From the top of the world come troubling new reports this week over the widening impact of climate change. Vast reaches of Arctic sea ice are gone for good, along with huge glacial caps in Greenland.
"It is a stunning illustration of global warming, the cause of the melt. It also contains grave warnings of its dangers. The world would be mad to ignore them."
The admonition of some environmental group? Hardly. Those lines are taken from the lead editorial in this week's edition of The Economist magazine, one of the most influential publications in the English language, selling nearly 1.5 million copies worldwide each week.
As leaders from more than 130 countries gather this week in Rio de Janeiro to grapple with climate woes and other environmental challenges at the United Nations Earth Summit, the London-based Economist published a 14-page cover story entitled "The Vanishing North." The article lays out the extent of the big melt -- a third of the Arctic sea ice has vanished over the past three decades -- and the stakes for the future of the Earth.
"Perhaps not since the 19th-century clearance of America's forests has the world seen such a spectacular environmental change," the editorial continues. "The impact of the melting Arctic may have a calamitous effect on the planet." This isn't the opinion of a single writer; it's the collective voice of the editors, summarizing the magazine's news report on the subject.
"There is no serious doubt about the basic cause of the warming," the report concludes. "It is, in the Arctic as everywhere, the result of an increase in heat-trapping atmospheric gases, mainly carbon dioxide released when fossil fuels are burned."
You can see a brief video version of the story here.
Published in London since 1843, The Economist is no liberal broadside. If there's journalism devoted to the global 1 percent, The Economist embodies it, devoting several pages each week to economic and financial indicators and statistics on various global stock markets. A staunch defender of democracy and individual freedom, the magazine takes a generally conservative view of the world, declaring its goal to be spearheading "a severe contest between intelligence, which presses forward, and an unworthy, timid ignorance obstructing our progress."
In this country, we’ve seen progress on climate change obstructed again and again, not by timidity but by the fossil fuel industry and its huge and well-funded network of friendly lobbyists, conservative think tanks, and members of Congress. Together, they have turned the science of climate change into a political football, treating it as some untested notion to be kicked from one end of the field to the other, with the hard facts of global warming often taking a back seat to politics.
Just last year, the Republican-led House voted to strip the Environmental Protection Agency of its authority to regulate industrial carbon emissions. Never mind that the agency’s authority to do so was affirmed in a 5-4 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2007. A proposed amendment to the House bill -- the measure stalled in the Senate -- asked a simple question: do we agree with the EPA’s findings that climate change is real, puts public health at risk and is caused largely by human activities? The answer, largely along party lines, was “no,” in a 240-184 vote. Only one Republican -- Rep. Dave Reichert, R-WA. -- agreed with the statement; 237 of his GOP colleagues rejected it, as did three House Democrats.
By contrast, it's easier to understand the reasoned line of discovery behind the clear-headed reporting in The Economist, chiefly because it comports with the overwhelming body of scientific proof that the planet is warming.
In May, for example, average global land surface temperatures were 2.18 degrees above the historical average. It was the hottest May since record-keeping began 132 years ago, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Last year was the 35th year in a row that annual global temperatures exceeded the 20th-Century average. The 11 years since 2001 all rank among the 13 hottest years since 1880. In the United States, we've just finished the hottest spring on record. Temperatures during March, April, and May averaged 57.1 degrees across the country. That's 5.2 degrees above the long-term average. Forty-two states saw spring temperatures ranking among their ten hottest. The past year has been the hottest on record for the contiguous United States. From June 2011 to May 2012, temperatures across the lower 48 states averaged 56 degrees, up 3.2 degrees over the historical average.
Meanwhile, wildfires charred 210,000 acres across New Mexico, as drought set the table for the largest fire in the state's history. And the rise of Alberto and Beryl marked only the third time in history that two tropical storms have formed before the advent of the summer hurricane season.
But global warming is having an especially severe impact on the Arctic ice cap. Last summer, a slab of ice three times the size of Manhattan sheared off of Greenland and drifted out to sea. We’ve lost -- permanently -- enough sea ice alone to cover the entire eastern third of the United States, from the Mississippi River to the Atlantic Ocean. How do we know? Because the United States Air Force flies a satellite over the ice cap every 102 minutes. It sends back images of the ice 14 times a day as part of the Pentagon's Defense Meteorological Satellite Program, which our military relies upon to plan global operations.
The pictures don't lie. The sea ice is disappearing. As it does, ice that once reflected much of the sun's heat away from the Arctic is replaced by open water, which absorbs the heat, increasing the warming that melts more ice, accelerating the cycle.
Anyone really want to debate the shrinking of the Arctic ice cap? Take it up with the global shipping, oil, gas and mineral corporations that are already planning ways to profit at the top of the world.
And the release of the carbon pollution that drives climate change is increasing, resulting in even further change and risk, the National Academies of Science concluded in a 2011 report entitled America's Climate Choices, adding that "Responding to those risks is a crucial challenge facing the United States and the world today and for many decades to come."
It's worth noting that Congress chartered the National Academies of Science in 1863 to "investigate, examine, experiment, and report on any subject of science or art," so that U.S. policy makers could base their decisions on a sound analysis of the facts. This is our scientific brain trust, the place we go when we need to understand the bedrock truth about what is happening in our physical world. The Academies' climate assessment is the product of hundreds of peer-reviewed reports and exhaustive studies by scientists who are specialists in the most pertinent fields of climate work. The 2011 report was put together under the supervision of 22 senior scholars in their fields, from institutions such as Duke, Michigan State, Georgia Tech, Stanford, Princeton, and MIT.
If our policy makers know something about climate that our scientists haven't figured out, they have an obligation to share that knowledge with the rest of us. Otherwise, the country is best served by leaders who know the difference between scientific consensus and playing politics with our future.
And as The Economist demonstrates, we're also best served by journalists who know the difference, as well.