by Jessica Garrity
According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (the EPA), climate change is “significant change in the measures of climate lasting for an extended period of time.” The measures of climate include temperature, wind patterns and precipitation, and it is major changes in any of these areas that constitute climate change. Contrary to popular belief, “climate change” is not the same as “global warming.”
Global warming refers to the increase in global average temperature, which is caused by an increase in heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere, such as carbon dioxide and methane. Often times it is assumed that for climate change to be happening, the weather must be getting warmer and more tropical, but while global temperature is rising on average, local climates are shifting in many ways and weather patterns are becoming more variable. A more accurate understanding of climate change acknowledges that not all places will become warmer, while wind patterns, precipitation rates and ocean currents will change, and that these changes will have a huge impact on food resources and growing seasons for large communities.
For example, every two to nine years in the central Pacific Ocean there is a period called El Niño which results in a serious change of weather patterns. It is marked by a weakening of trade winds and a subsequent rise in sea surface temperature of 1⁰ F in the eastern Pacific, which causes warm air to rise near Peru, and in turn increases rainfall in the northern Peruvian deserts. The weakening of the easterly trade winds, which ordinarily carry warm water westward, causes a lingering of warm water in the eastern Pacific that prevents cold upwellings from the Humboldt Current. This results in huge economic disruptions in fishing communities along the western coast of South America and can have an impact on the global fish market. Also, while Peru’s deserts are receiving wetter-than-normal conditions, parts of Africa, Southeast Asia and northern Australia are experiencing drier-than-normal conditions, which lead to decreased air quality and an increase in mosquito populations, which is the cause for increased malaria, dengue and Rift Valley fever, as well as other diseases.
Oscillations like this happen all around the world anyway as part of the natural shifts of the Earth, however they do not last for extended periods of time and even during short oscillations local and global economies can suffer huge losses. If these shifts occur and persist, they will cause significant changes in every economy around the world. Places that used to rely heavily on fishing and agriculture may experience drought conditions for years on end.
Now, as much as I hate to paint this doomsday scenario, I do think it is important for people to realize the actual consequences that will result from climate change if we continue to ignore the problem. I’m not saying that we’re all going to die if these things do happen. I have a firm belief in humans’ ability to adapt to difficult situations. But I also believe that it will be extremely difficult to adapt to a world where weather patterns that have been essentially the same for thousands of years have suddenly and dramatically changed, so why keep pressing our luck?
The thing that makes it real for me is noticing these changes around me. Even in my relatively short lifetime I am noticing that beaches that were expansive and sandy five or ten years ago are being eroded. Even roads that I used to drive along the ocean are being encroached upon and, in some cases, irreparably damaged. I can see the ocean creeping up, and I feel the warmer days earlier in the spring, as well as the longer lasting summers in the fall. I notice the larger insect populations, accompanied by rises in lyme disease and other disease rates. I see the pictures of drained reservoirs in California and the increase in drought rates across the continental U.S. and I think: how are we ignoring this?
I feel as though the changes and evidence are overwhelming, and I understand that life is busy and we all have jobs and we all get distracted, but we can’t stay distracted forever. At some point the effects of climate change are going to slap us in the face and a lot of people are going to say “Wow, I never even saw that coming.” I hate sounding like the hysterical tree hugger yelling at passersby that we’re all going to die if we don’t recycle, but there is a need for urgency and concern and if we all choose to ignore what’s happening, we’re all going to have to suffer the consequences.