Climate change on the rise but you can take action, experts say

By: Michaela Meaney and Melissa Schenkman

Climate change is happening at a rate faster than ever before, experts said Wednesday.

“It’s actually occurring about 10 times faster, over 10 times faster actually, than what has been observed since the end of the last ice age,” said Don Wuebbles, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) climatologist. “So this is going on extremely rapidly.”

Wuebbles and WGN chief meteorologist Tom Skilling discussed the uptick in extreme weather, climate change, and what it means for the future at a breakfast gathering at Chicago’s Environmental Law and Policy Center (ELPC),. This gathering comes just ahead of the 40th session of the IPCC in Copenhagen, Denmark, Oct. 27-30.

L to R:  Don Wuebbles, Tom Skilling and Howard Learner discuss climate change and forecast the future of the environment at a breakfast Wednesday in Chicago.
L to R: IPCC climatologist Don Wuebbles, WGN meteorologist Tom Skilling and ELPC executive director Howard Learner forecast the future of climate change at a breakfast Wednesday in Chicago.

WHAT IS HAPPENING

“This is very real, there’s no question about it. And it’s not really on a local basis, it’s on a global basis,” Skilling said.

Global climate change includes the warming of the Arctic, which Skilling says is increasing at twice the rate the planet is warming.

“We’re seeing a major change over roughly 100 years or less. Most of what we’re seeing is related to the last 50 years,” Wuebbles said. He explained that the main driving force behind these changes is the burning and emissions of fossil fuels. Concentrations of carbon dioxide have increased by 40 percent since pre-industrial times, according to the 2013 IPCC assessment.

To put this information into perspective, climate change is always present, but the rate at which it is occurring now is what sticks out, said Wuebbles, professor of atmospheric science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Wuebbles also shares in the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize, awarded to the IPCC and to former Vice President Al Gore.

As the Arctic is warming, ice sheets are rapidly melting. The 2013 IPPC Summary for Policymakers reported the decrease in Arctic sea ice from 1979 to 2012, with a percent decrease very likely in the range of 3.5 to 4.1 percent per decade, and a 9.4 to 13.6 percent decrease for the summer sea ice minimum.

“We’re seeing climate change now,” Wuebbles said. “It’s not some time in the future. We’re seeing it now, and it’s impacting us in many different ways.”

Wuebbles explained that even if changes were to be made, like a decrease in fossil fuel emissions, there would still be a 2 to 3 degree increase in temperature, more changes in severe weather and increases in sea level.

Since the late 1970s, continental U.S. temperatures have increased at a rate of 0.31 to 0.48 degrees Fahrenheit per decade, according to the U.S. EPA. Average temperatures in the continental U.S. increased at 0.14 degrees Fahrenheit per decade from 1901 to the 1970s.

CLIMATE CHANGE HERE

Changes in the Arctic may seem far off for Chicagoans – but climate changes can be seen here as well.

Last winter was the coldest on record for Chicago, with an average temperature of 22 degrees Fahrenheit from December to March, according to the National Weather Service.

So if the planet is warming, how does that explain Chicago’s severe winter this year?

“Understand that what you’re seeing out your window is not the big picture, and there are consequences. And even what you’re seeing out the window may be a product of strange things that are going on elsewhere in the planet,” Skilling said.

WHY IT IS HAPPENING

What people often experience and associate with climate change has to do with extreme weather. It is the mechanism behind such events, called blocking patterns, which Skilling said are leading to extremes.

“Precipitation and temperature are directly affected by the amount of blocking going on,” Skilling said. “Extremes of temperature are the most deadly features of weather.”

Blocking patterns occur when a dome of warm or cold air exists that keeps a jet stream from moving for several days. This typically affects jet stream patterns that flow west to east, and the eastward movement of weather is slowed down. For example, if a large, warm pocket of air is out west in Colorado and cold air is in the Midwest, the warm pocket of air can prevent the jet stream from flowing, and consequentially warm weather from reaching the Midwest. The result is extreme temperatures on both ends of the spectrum.  It was the blocking of warm pockets of air last winter in Chicago that led to the extremely cold temperatures for longer periods of time than normal.

Precipitation, temperature and wind, all are directly affected by the amount of blocking going on, Skilling said.

“The change in the water content of the atmosphere and steering winds that produce our storms are how you get extreme events,” Skilling said.

The increased frequency of the changes in blocking patterns and increased use of land, and fossil fuels have led to the increased frequency of our climate changing right before our eyes.

The IPCC concluded that it is clear that human influence is prompting climate change. The more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere as a result of these activities, the more affect on air temperature and ultimately, weather patterns.

WHAT YOU CAN DO ABOUT IT

But climate change does not have to mean all ‘doom and gloom.’

“We’re still going to see some very major changes, but many of those we can adapt to,” said Wuebbles.

People should not be discouraged from trying to make a difference themselves.

“Communities can be doing a whole lot,” Wuebbles said. “We could be looking at how we could be better conserving energy, and there’s all kinds of ways we can do that. We can look at how we transition our communities, our cities, to improve our entire use of energy and our transportation systems.”

“What we do today can make a difference in the world tomorrow, and that’s why we do what we do,” said Howard Learner, president and executive director of the ELPC.

Listen to Wuebbles talk about what you can do in your own home to help reduce climate change:

Photo credit: Shrinking arctic ice/NASA