Sightings from the Treehouse: Elements of Climate Change – Rising Temperatures

Sightings from the Treehouse is an investigative blog series on climate change and the environment, from GIPL’s Power Wise Director, Bob Donaghue. You can read the first and second blogs here. 


Join me on my journey to do a “deep dive” on climate change. I spent many years as an environmental scientist, but recently began to research the topic of climate change to further my awareness of the latest climate science and projections. My primary goal is to develop a better understanding of the likely future and align my faith and actions to improve resilience in myself and in others.  
The first two blogs were about the current administration’s ties to the fossil fuel industry and efforts to obscure and hide the facts about our climate from the public. All of this is led by a few oil companies and the Koch Brothers, owners of America’s smokestack industries, and our current conservative government. The next series of blogs will detail the science and projections for four elements of climate change: rising temperatures, melting ice and permafrost, ocean changes, and ecological disruptions.  The final four blogs will examine opportunities and costs of climate change, our readiness to fight, and finally the role of the faith community.  Hopefully, you are ready to explore with me this real-time threat to humanity and the planet.  Please click on the hyperlinks, there is a lot of information available to swim through.


Rising Temperatures
The bubble that surrounds the planet has been a free dumping ground for our wastes and our past sins are catching up with us.  Since the beginning of the industrial revolution, we have been spewing clouds of soot and greenhouse gases into the air along with a wide range of other toxic and non-toxic chemicals.  For over 200 years, hundreds of gigatons (a gigaton equals a billion tons) of greenhouse gases (primarily carbon dioxide) have been released into the atmosphere by fossil fuel combustion from industrial, commercial and residential and transportation sources. Those man-made releases account for 40 percent of the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere since pre-industrial times.
Today’s atmospheric carbon dioxide levels are 409 parts per million (ppm), up from 280 ppm in pre-industrial times. Temperatures in 2016 are already 1.9 degrees F hotter than historical levels with most of the increase since 1970. In the next few decades, an additional 2-4 degrees F is expected from existing emissions already in the atmosphere according to the US National Climate Assessment prepared by NOAA.  The organization, 350.org, promotes a carbon dioxide level at 350 ppm or less to avoid some of the catastrophic effects of global warming and keep global temperature rise below 3.6 degrees F (2 degrees C). This is supported by Dr. James Hansen in his 2008 research.  

Due to Arctic amplification, temperatures are twice as hot as those on the rest of the globe and are responsible for rapidly melting sea ice and permafrost in the Arctic and Antarctic. The loss of polar ice and melting of permafrost, which has already begun in earnest, is releasing methane buried in the ground and the sea for millions of years. Higher Arctic temperatures could lead to an uncontrolled release of methane. This would overwhelm efforts to cut human emissions. Positive feedbacks may raise temperatures beyond ecological thresholds (aka tipping points) leading to abrupt, irreversible environmental change and an uncontrolled climate – a “runaway train.” When that might happen is not known at this point, but keep in mind the train has already left the station and is gaining speed.

Many of the changes ahead, regardless of our current actions, are already baked in. Carbon dioxide is retained in the atmosphere for thousands of years or until absorbed by the ocean or plants. More rapid ice melt, sea level rise, extensive permafrost loss, ocean acidification, increased storm intensity, species loss, increased drought, and more threats to human health are expected at temperatures at or above 3.6 degrees F. 
Troubling changes are already occurring to our climate and ecosystems at half that temperature.  
Keeping global temperatures below 3.6 degrees F (2 degrees C) is advocated by most to avoid the worst of the impacts. This temperature threshold is based on current global emissions being reduced by 70% by 2050 and 100% by 2100. The United Nations estimates that commitments in the Paris Climate Accord will not achieve the 3.6 degree F goal, but will likely reach 5.4 degrees F (3 degrees C). According to the World Bank, the more realistic increase seems to be 5.4 -7.2 degrees F (3-4 degrees C by 2100).


Theological Reflection from Kate, GIPL’s Executive Director
All of these increases mean a world very unlike a world to which we are accustomed. Our faith compels us to act in hope, though. It’s time for faith communities to show bold leadership with climate adaptation. Congregations of all types and sizes are essential to the shaping of resilient communities. And resilience is what we, our children, and grandchildren will need in order to face this new world of rising temperatures and rising tides. But it starts with understanding what will happen to this wondrous Creation first – this world we inhabit together. Engage the science. Reflect through the lens of faith. Commit to action that creates resilient communities for our sake and for all of Creation.