A week of bad news about the global climate crisis points up need for real solutions

Feature story - August 26, 2008
Last week brought us a series of disturbing news stories that point up the severity of the climate crisis we’re facing: nine polar bears were spotted swimming in open waters; one of Greenland's largest glaciers cracked, and further disintegration is feared by experts; and Fay flooded Florida with more than two feet of rain.

Meanwhile, Congressional Republicans are entering the fourth week of their sit-in on the floor of Congress, an attempt to force Speaker Pelosi to call the House of Representatives back into session and have a vote on offshore drilling legislation. By now the idea that drilling for oil off America's coastlines would lower gas prices or even significantly wean our country off of foreign oil has been thoroughly debunked. But, in spite of mounting evidence of just how dire the climate crisis has become, they are sticking with this non-solution (repeat a lie often enough…) rather than getting behind real solutions to global warming.

This past week, warming temperatures combined to create news of three separate climate disasters in different parts of North America.

  1. Off Alaska's northwest coast, a contractor for the federal Minerals Management Service spotted nine polar bears swimming in open ocean. According to scientists with the federal U.S. Geological Survey, the bears were probably floating on sea ice hunting ringed seals when warm temperatures caused the ice to melt or break up, forcing them into the water out of sight of either the coast or other sea ice - a perilous situation for the bears, who spend most of their lives on the ice. The plight of the polar bears is part of a larger story, of course. Temperatures off Alaska's coast have risen 3 - 5 degrees Farenheit since the 1950's due to global warming, and on Tuesday, August 26th, data maintained by the International Arctic Research Center and the Japanese Space Agency showed that the Arctic sea ice has reached the second lowest summer-time level ever recorded. Temperatures are expected to continue rising faster in the Arctic than elsewhere on the globe because as the ice melts there is more dark-colored land exposed that will soak up more of the sun's rays. This has led some scientists to predict that the Arctic will experience ice-free summers by 2030 and possibly even as soon as 2012.
  2. In Northern Greenland, a massive piece of the Petermann glacier, the Northern Hemisphere's longest-floating glacier, broke off (pictures of the break are available here). Major cracks also appeared in the glacier, leading Professor Jason Box of the Byrd Polar Research Center at Ohio State University, who discovered the cracks, to predict that a further 60 square miles of glacier could be lost in the near future.
  3. Hurricane (later Tropical Storm) Fay made landfall four times in Florida, dumping a whopping 26 inches of rainfall on the state. As of Sunday, flood waters were still rising in many parts of Florida, leaving alligators, snakes, and fish swimming in urban areas and people's backyards. 200,000 people lost power and the storm is estimated to have cost more than $12 million. Although tropical storms and hurricanes have always been a part of Florida's weather, the number and intensity of tropical storms in the North Atlantic has increased markedly over the last century, along with sea surface temperatures in the region. Scientists consider it likely that the climate crisis is making extreme weather events more intense and wetter, and possibly more frequent.

But last week also brought news of several major actions being taken by state governments, businesses, and others to combat the climate crisis and prevent future disasters:

  • Two California businesses announced they would build the world's largest solar power arrays, 10 times bigger than any now in existence, to meet a state requirement that utilities generate at least 20 percent of their electrity from clean energy sources like solar, wind, and geothermal power.
  • Google announced a major investment in geothermal power, which taps the Earth's natural heat to produce electricity.
  • Washington, DC announced new green building requirements.
  • Colorado announced that its wind generation capacity has quadrupled in the last 18 months, also in response to a state clean energy requirement (23 other states have similar requirements).

While it is encouraging to see so many state and local governments as well as private entrepeneurs proving that solutions to global warming are ready to go, there are plenty of opportunistic politicians out there calling for more drilling.

President Bush, John McCain, and Congressional Republicans continue their attempts to open America's coasts to oil drilling, and even Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama has softened his opposition to drilling the outer continental shelf. As we've documented before, however, more drilling is neither a viable solution to high gas prices nor a path to energy independence. Not to mention more drilling increases the risk of large oil spills, and drilling for more oil will worsen the climate crisis by burning more fossil fuels and slowing the transition to a clean energy economy.

Global warming is far too big a  crisis for us to tackle individually; we need federal legislation to enforce real solutions across the board. That's why it's especially critical that supporters of real global warming solutions make their voices heard. We need real solutions, such as higher fuel efficiency standards and more investment in renewable energy sources like wind and solar, not political posturing.