In My Opinion

Fred Grimm: Our generation’s gift to grads is one big, global mess

 

fgrimm@MiamiHerald.com

My daughter's high school graduation present arrived last week, courtesy of the National Climate Assessment.

She and her contemporaries are getting the gift of a lifetime. That makes that a lifetime of dubious gifts from their elders: record heat waves, record droughts and record wildfires, interrupted by terrific bursts of heavy precipitation, with coastal and inland flooding. Not to mention festering diseases, insect infestations, weather-related disruptions in agriculture, transportation, tourism and other economic essentials.

The climate change assessment ( http://nca2014.globalchange.gov/) was particularly relevant for young South Floridians, promising that the ocean lapping at their beloved beaches will bring an “increase in harmful blooms of algae and several disease-causing agents in inland and coastal waters.”

But the most striking sendoff we're giving local kids will be those ever-rising seas. Hey, grads. Surf’s up. Way up. “Global sea level rose about eight inches in the last century and is projected to rise another 1-to-4 feet in this century.”

The report warns that more than $1 trillion of the nation's property and structures are "at risk of inundation" if sea levels rise as little as two feet. “Roughly half of the vulnerable property value is located in Florida.”

The assessment, assembled by some 300 climate scientists, warns that a 1- to 4-foot rise in sea level would threaten “roads, railways, ports, airports, oil and gas facilities.” Drainage canals won't drain. Sewers won’t empty. Saltwater intrusion would ruin agriculture, wreck the water supply, devastate the Everglades.

Happy graduation, kids. Have fun dealing with the flotsam of your elders' selfish disregard.

Such predictions might seem a bleak package to lay on high school seniors during graduation season, as they contemplate their sweltering futures. Not really. The report was sugarcoated.

“The National Climate Assessment is a consensus scientific document and, like the IPCC (the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) reports, necessarily overly conservative,” observed Professor Harold Wanless, chair of the Department of Geological Sciences at the University of Miami, noted for his research into anthropogenic effects on coastal environments.

Wanless told me by email that the assessment failed to consider “ice melt from Greenland or Antarctica — which is already happening and accelerating.” He said the assessment “low-balled their projections,” using 1-to-4 feet, rather than the the 4.1-to-6.6 feet rise suggested by the higher ice melt scenario.

Sorry, kids, but even that may be understated. Professor Wanless worries that our watery prospects may be even bleaker. “Importantly, even the 6.6-feet scenario may be seriously low because the models used to project do not include many of the accelerating feedbacks.”

He cited darker, heat-absorbing water and land surfaces exposed as the sun-reflecting snow and ice recedes. And as the arctic permafrost disappears, decaying organic matter, long trapped in the ice, adds even more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Accelerating the warming.

“We are in for it,” Wanless said. Not really we. Wanless is 53 years older than my daughter. I’m not far behind him. More accurately, if she and her classmates intend to live in South Florida, they are in for it.

“Eighteen-year-old kids will experience frighteningly dramatic changes on the Earth during the 50-60 years of their careers,” he said. “We have so messed up the stability of the earth's climate, ocean and ice that responding to these changes and fixing the climate will become the focus of this generation.”

If graduation speakers for the class of 2014 prefer hard reality to the usual turgid schlock, Wanless has written their template. “Just think it through. With a further two feet of rise (possibly as soon as 2048) most of the barrier islands (of South Florida and the world) will be abandoned and the people relocated; at the same time, low places like Sweetwater and Hialeah will become more and more frequently flooded and difficult places to live.”

“Sometime toward the end of the century, we will reach six feet of sea-level rise. Only 44 percent of Miami-Dade county is above six-feet elevation. When we reach six-feet sea-level rise, only 11 percent of the original land will be greater than two feet above that sea level. The southern two-thirds of Broward is even lower.

“Every career you can think of will be struggling to deal with this, and a few will make amazing contributions to fixing this mess.

“What 18-year-olds should be demanding now is that we stop burning fossil fuels. Every day we put it off, we are warming the ocean further and making it more and more difficult to reverse — and making the inevitable climate changes and sea-level rise worse and worse.”

The grads might demand, but their elders won't listen. We’re not to be confused with the “greatest generation,” the folks who suffered the loss of 418,000 soldiers in World War II to secure their children’s future. My generation regards something like a carbon tax as an unthinkable sacrifice. Sorry, kids. That's just too much to ask.

Instead, we prefer denial, which allows us to sustain our oblivious, happy lifestyle. Our political leaders would rather win the next election than talk about the mess we’re dumping on the next generation. They don’t have the fortitude to deal with those wild-eyed crazies who’re convinced that evolution and global warming are the inventions of godless pseudo-science. They imagine that the 300 climate scientists who contributed to the National Climate Assessment are involved in some one-world-government U.N. conspiracy. (Except for Fox News, which suggested last week that the 600-page assessment was contrived to distract the public's attention from, of course, Benghazi.)

Nevermind that we're already up to our ears in global warming, coming off a decade of record temperatures. And, as the assessment notes, we’re already witnessing a “shorter duration of ice on lakes and rivers, reduced glacier extent, earlier melting of snowpack, reduced lake levels due to increased evaporation, lengthening of the growing season, changes in plant hardiness zones, increased humidity, rising ocean temperatures, rising sea level, and changes in some types of extreme weather.”

So, happy graduation. If I had had more time, I'd wrap up the National Climate Assessment with a bow and ribbon and Hallmark card with the inscription: “Here’s your future, grads. With our warmest regards.”

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