Washington Since the 1997 international accord to fight global warming, climate change has worsened and accelerated — beyond some of the grimmest of warnings made back then.
As the world has talked for a dozen years about what to do next, new ship passages opened through the once frozen summer sea ice of the Arctic. In Greenland and Antarctica, ice sheets have lost trillions of tons of ice. Mountain glaciers in Europe, South America, Asia and Africa are shrinking faster than before.
And it’s not just the frozen parts of the world that have felt the heat in the dozen years leading up to next month’s climate summit in Copenhagen:
• The world’s oceans have risen by about an inch and a half.
• Droughts and wildfires have turned more severe worldwide, from the U.S. West to Australia to the Sahel desert of North Africa.
• Species now in trouble because of changing climate include not just the lumbering polar bear, which has become a symbol of global warming, but also fragile butterflies, colorful frogs and entire stands of North American pine forests.
• Temperatures over the past 12 years are 0.4 of a degree warmer than the dozen years leading up to 1997.
Even the gloomiest climate models back in the 1990s didn’t forecast results quite this bad so fast.
“The latest science is telling us we are in more trouble than we thought,” said Janos Pasztor, climate adviser to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.
And here’s why: Since an agreement to reduce greenhouse gas pollution was signed in Kyoto, Japan, in December 1997, the level of carbon dioxide in the air has increased 6.5 percent. Officials from across the world will convene in Copenhagen next month to seek a follow-up pact, one that President Barack Obama says “has immediate operational effect … an important step forward in the effort to rally the world around a solution.”
The last effort didn’t quite get the anticipated results.
From 1997 to 2008, world carbon dioxide emissions from the burning of fossil fuels have increased 31 percent; U.S. emissions of this greenhouse gas rose 3.7 percent. Emissions from China, now the biggest producer of this pollution, have more than doubled in that time period. When the U.S. Senate balked at the accord and President George W. Bush withdrew from it, that meant that the top three carbon polluters — the U.S., China and India — were not part of the pact’s emission reductions. Developing countries were not covered by the Kyoto Protocol and that is a major issue in Copenhagen.
Effects of gases
And the effects of greenhouse gases are more powerful and happening sooner than predicted, scientists said.
“Back in 1997, the impacts (of climate change) were underestimated; the rate of change has been faster,” said Virginia Burkett, chief scientist for global change research at the U.S. Geological Survey.
That last part alarms former Vice President Al Gore, who helped broker a last-minute deal in Kyoto.
“By far the most serious differences that we’ve had is an acceleration of the crisis itself,” Gore said in an interview this month with The Associated Press.
In 1997, global warming was an issue for climate scientists, environmentalists and policy wonks. Now biologists, lawyers, economists, engineers, insurance analysts, risk managers, disaster professionals, commodity traders, nutritionists, ethicists and even psychologists are working on global warming.
“We’ve come from a time in 1997 where this was some abstract problem working its way around scientific circles to now when the problem is in everyone’s face,” said Andrew Weaver, a University of Victoria climate scientist.
The changes in the last 12 years that have the scientists most alarmed are happening in the Arctic with melting summer sea ice and around the world with the loss of key land-based ice masses. It’s all happening far faster than predicted.
Back in 1997 “nobody in their wildest expectations,” would have forecast the dramatic sudden loss of summer sea ice in the Arctic that started about five years ago, Weaver said. From 1993 to 1997, sea ice would shrink on average in the summer to about 2.7 million square miles. The average for the last five years is less than 2 million square miles. What’s been lost is the size of Alaska.