Guest Columnist

Fires, droughts and floods: We've got big trouble

A firefighting crew battles a fire near Burrill Lake, Australia, Sunday, Jan. 5, 2020. Milder temperatures Sunday brough
A firefighting crew battles a fire near Burrill Lake, Australia, Sunday, Jan. 5, 2020. Milder temperatures Sunday brought hope of a respite from wildfires that have ravaged three Australian states, destroying almost 2,000 homes. (AP Photo/Rick Rycroft)

Wildfires are burning out of control in Australia while the American Middle West is drowning in record floods. Large swaths of northern Africa and the Middle East are experiencing severe drought which threatens the economic, social and political stability of those regions. Oceans, the great heat sink of the planet Earth, are warming and threatening the survival of the coral reefs, the incubator for many forms of sea life. The polar regions are melting at record rates and the resulting sea level rise will make many low lying regions unsuitable for human habitation.

We’ve got big trouble! The biggest trouble our species has faced in its last seventy thousand year history.

There have been at least five major extinction events in Earth’s history. The last of these is known as the Cretaceous-Paleogene Extinction event 66 million years ago. It was caused by an asteroid striking the earth with tremendous force, which in turn caused the extinction of 75 percent of all species, including dinosaurs. Dinosaurs are considered an apex species, meaning that they were at the top of their food chain and their survival relied on each link in the chain below. Humans are similarly positioned. If species at the base of the food web are threatened or terminated by forces outside their control, there will be dire effects up the chain. Global warming is one such force. When the myriad effects of global warming overwhelm the ability of a species to adapt to the new environment, extinction of one or more species will result.

The planet Earth is now experiencing a sixth mass extinction event. According to the 2019 Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), currently 1 million plant and animal species are threatened with extinction. It is impossible to know with any certainty all the effects of these extinctions or reduced populations on life on planet earth. But it will be extensive.

Global warming is an existential threat to human existence on this planet whether by extinction or by permanently altering human progress. It is impossible to overstate the seriousness of the problem, not just to humans, but to other forms of living things. This is not a political issue to be debated.

Each of us has a moral responsibility to do everything in our power to reduce our own carbon footprint and to demand our leaders take immediate steps to address the escalating concentration of carbon dioxide and other warming gases in the atmosphere. Future generations will depend on it.

David G. Gerleman is a retired engineer at the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine.

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