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Confronting climate change

Sparrow awaiting spring at the Cloisters
Sparrow awaiting spring at the Cloisters

We birdwatchers have long been attuned to climate change. We don't confuse weather (measured over days, weeks, or months) with climate (measured over years). We know that even if NY has had a record number of snowfalls this winter and spring is creeping in at a petty pace, the average global temperature is rising. We're aware of the northward shift in migration patterns charted by ornithologists analyzing data from the annual Christmas Bird Count. We're familiar with habitat loss and declining populations.

The rest of the world can now catch up with us. At the end of March, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (ICCP) issued a sobering report on the state of the climate. The report warns that climate change is already happening and it's anthropogenic. That is, climate change is caused by human actions but in the near term, the die is cast. Nothing can stop the changes currently under way. Yet we do have a chance to make a difference in the long term. Since the rise in global temperatures is determined by the amount of greenhouse gases we produce, if we burn less fossil fuel now, we slow the rise in coming decades.

The projected climate change will have devastating effects. In fact, the ICCP report reads like a bureaucratic translation of one of the angrier biblical prophecies. Among the threats the world will face are rise in sea level, extreme weather, food insecurity, drought, species extinction, disruption of normal human activities, ill-health, and increased mortality.

It's melancholy to remember that in the 1970s, when environmental pollution and the spectre of oil wells running dry were much on Americans' minds, we had a good chance of addressing our dependence on fossil fuels. Instead, political and economic interests pushed for supersized energy consumption. It's too late now to regret that we didn't seriously pursue conservation, energy efficiency, and alternative energy sources then.

But this dire news is no excuse for resignation. The American Association for the Advancement of Science has just issued a report "What We Know: The Reality, Risks and Response to Climate Change," as part of its new program designed to foster dialogue about climate. A model of clarity, the report is an excellent primer for those who've avoided the subject as too remote and confusing. The AAAS report asserts that, American public opinion notwithstanding, climate scientists almost universally agree that we're in the midst of global warming. And we run the risk of abrupt, irreversible, and unpredictable changes in the future, so the sooner we act the better.

The AAAS is asking us to become informed and engaged. We can do this.

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