By: Sabrina SMITH/Earth Observatory In honor of Earth Day, I’m calling attention to the reality of climate change around the world. We know that the planet’s climate is warming from many data sources. Ice cores, corals, ocean sediments, and tree rings tell the story of Earth’s climate over the past 800,000 years. Orbital satellites, sea surface temperature readings, and weather stations have recorded change over the past century. They all say the same thing: the planet is warming at an extraordinary rate.
Last year was the hottest on record. It’s the third year in a row to set a new high for the yearly average temperature on Earth. Since the late 1800s, temperatures on Earth have increased by about 1.1ºC. Sea levels rose by eight inches over the past 100 years.
What’s causing Earth’s climate to change? 97 percent of climate scientists agree: the recent warming is human-made. As we burn fossil fuels, carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses are released into the air. They act like a blanket around our planet, trapping heat in the atmosphere.
Out of the Labs, Into the Streets
Recent administration changes in the United States with budget cuts, censorship, and a lack of science in policy-making have researchers worried. In response, scientists and science supporters are walking out of their labs and into the streets on Saturday, 22 April 2017. At the March for Science, they will voice their support for science funding, education, and evidence-based policies, regardless of politics. The march will take place in Washington, DC, with more than 500 satellite marches across the globe, from Brazil to Japan and Norway to Nigeria.
In the face of the changing climate, more than 200 countries pledged to lower their greenhouse gas emissions in the Paris agreement, signed in 2015. The goal of the accord was to prevent the climate from warming more than 2ºC and causing a future filled with floods, droughts, and famines.
China, a Climate Leader
As a signatory to the Paris agreement, China has taken a strong stance on fighting climate change and, with the new administration in the United States, China has emerged as a climate leader. Coal consumption has declined in the past few years, and investments in domestic renewable energy projects reached US$102 billion in 2015. China pledged to reach its peak of carbon emissions by 2030. At its current pace, the nation may reach that goal in 2025, five years early.
China’s focus on renewable energy could be an economic boon in the near future. According to a recent report, the renewable energy sector provided for 8.1 million jobs globally in 2015. In the United States, more people worked in the solar industry than in oil and gas extraction. Renewable sources accounted for 23.7 percent of global electricity production, up from 19.4 percent in 2010. The current trend shows an uptick in cheaper, smarter sources of solar and wind energy.
The United States Reverses Course on Climate Science
Unfortunately, as much as China is ramping up its efforts to battle climate change, the new administration in the United States is unraveling existing initiatives. A preliminary White House budget shows deep cuts to American science and environmental agencies. The Trump administration removed all mention of climate change from the White House website and the Energy Department’s international climate office told staff not to use the term “climate change” in any written communications. President Trump recently signed an executive order to roll back President Obama’s domestic Clean Power Plan. The plan would have invested in renewable energy and shuttered hundreds of coal power plants.
“The United States is already slipping well behind China in the race to secure a larger share of the booming clean energy market. With the incoming administration talking up coal and gas, prospective domestic policy changes don’t bode well,” said Tim Buckley, the lead author of a report on renewable energy markets.
The order also charges agency heads to review climate-related programs and revokes several of Obama’s executive orders to prepare the country for climate change. Scott Pruitt, the current head of the Environmental Protection Agency, recently said the United States should exit the Paris accord. Though Trump hasn’t yet decided whether to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, these actions show that he isn’t planning on upholding Obama’s pledge of cutting emissions.
So, where does this leave us? What are the implications of China stepping up as the United States retreats? And, if the United States does withdraw from the Paris agreement, do we as a global community have what it takes to forge ahead and fight without them? I don’t have all these answers, but I do know that marching on Earth Day is a rallying cry for science – a sign of hope.