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Why is climate change different?

By: Dr. Ricky Rood, 10:25 PM GMT on March 27, 2014

Why is climate change different?

This blog was motivated by a question on piece that I posted in the Michigan Journal of Sustainability, The Conversation: Climate Change: A Fundamental Shift of Our Place in the World.

Climate change means that the average surface temperature of planet will warm, that ice will melt, that sea level will rise and that the weather will change. Climate change is a unique environmental challenge. One aspect of its uniqueness is that we have knowledge with adequate certainty that we can anticipate and plan for climate change. This type of knowledge of the climate of the Earth is knowledge that the generations that preceded us have not had. It is knowledge that we can use or that we can squander.

1) As I stated in Climate Change: A Fundamental Shift of Our Place in the World, the science-based reality of climate changes stands as a fundamental breakthrough of human knowledge. We have the ability to transform the very nature of the planet – and we are doing so. Our individual and group perception of our place in the world is changed. We have to assume the responsibility of what we are doing to the planet. There is the responsibility of how we use the knowledge that we have generated of the ways the planet will change.

2) There is no going back. We should strive to make the best future possible. Ecosystems are changing rapidly, and they will continue to change. Our agriculture will need to adapt. When there are ecosystem disruptions such as fires and storms, the recovery will be in a different climate. The familiar idea of conservation to protect and conserve is challenged at its foundation. How we build the things that we build will need to change. Returning to the climate that we grew up with is not possible.

3) Compared to the classic problems of air and water pollution, the scale of climate change is truly global. We’re melting ice (takes a lot of energy). We’re warming the ocean (takes a lot of energy). We’re heating the surface air temperature. We’re changing ecosystems.

4) Compared to the classic problems of air and water pollution, the length of time that the carbon dioxide pollutant remains with us is long. If we were to turn off the carbon dioxide pollution today, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would not just go away. If you turned off carbon dioxide pollution, then the Earth will continue to warm.

5) Carbon dioxide pollution is a measure of societal success. When we think of air and water pollution we think of a contaminant such as mercury that is trace element from burning coal - or a spill of something bad into the water. We immediately think we can remove the contaminant, turn off the spill or contain the bad chemicals. Carbon dioxide pollution is different, because our economic success comes from the use of energy and our use of energy remains linked to burning fossil fuels. Release of carbon dioxide is therefore a measure of societal success. Carbon dioxide is not a trace contaminant of a bigger process; carbon dioxide pollution is the process.

6) The impacts of climate change are greater for people in future generations. Because the length of time that carbon dioxide pollution remains with us is long and its spatial extent is global, we have a difficult time conceiving how to address the problem. What we do today to reduce pollution is often viewed as hurting us in the short term with the benefit being for those not yet born. This strikes against our collective sensibilities.

7) Climate change is not a problem that we can fix and then forget about. The success of our billions on the Earth requires us to alter our environment. With climate change our environment becomes global.

Therefore, our success requires us to alter our environment, to manage our pollution and, hence, to manage the climate. We are too many and too consuming to live the fantasy that the Earth is large enough that the spoor of our enterprise is safely absorbed by the ground, the air and the rivers, lakes and oceans. The more we pollute, the greater the change, the more difficult the adaptation.

We have never lived in a time when the future was without peril. The knowledge that the climate will change gives us an idea of what some of the peril will be. We have the ability to anticipate and adapt to that peril. We can lessen the peril. For all the generations we can imagine, the climate will be changing. Some would say that has always been true. Today we know how it will be changing.


Climate Impacts and Risks

The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.