By Don MacGillivray

The 21st century will be defined by Climate Change or, in other words, Global Warming as the earth’s surface and atmosphere is being warmed by greenhouse gases. 

These gases are carbon dioxide (CO2), nitrous oxide, methane and ozone. CO2 is given off from the burning of fossil fuels like oil, gas and coal, as well as many other natural sources. 

The United States and China are the two largest emitters of CO2, followed closely by India. Each of the world’s other countries contribute much less to global warming. 

However, without greenhouse gases the earth would not support life as we know it.

The concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is one of the two ways to measure climate change. In 1750 the CO2 concentration was 280 parts per million (ppm). In 1965 it was at 320 ppm, in 2009 it was 385 ppm and in 2019 it was 415 ppm.

The other way to measure climate change or global warming is to measure the atmospheric temperature increase in degrees centigrade (oC). The scientists and policy makers baseline of zero degrees C is considered to have been about the year 1750. The general belief is that world cannot afford the temperature of the atmosphere to rise over 2 degrees C before the year 2100. 

In the last 30 years, the earth’s atmosphere has increased by 1oC. The climate experts want to limit the temperature increase to under 0.5oC in the next 30 years. This will take deliberate changes in our energy, transportation, food and building systems. 

Uncontrolled climate change will bring extreme temperatures, drought, heavy precipitation, harm to agriculture and water supplies, human health, biodiversity and the displacement of millions of people due to rising sea levels.

There were many events in the 1960s that laid the groundwork for the environmental movement. Among them were the Three Mile Island nuclear accident and the publishing of the book Silent Spring by Rachael Carson. 

The first Earth Day was celebrated 50 years ago in 1970 and the US Environmental Protection Agency was created in the same year. In the late 1970s Jimmy Carter became the first environmental president, but Ronald Reagan reversed much of his groundbreaking environmental work.

In 1972 the first worldwide, international environmental conference was held in Stockholm, Sweden. It is now held every 10 years to address growing concerns over climate change. 

At this first conference, the Club of Rome commissioned and presented a computer simulation of world economic and population growth based on future projections. This information was published as the book by Donnella and Dennis Meadows, Limits to Growth, that sold over 30 million copies.

Last year the fourth National Climate Assessment found that Climate Change is causing more frequent and severe weather across the US causing massive damage to infrastructure, ecosystems, health and the economy due to global warming. 

The Assessment is a 1,500-page document that includes 65 pages about the changing climate in the Pacific Northwest. Meanwhile the current federal administration has withdrawn the US from the International Paris Climate Agreement, reversed the environmental work of the previous administration and deregulated the growth of fossil fuel resources nationally.

A fundamental reason for climate change is the externalizing of commercial and industrial activities that pollute the environment. This is the source of much of the climate changing greenhouse gases that are warming the planet. 

In a market economy, the more business can externalize their costs elsewhere, the better they can compete in the marketplace. This practice was once acceptable, but today, with the growing climate situation, it must be reversed.

Perhaps nothing illustrates these environment issues better than The Story of Stuff. Created in 2007, this 20-minute cartoon documentary (now on YouTube) illustrates the issues around consumerism and manufacturing. 

There is media marketing required to promote commercial products and the growth from conventional media into social media may be encouraging the public in ways that are dangerous to the earth’s warming temperatures.

Portland has a strong record of changing city policy and improving infrastructure to address the changing climate. The 2015 Climate Action Plan is the most recent document that began in 1993 with the Global Warming Reductions Strategy. Portland and Multnomah County have already reduced carbon emissions by 14 percent since 1990, despite significant regional population and business growth.

The Green New Deal attempts to address climate change comprehensively through national and state legislation. The federal plan outlines the broad principles to tackle climate change that will lead to net zero carbon emissions in 10 years. The Oregon State Legislature is working on a yet to be determined cap and trade system to reduce carbon emissions.

The question we must ask ourselves today is: how do we expand our economies to meet the aspirations of our people, while still protecting human health and the natural resources on which the world depends? 

How well we answer this question will define the quality of life throughout this century and beyond. As the saying goes: “It’s not nice to fool (with) Mother Nature!”