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Welcome to the sustainability revolution

September 27, 2012

A relentless drumbeat of news in recent months suggests that climate change is for real, that it is happening faster than expected, and that it is largely caused by human actions. For instance, according to the National Ice and Snow Data Center, arctic ice is at record summer lows, shrinking in early September to an area 45% smaller than lows reached in the 1980s and 1990s. The rate of loss this summer was 50% worse than projected. And August was the 330th month in a row worldwide with temperatures higher than the 20th-century average.

Amid this barrage, Richard A. Muller, a professor of physics at Berkeley, known hitherto as a leading climate skeptic, has flipped. In a New York Times article describing his recent study, he wrote, “My total turnaround, in such a short time, is the result of careful and objective analysis by the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature project… Our results show that the average temperature of the earth’s land has risen by two and a half degrees Fahrenheit over the past 250 years, including an increase of one and a half degrees over the most recent 50 years. Moreover, it appears likely that essentially all of this increase results from the human emission of greenhouse gases.”

James Hansen, the director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, wrote of a study he co-authored, showing a “stunning” increase in the frequency of extremely hot summers, “Our analysis shows that it is no longer enough to say that global warming will increase the likelihood of extreme weather and to repeat the caveat that no individual weather event can be directly linked to climate change. To the contrary, our analysis shows that, for the extreme hot weather of the recent past, there is virtually no explanation other than climate change.”

The response of the United States has, unfortunately, been weak to non-existent. The U.S. failure to sign the international Kyoto Protocol, directed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions, has become a running joke. The Republican platform this year has no mention of climate change; Democrats give it lip service, then laud “solutions” like shale gas and offshore drilling rather than an aggressive campaign concentrating on conservation, green building, truly sustainable energy sources and sustainable practices.