Scientist: Global warming is near its tipping point

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Tim Flannery isn't one to paint a hopeless picture of climate change. By taking personal responsibility for the dilemma and forcing a shift in government policies and regulations, the noted Australian scientist and author says there is still time to stave off the most egregious impacts of global warming.

But the clock is running, Flannery warned a Salt Lake City audience on Friday night. And if we don't get our act together in the next couple of decades or so, the planet - and its inhabitants - may reach a tipping point from which there will be no turning back.

Flannery spoke at the downtown library at the invitation of Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson. The author's new book, The Weather Makers, chronicles his journey from onetime climate change skeptic to impassioned advocate for action to stave off what he now calls "the great global dying."

"Ask an Eskimo and they'll say [the tipping point] has already occurred," Flannery told the capacity crowd at the library's auditorium, citing the shriveling polar ice cap. "Life has already changed beyond recognition for them."

Flannery cited example after example of climate change evidence, from the great, ongoing die-off of coral - due to the Pacific Ocean's warming waters - to the breakoff of the massive Larsen B ice shelf in Antarctica and the increasing occurrence of severe weather events around the globe.

"This is the most serious issue facing the planet," Flannery said, noting that just about everything else, including overpopulation, pales in comparison.

Flannery, who has published 90 papers and written several books, including The Future Eaters: an Ecological History of the Australian Lands and People, calls global warming primarily "a pollution problem," brought on by 150 years of fossil fuel use to power our factories, households and automobiles."

Incredibly, he notes, the use of such fuels - most prominently coal - has only intensified, which in the past 20 years led to a vast jump in the release of carbons into the atmosphere.

"We're burning more coal than at any time in the past," he said. "It's easy to forget that 19th century technology lies behind many of our 21st century gadgets."

If that trend continues, Flannery says we should conservatively plan on average global temperatures to climb by 2-3 degrees Fahrenheit by century's end, and perhaps by as much as 3 or even 4 degrees.

If that happens, he adds, we will likely see the polar ice caps melting in the summer, the loss of mountain rain forests, the death of 90 percent of the earth's coral reefs and large rises in sea levels.

But Flannery also firmly believes we still have the time and ability to do something about this.

In the large picture, that means decreasing the use of fossil fuels by 70 percent in the next two decades. That sounds like a lot, he says, until you consider that by trading in your SUV for a hybrid model, you can instantaneously cut your own carbon emissions by 70 percent.

But for this to ultimately work, Flannery says the public will have to demand change, which will in turn force the politicians to act.

"I used to believe this was a political and economic issue," Flannery said. "But at its base, it's a moral issue, an issue of how we interact with the planet. At the current rate, this is an incredibly immoral thing to do."