They are coming at us fast and furious. Almost on a daily basis we are seeing new reports, new studies, new evidence that climate change is changing our lives and our future.
This week, the same week that Buffalo News columnist Gerry Rising penned an important Sunday column, “Nature Watch: We must take seriously the threat of global warming,” the preeminent climate scientist James Hansen released a new study with dire new data about rapidly rising ocean levels that portend catastrophe for the human race.
Rising’s article bought us information about University of Arizona evolutionary biologist Guy McPherson, whose studies on how biological and atmospheric feedback loops are enhancing the rapid collapse of ecological and climate systems due to a warming atmosphere. McPherson, a friend of GreenWatch for many years, describes feedback loops as self-sustaining activities that build uncontrollable momentum. For example he has described methane clathrates, a more deadly greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide trapped in early ice layers, which are being (and will continue to be) released at accelerated rates as the polar ice sheets melt, thus promoting additional warmth, more melting, and a rapid collapse in ecosystems. Other feedback loops connected to methane release and other circumstances that McPherson has described include things like changing ocean circulation, which promotes drought in critical regions such as the Amazon, which promotes the death and decay of the large jungle, which promotes more release of carbon, which is both caused by and promotes biodiversity collapse, all of which contribute to contaminated water and air and rising water levels, changing weather and atmospheric patterns and events, and and so forth. McPherson thinks that human extinction could happen as soon as 2030.
You can read more at his website, Nature Bats Last.
You should be alarmed.
Read Macpherson’s critical 2013 essay, “19 ways climate change is now feeding itself.”
James Hansen was until 2013 the lead climate scientist at NASA, and is now an adjunct professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Science at Columbia University. He has long been a proponent of understanding how feedback loops accelerate climate change. The new study, “Ice melt, sea level rise and superstorms: evidence from paleoclimate data, climate modeling, and modern observations that 2 ◦C global warming is highly dangerous,” penned by lead author Hansen and 16 world-class multidiscplinary scientists, demonstrates that among other things feedback loops are now causing polar ice to melt at a rate 10 times faster than previously known. The study now indicates that sea levels will rise as much as 10 feet within 50 years. This will result in havoc in the coming decades including flooding of major cities and coastlines across America and across the globe. Put simply as a talking point-he habitability of cities such as New York and Miami will disappear soon.
This prediction blows out of the water previous warnings from organizations such as the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC), which is widely regarded as the gold standard for climate change research. Hansen hopes that the new study will inform the urgency at the upcoming UN COP 21- the Paris Climate Conference, scheduled for December 2015. Most of us remain skeptical that it will motivate much but false solutions.
Investigative Post hits another home run
Also last week, the Investigative Post’s Dan Telvock reported that Gallagher Beach on Buffalo’s Outer Harbor will remain closed due to identified but “kept from the public” sewer contamination issues.
The Investigative Post obtained a secret report from the state through a Freedom on Information request. The report indicates that two thirds of the time that the beach was tested last summer, contamination exceeded safe levels.
The sad fact is that Western New York’s Lake Erie Beach’s from Buffalo to the west have been consistently and will consistently remain closed due to contamination issues. This is not the fault of state and local officials that must make the call. this is our fault for letting this happen. This column says that unless our waters and shorelines are cleaned up permanently, the beaches should remain closed. Lake Erie water is simply not safe to swim in. Whether or not it is safe to drink remains an open question.
Gallagher Beach has stormwater runoff from combined sewer overflow (which mixes sanitary and stormwater runoff together when there is a rain event) and legacy contamination issues from industrial sites. This heavy pollution, and agricultural, roadway, and other runoff from chemlawns and gardens, characterize the conditions of our waterfronts and our waters.
The concentrated rain events that are continuing to build in this region are probably signs of climate change. One of the most well known predictions of how climate change will effect our region involves more extreme precipitation events. (Union of Concerned Scientists: “Confronting Climate change in the Great Lakes Region, Impacts on our Communities and Ecoystems.”)
Extreme precipitation events include big snows, flooding, and even drought conditions between big events. If you live in Western New York you have been witness to unusual weather patterns including extreme events during the past five years, including this year and this summer. The impact of these events on our antiquated sewer systems and the resulting runoff into our streams, rivers, and lakes is considerable. There is an unconfirmed report that more than 100 million gallons of untreated sewerage was released by a local sewer authority late last week, which reached the Niagara River. We are working on this story. Stay tuned.
Having swimmable beaches has to remain and evolve as a centerpiece of our redevelopment priorities. It’s not just a shiny object; it’s a hook to hang our future on. It’s a canary to measure whether or not we can thrive or survive. We are pleased to see that a recent Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, through a partnership with the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Great Lakes Commission, and the Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper, is bringing another announced $5 million to help restore the Buffalo River. This kind of investment is critical to restoring habitat and keeping hope alive that we can have swimmable and drinkable water someday.
But is it enough? Regional and local initiatives to improve sewer systems, stormwater runoff, agricultural runoff, legacy contamination and other point and non-point pollution sources are just not enough. Even in the face of dire predictions about humanities future, it is worth it to not only not give up hope, but to continue to fight for a future that works for more people.
Imagine, if you will, what clean water would mean to Western New York? Imagine pristine sand beaches characterizing our summer days. Imagine how this would attract investment, improve quality of life, give hope to future generations?
Instead, like an unstoppable freight train full of Bakkan crude, we continue to move in the opposite direction.
Imagine if you will, what our city and region could look like in 10,15,50, or 100 years if we act now toward better stewardship instead of surrendering to our worst instincts such as not giving a damn.
Here is a thought: Why is it that we treat our waterways as waste dumps? Let’s change that. Let’s find science and the political will to turn over this idiotic dependency on waterways to dump our waste. Why is it that we legalize pollution through permits and allow our sewers to dump treated or untreated waste into the Buffalo River, Niagara River, and Lake Erie and literally every other waterway? Why can’t we begin to envision and maybe plan a future that moves our sewers away from our drinking water? It is summer of 2015. Are we going to continue to be so blind and indifferent that we will continue to march like the proverbial lemmings oveer the cliff articulated by Professors McPherson and Hansen? Is it because we are afraid of the cost? What is more cost-effective? The end of hope, the end of humanity, the end of our region, or a plan and an investment that really addresses the elephant in the room. Do we have a future? You decide.
Jay Burney is environment and ecology editor for The Public and a founder of GreenWatch.