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Effects of warming have worsened since Kyoto

Pace around the world has accelerated

The polar bear is among the species threatened by the earth's changing climate. The polar bear is among the species threatened by the earth's changing climate. (Subhankar Banerjee/ Associated Press/ File 2003)
By Seth Borenstein
Associated Press / November 23, 2009

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WASHINGTON - Since the 1997 international accord to fight global warming, climate change has worsened and accelerated, beyond some of the grimmest of warnings made then.

As the world has talked for a dozen years about what to do next, new ship passages have opened through the once frozen summer sea ice of the Arctic. In Greenland and Antarctica, ice sheets have lost trillions of tons of ice. Mountain glaciers in Europe, South America, Asia, and Africa have been shrinking faster than before.

And it’s not just the frozen parts of the world that have felt the heat in the years leading up to next month’s climate summit in Copenhagen:

■ The world’s oceans have risen by about an inch and a half.

■ Droughts and wildfires have turned more severe worldwide, from the US West to Australia to the Sahel desert of North Africa.

■ Species now in trouble because of changing climate include not just the polar bear, which has become a symbol of global warming, but also fragile butterflies, colorful frogs, and entire stands of North American pine forests.

■ Temperatures over the past 12 years are 0.4 of a degree warmer than in the dozen years leading up to 1997.

The reason is that since an agreement to reduce greenhouse gas pollution was signed in Kyoto, Japan, in December 1997, the level of carbon dioxide in the air has increased 6.5 percent.

“Even the gloomiest climate models back in the 1990s didn’t forecast results quite this bad so fast,’’ said Janos Pasztor, climate adviser to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

Officials from across the world will convene in Copenhagen from Dec. 7 to 18 to seek a follow-up agreement. Sixty-five world leaders so far have said they will attend, including those from Australia, Brazil, France, Germany, Indonesia, Japan, Spain, and the United Kingdom.

When the US Senate balked at the Kyoto Protocol and President George W. Bush withdrew from it, that meant that the top three carbon polluters - the United States, China, and India - were not part of the pact’s emission reductions. Developing countries were not covered by the protocol and that will be a major issue in Copenhagen.

From 1997 to 2008, world carbon dioxide emissions from the burning of fossil fuels have increased 31 percent; US emissions of this greenhouse gas rose 3.7 percent. Emissions from China, now the biggest producer of this pollution, have more than doubled in that time period.

In 1997, global warming was an issue for climate scientists, environmentalists, and policy specialists. Now even psychologists are working on global warming.

“We’ve come from a time in 1997 where this was some abstract problem working its way around scientific circles to now when the problem is in everyone’s face,’’ said Andrew Weaver, a University of Victoria climate scientist.

The changes in the last 12 years that have the scientists most alarmed are happening in the Arctic with melting summer sea ice and around the world with the loss of key land-based ice masses. Back in 1997 “nobody in their wildest expectations,’’ would have forecast the dramatic sudden loss of summer sea ice in the Arctic that started about five years ago, Weaver said. From 1993 to 1997, sea ice would shrink on average in the summer to about 2.7 million square miles. The average for the last five years is less than 2 million square miles. What’s been lost is the size of Alaska.

Antarctica had a slight increase in sea ice, mostly because of the cooling effect of the ozone hole, according to the British Antarctic Survey. At the same time, large chunks of ice shelves - adding up to the size of Delaware - came off the Antarctic peninsula.

While melting Arctic ocean ice doesn’t raise sea levels, the melting of giant land-based ice sheets and glaciers that drain into the seas do. Those are shrinking dramatically at both poles. Measurements show that since 2000, Greenland has lost more than 1.5 trillion tons of ice, while Antarctica has lost about 1 trillion tons since 2002, according to two scientific studies published this fall.

Worldwide glaciers are shrinking three times faster than in the 1970s and the average glacier has lost 25 feet of ice since 1997, said Michael Zemp, a researcher at World Glacier Monitoring Service at the University of Zurich.