocean levels are rising, it means we'll be jamming more people onto less and less land.

Moreover, as our planet continues to heat up, the ability of warm air to carry more moisture virtually assures that massive, unprecedented floods will ravage certain areas while, as we saw in Texas this year, some areas will be subject to severe, long-lasting droughts. While there's debate about whether we'll have more or fewer monster hurricanes, there's significant agreement that, due to the warmer atmosphere and ocean surface, the storms will undoubtedly be worse than those already being experienced around the globe.

While the latest report is concerned with the effects of global warming on climate, new data is being generated daily showing that the earth's ability to absorb other forms of human-caused pollution are equally alarming. The oceans, for instance, are becoming more acidic due to increased atmospheric carbon dioxide that's being absorbed in the water. That translates into changing the water chemistry for millions of plants and animals that have evolved for eons at stable temperatures and levels, with unpredictable results.

In the meantime, instead of moving quickly to maintain a livable planet, we're almost doing the opposite of what should and, increasingly, needs to be done. China and India, for instance, contain 37 percent of the world population and, by 2030, India is projected to surpass China's population, which currently stands at more than 1.3 billion. Both nations are quickly becoming industrialized, which directly translates into vastly more energy and resource consumption and, likewise, a massive increase in pollution of the globe's air, water and land.

Just think what it means to have that many people seeking the consumption levels we have here in the U.S., where, at only 4.6 percent of the world's population, we produce 25 percent of the world's greenhouse gas emissions.

Yet, as the world burns, our politicians seem incapable of taking action. It's well known that various corporate interests have funded studies seeking to discredit global warming for years. But this week a former climate-change skeptic released a report funded by the notorious climate-change-denying Koch Brothers, admitting that he was wrong and the world is, in fact, warming rapidly.

That former skeptic would be Richard Muller, a noted physicist who works at the University of California, Berkeley and Lawrence Berkeley National Lab. His finding that the landmass of Earth is now 1.6 degrees warmer than in the 1950s conforms with those by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and NASA. His studies didn't focus on cause; still, he told reporters that "greenhouse gases could have a disastrous impact on the world."

Any rational person faced with this situation would say it's time to take significant actions to avert the disaster that more and more scientists are saying lies in our immediate future. But rational people are scarce in D.C.

Instead of bolstering agencies that monitor and regulate pollution, the leaders of the Republican-dominated House as well as both Democrats and Republicans in the Senate intend to slash funding for the Environmental Protection Agency. Instead of protecting our last forests and wildlands, they're trying to open every last acre to yet more industrial activity and pollution. This is sheer insanity.

It's obvious we've been pushing our globe to the limits. Now, as increasingly dire predictions portend, it looks as though Mother Nature is starting to push back.

Helena's George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at opinion@missoulanews.com.

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