Establishing a real baseline

The President’s Hoot
by Richard H. Baker, Ph.D.
April 2011

We all use a different baseline when we compare what we remember when we first came to Florida or when grew up in Florida to the present day conditions.  It is even more difficult for us to compare or perceive what changes are going on worldwide?  Thus each generation differently perceives falling water tables, shrinking harvests, increasing high temperatures, water quality decline, eroding soils, expanded deserts, melting ice, and food scarcity especially when they have not even experienced it yet.  Some hardly notice, believe, or care that:

  • There are less and less fish to be caught,
  • The climate is changing from a different baseline,
  • There are no clouds on top of mountains in Costa Rica,
  • Ice is disappearing and methane is being released in the Arctic and Greenland.  
Snowy Egret by Bob Montanaro.

Last month, the Florida Institute of Technology (FIT) in Melbourne held a two-day forum entitled “Sustainability 2011: Is it worth it?” Dr. Mark Bush, from FIT’s Department of Biology, spoke on the shifting baselines and our changing perception of what is natural or ‘normal’.  Each generation does not detect that our natural systems are being degraded, especially in Florida where many of our inhabitants come to retire for a rather short period in the last years of their lives so they have a different perception of what is “natural. ”  Our expectations now have changed.  He showed vanity photos of gigantic sport fish caught in 1925 compared to now. The species, size, and number of fish have greatly changed.  Even our fishing methods have changed.  Early fishing was done by just dropping a line into the water and waiting for the fish to come to the bait.  Now we spend lots of energy going to a fishing spot and then trolling to find the fish using sonar, GPS, and other high tech equipment to track down the fish. They don’t have a chance! Similarly, in a different part of the country, huge 4-foot diameter chestnut forests were found in the Appalachian Mountains, but now these large hardwood trees are gone.  We do not know of them unless we go back and look at old photographs.

Keynote speaker, Dr. Eduard Muller (Vice-Chair, World Commission on Protected Areas) was the most pessimistic as he spoke about the unexpected recent rapid increased affects of Climate Change.  As a child growing up in Costa Rica, Dr. Muller had never seen the tops of the cloud forest mountains because clouds were always present.  Now he seldom sees any clouds on top of the same mountains. In addition, the flora and fauna in the cloud forests are changing, confirming for him the reality of global warming.

Dr. Muller impressed me by showing a photo where a scientist with a small cigarette lighter lit a large plume of methane (CH4) coming from beneath the permafrost ice as it was melting and receding. Methane is over 20 times more effective in trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide (CO2) over a 100-year period. Methane is emitted from a variety of natural and human-influenced sources, which include landfills, natural gas and petroleum systems, as well as cattle breeding, coal mining, stationary and mobile combustion, wastewater treatment, and certain industrial process.

Methane is also naturally produced by bacteria in the permafrost under the Greenland and Arctic ice, which is causing a “snowball effect” that as the world warms more ice melts.  The ice used to reflect the heat from the sun, but now the much darker ground water and peat soils absorbs more of the sun’s heat. As the world warms, it releases more and more trapped methane gas from the permafrost, which makes global warming accelerate even more.

Dr. Muller said by 2050 everyone will believe in climate change. If we don’t act quickly we will be past the point of no return, that is, if we haven’t passed it already.  Lester Brown from Earth Policy Institute (World on the Edge, 2011) suggest it could be as soon as 2020 and that it is our generation not our children’s who will have to deal with it. Other scientists, based on a December, 2007 report by McKinsey & Company and The Conference Board (Reducing U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions: How Much at What Cost), put the point of no return as soon as 2015 – just four short years ahead.

Thus, if we care about human survival and all life on this planet, we all need to immediately work together to achieve global sustainability. Since we are the most powerful nation — with the most wealth, the ability to lead, and causing the most pollution because we consume the most energy and other resources — we have a responsibility to do the most and start right now, not delay action anymore.

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