Our climate is changing and the burning of fossil fuels is accelerating at a more rapid rate than ever envisioned, according to the Fourth Assessment Report that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released in early 2007. Many scientists had already suspected that this may be the case; now we have the physical evidence, which includes:
• accelerated melting of major glaciers;
• storm frequency and intensity, especially in hurricane season; and
• droughts and consequent impacts upon flora, fauna, watersheds and ecosystems (IPCC, 2007).
These are just some of the visible signs resulting from the slight rise (0.75°C) in the average temperature since the beginning of the industrial age (circa 1750). These measurable impacts of warming further confirm that the oceans are not - as many thought in past decades - a nearly limitless carbon 'sink'. In fact, the oceans are being affected directly by the acceleration of the global water cycle, as seen with sea-level rise, increased intensity of hurricanes and typhoons, and the bleaching of coral reefs (a sign of change in the oceans' own temperature).
The IPCC report is further verification that the Earth is warming - and most of that warming is directly linked to human activity, primarily the burning of fossil fuel. The combustion of these fuels creates greenhouse gases, which trap heat close to the Earth's surface, acting like a blanket, rather than letting it rise into space. Beyond this well-accepted linkage, further evidence that warming is accelerating, is illustrated by new measurements of glacier flow in Greenland and Antarctica (ACIA, 2004). These changes imply that impacts upon sea-level rise may be larger and occur sooner than earlier models suggest.
What is harder to predict is how modern society will respond to a rapidly warming planet. In fact, for much of modern history - from the rise of civilization in the Near East - the planet has been warming and the glacial relics of the most recent Ice Age have been in retreat. During the last 1000 years, civilization has made great strides and this progress has been more dependent upon climate stability than we appreciate.
People today tend to see history as a record of steady progress and technical innovation. More recent research, however, shows this assumption to be more myth than reality. New studies indicate that climate impacts upon our ancestors were not only dramatic, but often resulted in societal collapse (Diamond, 2005). Since we are only beginning to understand the reasons for these societies' collapse, we have only brief outlines of their cautionary tales to draw on. Moreover, the most highly industrialized civilizations have a record of adaptation and adjustment to inclement weather, droughts and even sea-level rise. Given this adaptability, the most advanced societies are only now becoming fully aware of the scale and magnitude of the challenges resulting from climate change. This chapter briefly examines how climate change may compromise social, economic and political stability.
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