Climate change homework

Polar bears are no longer able to close the gap between disappearing ice sheets and are drowning.

Polar bears are no longer able to close the gap between disappearing ice sheets and are drowning.

Another generation of young earthlings goes back to school next week or the week after. Only a few days are left of the long carefree summer holidays.

It is also now only a few months before the world faces its 'last chance' to agree on effective strategies to buffer disruptive climate change. In the build-up to December's climate talks in Copenhagen there is a meeting scheduled every month. The climate change we cause today will be largely irreversible for 1,000 years after emissions stop.

Most countries are working on the assumption that we can overshoot the desired targets, then watch them settle back later. But wherever temperatures peak, that is more or less where they will stay. There is no going back.

The amount of fossil fuel we will burn in the next 40 years would have to last us 500 years if we are to keep the global temperature from teetering beyond a devastating two degree Celsius increase.

Catastrophic climate change threatens to wipe out a quarter of the world's species, and displace over a billion people within our children's lifetime.

With glaciers melting away at an accelerated rate visible to the naked eye, prospects are not looking good. Greenland's frozen rivers are sliding into the sea at a speed of 38 metres a day. Models consistently show that once ice levels drop below a critical point it is very difficult for them to recover, and far easier for them to continue losing mass.

That famous picture of a drowning polar bear, which upset so many children, and grown-ups, was attacked by the few who still denied that meltdown of Arctic ice could possibly be blamed on human intervention. Critics, dismissed by most scientists as internet rabble, claimed the "clever use of images to manipulate facts".

Fuelling conspiracy theories, they came up with quotes from Sea World, insisting that polar bears are excellent swimmers: "They can swim for several hours at a time over long distances and have been tracked swimming continuously for 100 kilometres."

True, but sadly the bears are no longer able to close the gap between disappearing ice sheets. The drowning of four polar bears was recorded in an area where sea ice had receded 160 miles.

Evidence that methane is escaping from the warming Arctic seabed makes emissions cuts even more urgent. Methane is 20 times more powerful a greenhouse gas than CO2. Experts warn that once its release has begun, the result will be runaway climate change. Apart from natural sources, methane is also a by-product of cow farming.

Nitrous oxide, another greenhouse gas, is sometimes used as a spray propellant for whipped cream... something to think about when you next tuck into that steak or desert.

A study of the effects climate change will have on crops has shown that, as temperatures climb, crop yield will actually increase. Rising carbon dioxide concentrations will likely provide a boost to crop yields, at least in the short-term, as it will increase photosynthesis.

The bad news is that there is a switching-off point. When the temperature reaches 32°C , soya yields begin to decline. For corn, it happens at 29°C.

Areas of high rainfall would escape the full impact of higher temperatures, but only to a very limited extent. Adapting to different planting and harvest times or locations is a strategy that may have to be explored.

The US Department of Commerce has set up a national oceanic and atmospheric administration with a brief to help society understand, plan for, and respond to climate change. Jane Lubchenco, who was critical of the Bush administration's lack of respect for climate science and its inaction on greenhouse-gas emissions, was appointed head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration by President Obama last December.

Greenpeace claims to have seen a leaked internal memo from the American Petroleum Institute revealing a secret oil industry plan to organise 'astroturf', fake green rallies against US climate legislation.

The polar ice caps are the world's refrigerator, helping to keep us cool as they reflect the sun's heat back into space. It will take more than changing our light bulbs to save the planet.

Part of the solution may include developing technologies, still limited to the laboratory, that may be launched into the atmosphere to reflect heat. Yet geo-engineering is viewed as a dangerous diversion from the priority of reducing global carbon dioxide emissions.

The risk that the end-of-year climate talks could flop is real. Greenpeace predicts that quick-fix solutions will be seized upon by polluters with little or no intention of cleaning up their act. One heartening thing is that the recession appears to be good for climate change.

In Malta, we may expect sustained heatwaves. Higher evaporation and less frequent but heavy rainstorms will require a solid soil protection plan. The Maltese government's strategy to try to minimise climate change and its effects is to be discussed in Parliament this month. Public consultation over a parallel strategy to adapt to the effects of climate change is underway with a report due out next March.

But our days of innocence are gone. Responsibility starts here.

If you are still not convinced, watch the film The Age of Stupid.

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