Putting a human face on climate change

Often forgotten in the discussion about climate change are the individual lives it affects. Putting a human face on global warming shows how it can change lives.

A rickshaw driver pushed his passenger through floodwaters in the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka in July. Low-lying and impoverished Asian coastal cities such as Dhaka are vulnerable to damage from climate change, environmentalists say.

Last week, the White House announced target emissions cuts in advance of the upcoming climate conference in Copenhagen: a 17 percent cut in greenhouse gas emissions relative to 2005 levels by 2020. The president's longer-term goal is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 83 percent by 2050.

Meanwhile, as the waves made by climate scientists' hacked and publicly released e-mails continued to reverberate, observations of glaciers melting faster than anticipated and other signs of warming also kept rolling in.

Among other findings, the so-called Copenhagen Diagnosis, a recently released compendium of 200 studies, points out that ice at both poles is melting faster than climate models projected, and that sea level rise from thermal expansion is – so far – about 40 percent greater than the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's 2007 report predicted.

Amid this inundation of observational data and percentage points — not to mention a considerable amount of political drama around those purloined e-mails — it's easy to forget what all those numbers are really about.

Climate change is ultimately about people's lives. And the consensus is that, on balance, human-induced climate change will generally make life harder for people (not to mention for many other life forms on Earth).

On this often overlooked facet of climate change — the part that, in many respects, matters most — there are some engrossing, first-person accounts floating about the Web these days.

In anticipation of the Copenhagen meeting, The New York Times had four contributors from around the world file dispatches on changing weather where they lived.

In Denmark, one contributor explains that where breezes once dominated, storms now seem to rage more frequently.

Another recounts how, in Cape Town, South Africa, weather patterns have become increasingly fickle, and wildfires more ferocious. The fires are now threatening a unique, flower-filled ecosystem.

A contributor from Brazil tells of the day he witnessed an exhausted penguin wash up on Ipanema Beach near Rio de Janeiro, far north of its customary habitat. Had changing ocean currents and shifting prey abundance brought the penguin a thousand miles north of its comfort zone?

And in Tokyo, one contributor recalls that, in the 1960s, snow used to fall in the city during winter. But is the cause climate change, or just more asphalt?

The Guardian, meanwhile, has a video on what it's calling "climate migration." Low-lying Bangladesh has for years been a case study for those worried about sea level rise — 160 million people living on a flood-prone river delta with nowhere to go.

The video tells the story of two families that, as they struggle against cyclones of growing strength and the floodwaters they bring, consider leaving their villages and moving to the city.

Together, these stories offer a mosaic of climate change at the personal level — how it affects individual lives. As we contemplate the charts and graphics that will likely abound in coming weeks, it's worth remembering that behind these abstract representations of data hide many stories like these.

Editor’s note: For articles about the environment, see the Monitor’s main environment page, which offers information on many topics. Also, check out our Bright Green blog archive and our RSS feed.

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