In the spirit of Earth Day, the Northern Virginia Ethical Society discussed saving the world at their Sunday meeting at Green Hedges School.
Guest speaker Vicki Arroyo, director of policy analysis for the nonprofit, nonpartisan Pew Center on Global Climate Change, acknowledged that since the first Earth Day in 1970, "tremendous strides" have been made in the U.S. to stem man's ill effects on the environment. However, she said, there is still much more work to be done to even understand those effects, let alone offset them.
The challenge presented by climate change, said Arroyo, "is much more complex than a lot of the other geopolitical issues we face around the world."
It is, however, a fact, she said, citing a rise in the planet's average temperature of 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit in the last century. "And we anticipate another 2 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit of warming in the next century, and that might be even more exacerbated in the polar areas and even here in the United States," she said, adding that this rate of change is more rapid than Earth's usual shifts in climate, which are observable only in geological time.
Even some environmental efforts could raise temperatures, said Arroyo. She gave the example of sulfur dioxide, which may be masking some of the effects of greenhouse gases in the U.S. As efforts are made to reduce the levels of sulfur dioxide, which contributes to acid rain, among other problems, the result could also be additional warming, as the gas also acts as a coolant.
Although some might like the idea of milder winters, global warming can contribute to deadly heat waves and droughts, she warned. And ecosystems and wildlife are particularly vulnerable to climate change, especially when they are confined to increasingly narrow areas and are unable to migrate easily, she said.
THEN THERE is the matter of rising sea levels.
Even the Bush administration, which has been skeptical of strict environmental policies, predicts a rise of one to three feet in sea level over the next century, said Arroyo. She added that, given the increasing rate at which the ice caps are melting, the problem could be compounded over time. She pointed out that several "megacities," such as New York, Shanghai and Tokyo, and entire countries, such as Bangladesh, sit in dangerous proximity to sea level. "Think of 100 million people who are very vulnerable because they live within three feet of sea level, and what are we going to do with them?" she asked.
It is also possible, she said, that freshwater pouring into the ocean from melting glaciers could shut down or alter the circulation of the Gulf Stream, which warms Europe, to drastic and unpredictable effect.
"I know this is Earth Day and not Halloween, so I'll try not to just leave you with the scary stuff," she said, and went on to discuss the role government can play in curbing climate change.
She expressed disappointment in the lack of U.S. participation in the Kyoto Protocol, noting that many provisions were added to the treaty to appease American government and industry before the Clinton administration balked at enforcing the terms of the agreement and the Bush administration walked away from it entirely.
Cost is often a deterrent to change, she said, but inaction can be costly as well. Paying to undo damage later will cost more than preventing it now. Also, changes made to reduce emissions often lead to increased efficiency, she said. She also pointed out that, in the U.S., the question of affordability does not carry a lot of weight. "The U.S. is still the major emitter of greenhouse gases in the world. We're also the richest country in the world."
By comparison, China produces one-sixth the amount of greenhouse gases on a per-capita basis — and India one-twelfth — that the U.S. does.
THROUGH INNOVATION, she said, the country could put itself in the position to market environmentally friendly technology to the rest of the world.
Arroyo said any change in policy would be the result of public demand, which seems to be lacking, perhaps because the problem of climate change is less immediately visible than others. "We hear all the time when we go up to the Hill and start talking to congressmen that they don't hear from their constituents [about global warming]," she said, "That when they go to town hall meetings and reach out to their constituents they hear about schools, they hear about crime."
"This is especially important here in Virginia, where you have Sen. [John] Warner who's in a very good position — he could actually take the lead of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee." She mentioned that the committee has been led by Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), who has called climate change a hoax and brought novelist Michael Crichton to testify on the subject before Congress.
Arroyo called for safer nuclear energy, more effective methods for capturing and storing carbon dioxide from coal-powered plants, and the harvest of wind energy. She also wondered about the state of preparedness for rising temperatures and ocean levels. "Certainly, domestically, I don't see a lot of government planning for adapting to climate change," she said.
She also named some steps citizens could take toward minimizing their own greenhouse gas emissions, including buying cars with better gas mileage, riding the Metro or a bike, driving hybrid cars, switching to compact fluorescent light bulbs and planting trees. She recommended the Web site www.carboncounter.org for advice on minimizing and offsetting household carbon emissions.
"We need to do what we can," she said, "and I hope that will carry over not just on Earth Day, but on election day — most importantly — but also in our work day."
FOLLOWING ARROYO'S TALK, the audience was asked for comments and questions. Steve Goldstein observed that much of the talk about hybrid cars seems to revolve around how long one has to drive such a car before it pays off financially. "I have not seen one article or heard one announcement that talks about the eco-morality of the whole thing," he said.
"It's easy to bash Bush," said John Patrick, because his approach to global warming is one of adaptation as opposed to Clinton's approach of mitigation. However, he said, addressing the problem will "take a little bit of both."
Andy Stanton noted that the recent spike in gas prices has given many people reason to think about buying more fuel-efficient cars. He also asked Arroyo if global warming might have contributed to the intensity of Hurricane Katrina and other tropical storms that have ravaged the gulf coast in recent years.
The Pew Center does believe that there is a correlation between the intensity of tropical storms and the surface temperature of the ocean, she responded. "But you can't really link any one event to climate change," she said, adding that Katrina would have been an intense storm either way.
Betty-Chia Karro, who lives in D.C., said the talk made her aware of the vulnerability of her city, much of which is built on marshland. "I'm thinking, if the ocean's rising, my river's going to rise," she said, pointing out that she has enjoyed Sycamore Island, which rising waters could wipe out. "More than anything else, the symbolism of the capital overflowing is a very powerful symbol," she concluded.