Kari Manlove

Monday, February 5, 2007

You likely slept through it, but at 10 a.m. in Paris on Friday, Feb. 2, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a report on the scientific basis of climate change. Written by 600 scientists, reviewed by another 1500, and then passed through the bureaucracies of 154 governments, the report establishes, with over 90 percent probability, that humans have caused atmospheric warming. Unfortunately, many Americans are still ignorant of the scientific consensus, impeding the political will to address climate change. Just last week a Reuters poll showed that 13 percent of Americans have never heard of global warming.

And consider the recent events in Federal Way, WA, a city located between Seattle and Tacoma: Parents of one student objected to a scheduled viewing of Al Gore’s global warming documentary, An Inconvenient Truth. Citing apocalyptic religious beliefs that are not represented in the film, the parents demanded that the school also present an opposing view, and the school board agreed.

Rejection of Gore’s documentary is becoming a trend in schools across the country, but there is an especially bitter irony to the case in Federal Way. The potential impact of climate change on the Pacific Northwest and, more specifically, the Puget Sound region should literally wash out skepticism and redirect the uproar.

Temperatures in the Pacific Northwest increased over 0.6 degrees C in the last century. By the 2020s, average temperatures will have jumped approximately 1.7 degrees C and then 2.8 degrees by the 2050s. The world, on average, has warmed roughly 0.7 degrees C compared to pre-industrial temperatures. The earth can be expected to warm another full degree by mid-century from the greenhouse gases in the air right now, and if we are unable to stabilize carbon dioxide concentrations at 550 parts per million (ppm), temperatures are likely to warm at least 2 degrees C above the pre-industrial era. With 2 degrees C of warming humans will have irreversibly triggered the melting of the Greenland ice sheet, which will raise sea levels some 20 feet.

Already, insurance companies are dropping coverage in zones that are vulnerable to intensified storms and hurricanes. Imagine then the risk that sea level rise poses to coastal areas like the Puget Sound. Jeremy Weiss and Jonathan Overpeck from the University of Arizona made a model of what the United States will look like with one meter of sea level rise, two meters, three, and so on. Although you cannot clearly zoom in on the Northwest, the impact is visible (find their maps here). The University of Oregon’s Climate Leadership Initiative has published a project on a smaller scale applied to the port in Olympia, Wash. (view the PDF here). Unless this catastrophe is prevented, Olympia will have to relocate the radio tower and the million-dollar condos the city has proposed to build on Capitol Lake.

Olympia is the capital city of Washington and a mere 45-minute drive from Federal Way, which itself has eight miles of shoreline. Ironically, the school district in Federal Way won a “Green Schools” honor for its recycling, energy conservation, and environmental education. In the coming century, the residents of Washington will not be able to ignore the effect of climate change. Everything from the growth of their delicious apples to the famous snow caps in the Olympic and Cascade Mountains will be damaged.

Grunge music and coffee are Seattle’s mark on American culture, but what sort of climate, cultural or natural, will future generations inherit? When parents step in to make a judgment on their children’s education, they should consider the world in which their children will be applying such education. The Pacific Northwest is a hallmark of natural beauty, but its ecosystems are fragile. The habitat plays host to volcanoes, mountains, glaciers, extensive coniferous forests, scattered old-growth forests, marine life, and salmon populations that have nourished people since Native Americans fished thousands of years ago. It is a sad twist of irony that citizens of Federal Way, who stand to suffer some of the worst effects of global climate change, remain willfully ignorant of it, and would make their children so as well. They must open their minds to the facts, and be willing to consider difficult solutions, if they are to preserve their home for future generations.

Kari Manlove recently graduated from the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington. She interns at the Center for American Progress and works with climate change and energy policy on the blog ClimateProgress.org.