THE BLOG
09/13/2013 07:10 pm ET Updated Nov 13, 2013

Can't See the Forest for the Trees: The Climate Bomb

Later this month in Stockholm The United Nations panel on climate change will release its long awaited report replete with predictions on our climate. Media moles and self-acclaimed pundits are writing about temperatures rising between 7.2 and 9 degrees (F) (4 and 5 deg C) later this century as if Earth's life support system can handily absorb these deadly numbers.

By all accounts that we've seen the forthcoming report will err on the lowest 'worst case scenario' because economies of the world are teetering on recession. Earth's remaining natural resources are being depleted faster now than ever before and our beleaguered environment and all the blatant telltales are being dismissed as meaningless by all governments, globally. Moreover, it would appear, that the Laws of Ecology are not applicable to Homo sapiens because special interest groups worldwide continue to bully lawmakers, who in turn grant more subsidies to exploit the remaining natural resources i.e. forests and seas. Yet there is no regard whatsoever for the essential life-sustaining services these tremendous terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems provide.

The Laws of Ecology are exact and all life relies upon healthy worldwide ecosystems. There are three inviolable laws of Earth's life support system: The strength of an ecosystem depends upon its biodiversity; all species are interdependent; and all natural resources are finite.

The truth is that Earth's biosphere is very sick. Each day Earthlings are spewing in excess of 85 million metric tons of heat-trapping greenhouse gasses in to our atmosphere. This has irrefutably forced nature to the edge of its resilience or the modern vernacular its 'tipping point.'

Since the 1850s Earth's temperature has risen about 1.5 degrees (F) (0.8 deg C). For most humans this is a meaningless number, but for nature and its life support systems adding an additional 3.6 degrees (F) (2 deg C) is end game!

We ask you to look very closely at what nature is vividly showing all humankind - frightening symptoms indeed harbingers of what is ahead.

Over the past decade, the unintended consequences of burning fossil fuels are highly visible across western North America -- 30 billion dead pine trees. Instead of absorbing CO2 and storing it in wood, the finest CO2 warehouses to have ever evolved are decaying en masses bleeding gigatons of heat-trapping CO2 into the ever-rising atmospheric pool.

The Amazon jungle - the Lamborghini of biodiversity - is now regularly breaking down. Droughts are ravaging these rainforests laying waste to millions of square miles - not only killing billions of trees, but turning them, too, into mass decaying graveyards bleeding gigatons of more heat-trapping CO2 into the atmosphere and worse. As the Amazon forests die, the Earth also loses its awesome cloud-making machines and instead it's forced to absorb incoming solar radiation rather than reflect it.

The International Union of Forest Research Organization came to a very bleak conclusion in 2009 that once Earth's temperatures pass an additional 3.6 degrees (F) (2 deg C) the carbon storage capacity of all forests will be lost. The results of crossing that irreversible threshold would be a hardly recognizable world.

Human fingerprints are all over the seas. Since the 1950s human-induced climate change from burning fossil fuels has disrupted the deep ocean currents, preventing some upwelling carrying essential nutrients to the surface to grow phytoplankton; the basis of the entire marine ecosystem. The oceans are missing 40 percent of their phytoplankton.

It turns out that oceans have been storing at least 30 percent of Earth's warming, mixed by winds and currents to depths exceeding 2,300 feet. That heat is beginning to surface. Not only are the effects visible in the tropical Pacific Ocean and into the subtropics - it's also driving weather patterns, globally.

In the last decade Tasmania's east coast kelp forests - 100-foot underwater jungles are all but gone. Oceans temperatures have risen four times faster there than the mean global average. Warm nutrient-poor water has brought 40 new species of fish along with long-spined sea urchins, which devour kelp forests, without kelp forests there are no sponges, nor fish especially adapted to eat sea urchins. That ecosystem has collapsed.

Each day 24/7, 365, our oceans are currently attempting to digest greater than 33 million metric tons of CO2. As the oceanic phytoplankton absorbs CO2, converting the sun's energy into green cells, oxygen is released into the atmosphere and a weak carbonic acid is released into the sea as a byproduct of this reaction.

In 2011 that weak carbonic acid according to the leading atmospheric laboratories were changing the oceans pH faster than ever recorded since 65 million years ago. Today two years later the revised rates show the oceans acidifying faster than the previous 300 million years.

Coral reefs are home to a quarter of all known fish or 8,000 species. Corals are made up of calcium carbonate, which melts under acid conditions. And by the way so do shells of shellfish. About 50 percent of coral reefs have died in the past decade and the mortality may be as high as 75 percent in the Caribbean Sea and on Australia's Great Barrier Reef. In parts of Indonesia's Coral Triangle over 450 species of coral and 2,800 kinds of fish have perished. Acidifying oceans, incidentally, will reverberate throughout the entire marine ecosystem.

Burning coal to satisfy our insatiable energy demand is releasing upwards of 10 million metric tons of mercury vapor into Earth's atmosphere, annually. When mercury vapor lands 18 months later it's winding up in our oceans, bacteria transform the element into a toxic and mobile form of methyl-mercury, taken up by fish and other sea creatures. The ocean creatures are turning up with bellies jammed-packed full of hundreds of pieces of plastic and blood levels laced with mercury levels of 30,000 parts per million never witnessed before e.g. Australia's Lord Howe Island.

All Earth's life support systems are under siege at just 1.5 degrees F (0.8 deg C) above the 1850s. The outcome is very clear from a 'business as usual' model of burning more and more fossil fuels - a largely uninhabitable planet for our children in the lifetime of today's children. Is this what each of us knowingly chooses?

Earth Dr Reese Halter is a broadcaster, conservation biologist, educator and co-author of Life, The Wonder of it All.

This story was written with two of my mentors:

Peter Carter is an MD with a background in environmental health protection policy development.

David Tattershall is a professional problem solver.