An enthusiastic crowd of Topangans streamed into the Topanga Community House on Wednesday evening, March 21, to the strains of guitar music played by Gos. They were there to learn more about a subject to which too many have turned a deaf ear—the devastating effects of global warming on the future of the planet and the steps we must take to head off the damage.
After thanking Diana Lee and Lauren Bon, who provided beautiful large-scale posters for the event on a pro bono basis, Richard Brody, education outreach chair of the Topanga Watershed Committee that sponsored the program, introduced the evening’s presenter, Mike Ferry. Ferry is a firefighter and amateur scientist who helped to design the implementation plan to convert all firefighting engines in San Francisco to biodiesel. In light of the success of that program, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsome has asked Ferry to help create an implementation plan to switch all city vehicles to biofuels by the end of this year.
Ferry has been specially trained by Al Gore’s Climate Project to give live presentations of the Power Point presentation that forms the basis for the Academy Award-winning documentary on global warming, “An Inconvenient Truth.” While Ferry’s presentation did not include all of the data addressed in the movie, he was able to offer updates to some of the information. The live presentation also offers a more interactive approach with an opportunity for audience questions and discussion.
Although by-and-large nonpartisan in approach, the slide show began with the reminder of George H.W. Bush’s 1988 campaign promises to tackle global warming: “Those who think we are powerless to do anything about the greenhouse effect forget about the White House effect.” Ferry then moved on to a slide purporting to show what progress the United States has made since 1988 in addressing the problem; it was blank.
Ferry pointed to an alarm sounded by scientist James Hansen two years ago, warning that we then had only 10 years to act (not to decide whether to act, but to act) in order to head off the irreversible and devastating effects to the earth’s atmosphere and climate.
The presentation moved on to an exploration of some of the science of the causes of global warming, peppering what might have been a bone-dry series of charts and graphs, with helpful down-to-earth analogies. In describing the fragility of the earth’s seven-mile atmosphere, for example, he compared it to the relative thinness of the skin of an apple.
Much of the presentation was focused on evidence of the existence and rate of global warming. For example, Ferry showed photos of the 12,000-year-old tropical glacier on Mt. Kilimanjaro disappearing over the course of the last few decades due to global warming—literally melting away. Showing photos of the vanishing glaciers, he noted Al Gore’s standard quip to audiences that Glacier National Park will have to be renamed in 20-30 years if the glaciers recede at the rate they are melting today. Both wildlife and commerce in the Arctic are suffering. Polar bears are at risk because of melting ice. Slides showed examples of global warming in Alaska—major roads collapsing and houses and apartment houses tilting because the permafrost is melting underneath.
Pictures of the ancient ice shelves in the Antarctic and Greenland breaking away and dissolving, though familiar to those who had seen the movie, remained stupefying. If the western Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets melt, scientists predict it will raise world oceans by 20 feet, wiping out many coastal communities. Slides, again from the movie, highlighting the effect, showing major portions of population centers in San Francisco, Manhattan, Calcutta, and Shanghai all underwater. Ferry pointed out that the Dutch government takes the problem so seriously that it is encouraging its citizens to adopt floating housing.
Ferry went on to explain the seeming contradiction of how global warming is simultaneously responsible for increased storm activity, such as Hurricane Katrina, in some parts of the globe, while causing extensive drought elsewhere. It is all part of an overall global climate picture, he said.
Ferry next documented the cause of global warming—extraordinary increases in carbon dioxide emissions over the last two centuries. Tests on ice core samples have shown that for 650,000 years the earth’s CO2 conditions have not changed that much, never going above 300 parts per million. Now, CO2 makes up nearly 400 p.p.m. of the earth’s atmosphere, said Ferry, and if consumption of fossil fuels continues at its current pace, is predicted to reach 600 p.p.m. in the next 45 years. He also documented the historic links between peaks and valleys in atmospheric CO2 with periods of warming and glaciation.
Where do the excessive carbon dioxide emissions come from? Primarily from burning of fossil fuels—oil, coal and natural gas—used to make energy, said Ferry. For some, the national economy is measured by energy produced and expended.
Ferry spent a good deal of time demonstrating that scientists have predicted global warming since at least 1949 and that there is near unanimity on the subject among scientific articles in peer-reviewed journals. He maintained that those commercial and political interests who wish to discourage the kinds of change that would be needed to combat the trend have undertaken a concerted effort to create the misimpression in the popular media that there is scientific controversy on the point, comparing the campaign of disinformation to that of the tobacco companies.
What can we do? Ferry acknowledged that reversing the trend would be costly, but contended that both care for the environment and a healthy economy could co-exist. The cost of reversing global warming is equivalent to what the United States has spent on the war in Iraq, said Ferry. He also pointed out that there are even higher economic costs to doing nothing. Economists say the choice is between investing a relatively low percentage of gross national product now or losing a lot more later.
Mr. Ferry covered alternatives we have such as renewable energy and industries such as wind energy and solar power. He also urged an increase in auto efficiency, pointing out that U.S. standards are among the worst in the world on this score.
He also discussed the failure of the United States—alone with Australia among the world’s nations—to sign and ratify the Kyoto Treaty, an agreement to decrease carbon emissions globally.
Suggestions for personal action including educating yourself and others, making connections, staying current, consuming less energy and consuming locally grown produce. Ferry also recommended organic foods, which do not require the use of fertilizers made with natural gas.
There was a lively after-discussion as to how to better convince the unpersuaded. Disappointingly, Ferry had no specific information about how global warming would likely effect the Topanga—or even the greater Los Angeles—area, but various participants offered their own conjectures. (One said the sea walls at Topanga Beach are only 10 feet above sea level.) Another participant suggested connecting with two groups she said have tremendous clout via the Internet—Physicians for Social Responsibility and the Union of Concerned Scientists.