Massachusetts Senator John Kerry was the 2004 Democratic presidential candidate and former running mate to John Edwards. He and his wife Teresa Heinz Kerry are co-authors of a new book, “This Moment on Earth: Today’s New Environmentalists and Their Vision for the Future.” Senator Kerry and Teresa Heinz Kerry were invited on TODAY to discuss their book. Read an excerpt:
Today, in fact, nearly every researcher professionally engaged in the study of climate change, from across the political and ideological spectrum, agrees that the increased concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere caused by human activity is responsible for the current warming trend. At a climate change symposium hosted by the New York Botanical Gardens in September 2006, one scientist described the feeling among climate scientists in these plain terms: “The more one reads and understands the proven science about global warming, the more terrified one becomes.”
Another leading scientist, Dr. John Holdren, has been studying the causes and consequences of global environmental changes for more than thirty-five years. He is currently the director of the Woods Hole Research Center and a professor at Harvard University in both the Kennedy School of Government and the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences. In 1995, as Chair of the Executive Committee, heaccepted a Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of the Pugwash Conferences.Sitting in his office at Harvard recently, he explained that skepticism about this issue has largely abated in recent years. “To be credible,” he said, “the skeptics about human causation of current global climate change would need both to explain what alternative mechanism could account for the pattern of changes that is being observed, and explain how it could be that the known, human-caused buildup in greenhouse gases is not having the effects predicted for it by the sum of current climate-science knowledge (since, by the skeptics’ assumption, something else is having these effects). No skeptic has met either test.”
In fact, even the Environmental Protection Agency under the Bush administration has endorsed this conclusion. In May 2002, the EPA published a report stating, “There is general agreement that the observed warming is real and has been particularly strong within the past 20 years . . . due mostly to human activity.” That sentiment was again reiterated in a statement issued in June 2006 by eleven national academies of science, including that of the United States. Their joint statement said that “the scientific understanding of climate change is now sufficiently clear to justify taking prompt action.” Similar conclusions have been expressed by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the American Meteorological Society, the American Geophysical Union, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, among others.
It seems that new scientific evidence about the urgent threat of climate change is being released on nearly a daily basis. But it is not just scientists who are learning more about the problem. Al Gore’s book and documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, masterfully explained the global warming threat to a wider audience, exposing millions of people to the harsh realities of this challenge. For people the world over, the scientists’ theories should come as no surprise: One doesn’t have to read the reports or even study the science to understand the dangerous effects of climate change, because the effects are already upon us. In many places, it’s simply enough to walk outdoors and look around.
According to the National Climatic Data Center, average temperatures in the U.S. in 2006 were 2.2 degrees Fahrenheit above the twentieth-century mean. In 2006, the hottest year ever recorded in the contiguous United States, a summer heat wave blanketed large swaths of the country. In California, more than 130 people died as a result of the heat. Chicago officials were forced to evacuate hundreds of families from buildings in the city’s South Side that had lost power as temperatures climbed into the 90s for a fifth straight day. As the Northeast braced for temperatures to soar above 100 degrees, the lights atop the Empire State Building and the East River Bridges in New York City were switched off to save power. The city, fearing an overload of the energy grid, was trying to prevent a potential blackout as millions of New Yorkers sought refuge from the heat by cranking up their air conditioning.
Winters are also getting warmer. Ice on lakes is freezing later and melting earlier in the season. During a few recent winters, New England’s Lake Champlain — renowned for its ice fishing — did not freeze at all. And, of course, this warming knows no borders. The summer of 2003 in Europe was the hottest on record, and probably the hottest there in at least 500 years. A brutal heat wave in the first half of August, in which temperatures reached a record 100.2 degrees Fahrenheit in England and 104 degrees in France, claimed an estimated 35,000 lives.
Far-reaching consequencesAs unsettling as it is to have to endure increased summer temperatures and prolonged heat waves, the consequences of climate change are potentially far graver. As Dr. Holdren explains, “Climate is the ‘envelope’ within which all other environmental conditions and processes operate,” including precipitation, humidity, winds, ocean currents, sea level, and all of the biological and even economic processes affected by these. Distortions of this envelope can have potentially deadly and destructive ramifications and a significant impact on life on Earth, determining what we can grow where, where humans can live, the geography of disease, the distribution of species and pests, and so many other factors.
Drier conditions and reduced precipitation, if severe, can mean widespread drought and problems with growing crops. Our 1999–2002 national drought was one of the three most extensive of the past forty years and had sweeping and complex impacts on agriculture, forestry, water supply, tourism, and recreation. From coast to coast, streams and wells dried up, and river levels fell dramatically. People were told not to water their lawns, and public fountains in many urban centers were dry and dusty. The most dire result, however, was the resulting wildfires.Just ask Toby Richards, a fire-management officer for Gila National Forest in New Mexico. In an October 2006 interview with Grist, an environmental news Web site, he told a reporter about a fire that had ignited in mid-winter above 9,000 feet. “We went up to a lookout and watched this fire burning in an area that was normally under six feet of snow,” he said. “Every once in a while you will get a lightning strike up that high that burns a tree or two in the winter, but this fire grew to a hundred acres.” Stories like this confirm what the science has been telling us about the fire season in the West — the season is lasting longer, it’s less predictable, and the fires are larger.
According to scientists at California’s Scripps Institution, drier conditions, caused in part by earlier snow runoff, are correlated to an increase in violent wildfires throughout the western region. Thomas Swetnam, a scientist who took part in the Scripps study, said in a statement, “I see this as one of the first big indicators of climate change impacts in the continental United States.” He added: “Lots of people think climate change and the ecological responses are 50 to 100 years away. But it’s not 50 to 100 years away — it’s happening now in forest ecosystems through fire.”
We are also experiencing more extreme weather events due to shifts in the climate system. In certain regions of the United States, extreme precipitation events, defined as rainstorms that produce more than 2 inches of rain in 48 hours, have been more frequent than in the past. For example, in New York City between 1950 and 1970, there was on average only one of these events each year. But they now occur an average of five times a year. Many coastal regions of the northeastern United States are experiencing twice as many extreme precipitation events today as in the 1950s. These heavy rainstorms create flooding, affect agriculture, and pose a critical challenge to the management of municipal storm runoff. And as we learned from the recent tragedy in New Orleans, hurricanes are becoming more intense, as warmer sea water contributes to more powerful storms. The number of Category 4 and 5 hurricanes globally has nearly doubled since the 1970s.
The Senators from North Dakota, Byron Dorgan and Kent Conrad, can speak directly to the local impacts of changing climate. Farmers and ranchers in their home state have seen a dramatic cycle of natural disasters, including floods and frost in 2005 and severe drought in 2006. Millions of acres of cropland were either prevented from being planted or lost to the floods and heat. Drought also devastated livestock production in south central North Dakota. Is this a sign of what’s to come?
Excerpted from “This Moment on Earth” by John Kerry and Teresa Heinz Kerry. Copyright 2007 John Kerry and Teresa Heinz Kerry. Reprinted with the permission from the publisher,