Revolution #255, January 8, 2012

The Danger of Global Climate Change

Why is global warming—and more generally, global climate change—such an urgent threat to life on this planet?

The climate on Earth varies naturally according to many factors. But today, climate change is happening much more quickly than most natural variation or past climate changes in Earth's history—and this is primarily the result of human activity. It is mainly caused by the warming of the planet from the buildup of greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane, water vapor and others). This buildup began over the last 200 years with capitalist production and is now accelerating as a result of burning of fossil fuels (coal, oil, and gas), as well as deforestation, and other causes.

Rainforests not only contain the greatest diversity of species, they also take large amounts of carbon dioxide, which is causing global warming, out of the air. In turn rainforests give off vast amounts of oxygen that organisms need to breathe. Rainforests have been called "the lungs of the planet." Cutting and burning rainforests releases tremendous amounts of more carbon into the atmosphere, further increasing the planet's warming. But about one-fifth of the Amazon, the largest remaining expanse of rainforest on the planet, has been completely destroyed and more than 20% more has been damaged by logging.

The global warming from the massive destruction of rainforests and burning of fossil fuels is already greatly impacting the planet. Polar ice and glaciers are melting at an accelerating rate. Whole island nations and coastlines where hundreds of millions of people live could be threatened in coming decades by rising oceans from melting glaciers and ice sheets. The average temperature of the planet as a whole is rising, with some regions impacted more than others from this warming. But global warming/climate change is having the most devastating impact on human society and lives in Third World countries because of oppressive economic and social relations. 2010 tied for the warmest year ever recorded, and the last decade was the warmest ever recorded since records began in the 1800s. There is evidence that climate extremes—more devastating floods in some regions, severe droughts in others, heat waves and more powerful hurricanes in certain regions—are already occurring and global climate models predict these things will become much worse as the planet continues to warm.

Climate is a key factor affecting ecosystems, including whether a particular plant or animal species can live in a particular place. As the planet warms, many species are moving toward the poles and to higher elevations where they can survive. In the polar regions, species have nowhere colder to go. In "normal" periods, climate usually changes over thousands and even millions of years—and species can adapt. But now, Anthony Barnosky, UC Berkeley professor of integrative biology, says human-caused climate change "is racing faster than it ever has during the evolution of living species and ecosystems—many species simply aren't biologically capable of adjusting their geographic range at the speed they would need to in order to survive."

And on top of this, when many species respond by changing their range, they run smack into cities and development where they can't survive and can't travel through. The natural ranges of species have been fragmented and even eradicated by urban development, sprawl, and other destruction of natural habitat. Often, there is no more habitat to even migrate to. Climate change combined with habitat destruction means a double whammy threatening not just species but whole ecosystems. Barnosky says, "As a result, whole communities and ecosystems may fail to operate as they have evolved to do over thousands, even millions, of years."

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