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    Tuesday, January 27, 2009

    Obama and E&Co


    Even setting aside the five or six major international conflicts, the global economic meltdown, Gitmo, a flailing education system and the inevitability of retiring baby boomers, the newly-elected U.S. President is going to face the challenge of a lifetime: climate change.

    According to a slew of newly released reports, polls and data, here is what the climate has in store for President Obama:

    The New York Times recently reported that warming temperatures are doubling death rates in old growth forests in the Western U.S. Longer, hotter summers coupled with increased water scarcity is putting old trees under new stress.

    Dying forests, however, are not alone in the deadly spotlight. Antartica, once considered immune to climate change, is also heating up, according to a new study published in Nature. Scientists who co-authored the paper and are associated with the Real Climate blog say:

    The paper shows that Antarctica has been warming for the last 50 years, and that it has been warming especially in West Antarctica (see the figure). The results are based on a statistical blending of satellite data and temperature data from weather stations. The results don't depend on the statistics alone. They are backed up by independent data from automatic weather stations, as shown in our paper as well as in updated work by Bromwich, Monaghan and others (see their AGU abstract, here), whose earlier work in JGR was taken as contradicting ours.

    Meanwhile, other news outlets are reporting this week that sea levels will rise to that of the last ice age; 2008 was one of the worst years for natural disasters; and dramatic expansion of ocean dead zones should be expected if climate change goes unchecked.

    So, what's to be done about all of this? The World Watch Institute just published a report that claims we must reduce global carbon dioxide emissions to zero by 2050 to avoid widespread environmental catastrophe. (President Obama's plan only calls for an 80% reduction in emissions by 2050 and pushing that through will require amazing political force.) Cutting greenhouse gas emissions means changing energy consumption in the U.S., and serving as a role model for the rest of the world, especially as we countdown to COP-15. It also means assisting in the creation of new growth models for developing countries using cleaner energy sources.

    But, will President Obama find enough public support to make the difficult changes needed to avoid the worst case scenario? Maybe, maybe not. While scientists are busy generating more evidence of the dire nature of well, nature, the Pew Research Center released a poll that shows Americans are less concerned about environmental issues than they were a year ago. The economy, education, health care, terrorism, social security, energy and crime all rank higher in order of concern than climate change. So, unless the President can issue an executive order mandating that we all care about climate, reducing emissions looks like it is going to be an uphill battle.

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