Action needed to stem climate change (Brattleboro Reformer)

Editorial

The drought in Atlanta and the southeastern United States is serious. Depending on the estimate, Atlanta may run out of drinking water within three months.

But it's not just Atlanta that's running out of water. Southern California is in a deep drought, as demonstrated by the rash of wildfires we saw last month. Greece saw the same thing this year, as did the Balkans.

Australia is in the midst of the worst drought in a century. Around the globe, we're seeing parched conditions.

According to the National Climate Data Center, 43 percent of the United States is experiencing "moderate to extreme" drought conditions. So far, 2007 has been the warmest year on record.

Vermont, thankfully, is not in that category. But the rainy winter we had at the start of the year was followed by a dry summer and fall. The extremes balanced themselves out for us, but if we have a prolonged stretch of dry weather, we could find ourselves in as much trouble as California or Atlanta.

But with all of the talk about drought, we have not heard one important question asked. There are 5 million people living in metropolitan Atlanta. Another 2 million are expected to be living there by 2030. What happens if the city does run out of water?

Southern California was built with other people's water. The diversion of the Colorado River makes it possible for millions to live it what is, for all practical purposes, a desert. What happens if they, too, run out of water?

Climatologists say that much of the world is seeing less usable water now than it had two or three decades ago. Many of those regions are places that have seen rapid population growth. If whole regions of the United States no longer have enough water to support their populations, what happens then?

Is this nation prepared for failing crops and farms, massive wildfires and mass migrations on the scale of the "Dust Bowl" years in the 1930s? For resource wars? For a map redrawn as vast swaths of what were the fastest growing regions in America are no longer livable?

This is the worst case scenario, but it is something that becomes more and more likely to happen with climate change.

Over the weekend, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a major report. It was a synthesis of three previous IPCC reports that have been released over the past year, but the language it contains is far more specific and forceful than before.

The final IPCC report calls climate change "unequivocal." It says that humankind's emissions of greenhouse gases are more than 90 percent likely to be the main cause, and that the impact can be reduced at a cost more reasonable than dealing with the effects of doing nothing.

Quite simply, if nothing is done, a third of the world's species will become extinct. Crop harvests will drop dramatically. Up to 250 million people will experience water scarcity. The Arctic ice shelf will nearly disappear. The Amazon rainforest will become a dry savannah. The seas, which have been absorbing excess carbon dioxide, will grow more acidic, killing off oceanic life. Even worse, changes that had been projected to happen by 2020 or 2030 are happening now.

In short, the world may have only about a decade to make serious changes to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and prevent the worst of the IPCC scenarios from coming true.

The ongoing droughts in California and the southeastern United States could be the precursors to what might be harrowing times for our ecosystem. What happens when our once fertile lands turn to dust and the faucets in the homes of Los Angeles and Atlanta run dry? What happens when sea levels rise and coastal cities are flooded? What happens when we longer can count on the oceans to feed a hungry world?

We can't sit in Vermont and smugly watch the rest of the nation burn or flood. Our two signature products -- maple trees and snow -- are slowly disappearing. Agriculture patterns are changing, and new pests -- from West Nile-infected mosquitoes to the hemlock woolly adelgid -- are invading the state. Brook trout are disappearing from Vermont's streams.

What are Vermonters going to do when maple sugaring becomes a thing of the past and winters bring more rain than snow? What are we going to do when summers get longer and hotter and foliage season grows shorter and less vibrant?

Climate change is real and happening now. It can't be dismissed or wished away. And we may have already reached the point where immediate action can only forestall the worst from happening.

This is the challenge for every nation in the world. We must either start changing the way we live now or deal with the consequences of a radically changed climate where edible food and potable water will be at a premium and resource wars become the norm.