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Go Back: Home > Earth Island Journal > Issues > Spring 2014 > Temperature Gauge

Temperature Gauge

Notes from a Warming World

graphic of a earth-globe with a thermometer rising from it

Head in the Sand

Talking – make that voting – sensibly about climate change isn’t a forte of our Republican lawmakers. So it should come as no surprise that a group of Republicans recently voted down an amendment that would have acknowledged that climate change is real.

The bill, the Electricity Security and Affordability Act, was already an anti-environment train wreck. It proposed to put an end to EPA regulations on new power plants’ emissions until technologies like carbon capture and storage are proven to be commercially viable. As the bill was being heard in the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Democrat Jan Schakowsky of Illinois tried a little parliamentary jujitsu and proposed an amendment stating that climate change is being caused by human-driven greenhouse gas pollution. The measure was defeated by a 24-20 vote, with every GOP representative voting against it.

This isn’t the first time House Republicans have rejected the reality of global warming. In 2011, they voted down amendments that called on Congress to accept that climate change is real, man-made, and a human health threat.

Going the Wrong Way

Unfortunately, the Republicans’ willful know-nothingness isn’t going to stop power plants from exhaling CO2. In fact, the US witnessed a 2 percent increase in energy-related carbon dioxide emissions in 2013. The Energy Information Administration blames the jump on more coal burning for energy. Coal accounted for around 39 percent of the electricity in the country in October 2013, up from 37 percent in 2012. While the US’ carbon emissions are still well below a 2007 high, last year saw the highest levels since 2010. And while President Obama might have said in his State of the Union speech the US has reduced its carbon pollution “more than any nation on Earth,” he was stretching the truth. Obama’s calculation failed to account for the relative size of countries. When you look at the scale of the cuts proportionate to the size of a nation’s economy – a more equal comparison – the US hasn’t achieve the kind of steep cuts that other industrialized countries such as Germany, the United Kingdom, and Belgium have.

March of the Mangroves

Meanwhile, the impact of changing weather patterns continues to manifest across the country. Mangroves are expanding dramatically along Florida’s Atlantic Coast as the frequency of killing frosts, which usually keep them in control, has dropped.

photo of mangrove rootsphoto flickr user vanherdehaageMangroves are displacing saltwater marshes in Florida as freezes become rarer.

Between 1984 and 2011, the Florida coast from the Miami area northward gained more than 3,000 acres of mangrove forests, edging out salt marshes.

“Some people may say this is a good thing, because of the tremendous threats that mangroves face,” says Kyle Cavanaugh, a Smithsonian researcher and lead study author. “But this is not taking place in a vacuum. The mangroves are replacing salt marshes, which have important ecosystem functions and food webs of their own.”

Mangrove forests and salt marshes fill the same ecological niche in shallow coastal waters, both providing valuable services such as flood buffering, storing atmospheric carbon, and building soils. But mangroves are more prevalent in the tropics and salt marshes prefer temperate zones. The study illustrates how climate change can alter ecosystems, though it’s not clear what the long-term consequences will be.

Land Blubber

We might not know much about the long-term impact of a warming world on the Florida coast, but it’s another matter up in the Arctic. New research shows polar bears are shifting to a diet of more land-based food – including snow geese, eggs, and caribou – because melting sea ice makes it hard for them to hunt for their preferred prey of seals and other marine mammals. While this suggests that polar bears may be slightly more adaptable in the face of climate change than previously thought, researchers say it’s unlikely to save them from climate change and disappearing sea ice. All it does is buy them some more time.

   

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