The U.S. is experiencing the driest year on record, according to a front page story in today's USA Today. The West is hit hardest, with California worried about another year of drought cutting into agricultural and economic output, and Texas emerging as an epicenter of drought in the Southwest.
Some are warning that the West should look to Australia, and its record-setting drought as an example of what's to come courtesy of global warming. Already, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Energy Secretary Stephen Chu are among the most prominent politicians to connect the dots on climate change and drought in California and the region. Increased wildfires, decreased agricultural output, increasingly stressed drinking water supplies and a long period of serious economic stress are in store, they've warned.
Meanwhile, prominent climate scientists are warning that sea levels will rise more than three feet, even under the best-case scenarios of greenhouse gas reductions, but that much more extreme sea-level rise is possible and likely. Sea-level rise will be enough to wreak havoc in low-lying areas, spawning political instability in some regions, while devastating others (Florida, can you hear us?) economically. Scientists are updating U.N. projections, which hadn't take into account the melting of Antarctica or Greenland ice sheets.
That's not the only trouble in the oceans. As they absorb more carbon dioxide, they are growing increasingly acidic -- so much so that, if greenhouse gases continue to accumulate in the atmosphere, corals and plankton and other shelled creatures will not only stop growing, but may actually start dissolving. That, besides being creepy, would decimate the ocean food web, possibly leading to mass extinctions.
So what are we doing about all this? As we all know, President Obama and Congress agreed to spend billions more on renewable energy and energy efficiency as part of the stimulus bill, and Obama included even more in his proposed budget. To that end, Obama has just appointed Van Jones, the pioneering green jobs advocate, as a special adviser to the president on the issue.
More directly, this week, the Environmental Protection Agency said it would order companies to inventory and report greenhouse gas emissions, a necessary first step toward setting up the cap-and-trade regulation Obama has pledged to enact to curtail the pollution that causes global warming. The lack of action during the Bush years is painfully obvious in this bureaucratic maneuver. Setting up the reporting will take two years, and it won't be until 2012 -- at the earliest -- that the administration can actually set a cap.
Also disheartening is the reversal of New York. Under Republican Gov. George Pataki, New York led the nation to its first regional greenhouse gas cap-and-trade system, regulating power plants in the Northeast. That rule has only just taken effect, but Democratic Gov. David Paterson seems to be caving to industry interests, undermining the state's pioneering effort.
So it goes: Our sense of urgency, based on science, grows ... and for every two steps forward, there's one step back. Still, it's overall heartening to see strong federal leadership on the most important environmental issue of our time.
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