Talk About the Weather

WHEREVER you live and whoever you are, the weather affects your life. If the day promises to be hot and sunny, you put on light clothing. If it is cold, you reach for a coat and a hat. Rain? You grab your umbrella.

At times, the weather delights us; at other times, it disappoints us. Occasionally, it becomes a killer in the form of hurricanes, tornadoes, droughts, blizzards, or monsoons. Love it or hate it, revile it or ignore it, weather is always there, influencing our lives from the day we are born until the day we die.

Someone once quipped: “Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.” Indeed, it has always seemed that the weather is beyond our power to change in any way. Increasingly, however, many scientists no longer believe that. They say that the spewing of carbon dioxide and other gases into our atmosphere is bringing about a change in our long-term weather patterns—our climate.

According to the experts, what is the nature of this coming change? Probably the most authoritative answer comes from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which drew on the expertise of more than 2,500 climatologists, economists, and risk-analysis specialists from 80 countries. In their 1995 report, the IPCC concluded that the earth’s climate is becoming warmer. During the next century, if things continue as they are, it is possible that the temperature could increase by as much as 6.3 degrees Fahrenheit [3.5°C].

While a few extra degrees may not sound like much to worry about, a small temperature change in the world’s climate could be disastrous. The following is what many foresee for the coming century.

Regional extremes in weather. In some areas, droughts could become longer, while in others, rainfall could become heavier. Storms and floods could become more severe; hurricanes, more damaging. Though millions already die as a result of floods and famine, global warming could make the death toll much higher.

Increased risk to health. Heat-related illness and death could soar. According to the World Health Organization, global warming could also extend the range of insects bearing tropical diseases, such as malaria and dengue. In addition, reduced freshwater supplies because of changes in regional rainfall and snowfall could cause an increase in some waterborne and food borne diseases and parasites.

Natural habitats threatened. Forests and wetlands, which filter our air and water, could be put at risk by warmer temperatures and changes in rainfall. Forest fires could be more frequent and more intense.

Rising sea levels. Those living in low coastal areas would have to move unless costly projects were undertaken to hold back the sea. Some islands would be completely submerged.

Are such fears justified? Is the earth’s climate becoming warmer? If so, are humans to blame? With so much at stake, it is not surprising that experts fiercely debate these questions. The next two articles examine some of the issues involved and address the question of whether we need to worry about the future of our planet.

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