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No waiting on warming

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Countries, companies and individuals need to act now to begin countering climate change because the global warming that has already occurred is on track to last centuries and could intensify without action.

That was Thursday night's message to a standing-room-only audience at Northern Arizona University, where one of the leaders of the United Nations' major report on climate change warned of increased risks of wildfires and trouble for ecosystems and economies.

"We've reached a stage in human development where we know plenty to be able to make smart decisions about climate change," said Chris Field, Stanford University scientist and a leader of the Nobel Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Added Field: "It's not a problem for our generation or a couple of generations. It's a legacy we leave for a millennium or more."

Present warming is close to 2 degrees Fahrenheit worldwide, Field said, for temperatures records kept over about a century.

The great unknown is whether natural cycles might create a feedback cycle that speeds carbon release under warming by releasing greenhouse gases from places where they are now stored, such as in the ocean.

HUGE WILDFIRES A THREAT

Recent research shows that just a 1-degree temperature increase presents some big potential problems for forested areas across the West, Field said. The area burned in likely wildfires would increase anywhere from 73 percent to nearly five-fold.

Most of northern Arizona is on the upper end of that scale, with global warming likely to increase areas burned in wildfires by 470 percent.

On flat land, the speed of today's global warming is such that a person would have to walk a yard per day toward cooler locations in order to maintain the same temperature from the first day of the year to the last, said Field, a professor of biology and of environmental Earth system science.

That's not so difficult for a large mammal, he said, but it is impossible for some species, such as trees.

DIFFERENT STRATEGIES NEEDED

The countries of the world are at different points in regard to the age of their fossil-fuel-consuming industries and energy supplies.

The old ones should be retired, and replaced with renewable energy, Field said.

"The challenge isn't fundamentally how you make a solar panel," Field said. "It's how you get renewable energy deployed on a global scale."

Political questions emerge, though.

-- Should a developing country be forced to forgo cheap, greenhouse-gas-emitting natural resources in developing its economy when the United States was able to use coal and other fossil fuels to build its industries?

-- Should responsibility for cutting greenhouse gases be spread by country, or per capita?

Some of things needed to act quickly, Field said, are recognition that there is a problem, international government agreement, and diffusion of technology that doesn't warm the Earth.

The goal is compress each of these action items into the shortest possible time to implement them.

NOT MAKING THIS UP

Field rebuts any idea that climate change is made-up, theoretical or brand new, citing largely accurate research from the late 1800s suggesting the mass burning of coal would lead to global warming.

"If we get our act together, we're only committed to about another 1 degree of warming from the stuff we've already built," Field said.

Cyndy Cole can be reached at 913-8607 or at ccole@azdailysun.com.

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