Expert Voices

Mountains of Ice are Melting, But Don't Panic (Op-Ed)

Jakobshavn Glacier
The shadow of a plane is visible in this photo of Greenland's Jakobshavn Glacier. (Image credit: Jim Yungel | NASA)

Ilissa Ocko, climate scientist at Environmental Defense Fund contributed this article to Live Science's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

As 2014 draws to a close, two recent developments show that global temperatures are rising at an alarming rate.

The world, it seems, is on a runaway train — and yet, we have more reason to feel hopeful than we did a year ago.

West Antarctica ice-sheet loss accelerating

Ice loss from West Antarctica has been increasing nearly three times faster in the past decade than during the previous one — and much more quickly than scientists predicted.

This unprecedented ice loss is occurring because warm ocean water is rising from below and melting the base of the glaciers, dumping huge volumes of additional water — the equivalent of a Mt. Everest every two years — into the ocean.

Scientists estimate that one-third of the West Antarctic ice sheet could be gone by the end of the century, which is not included in many current projections of sea level rise

If the planet lost the entire West Antarctic ice sheet, global sea level would rise 11 feet, threatening nearly 13 million people worldwide and affecting more than $2 trillion worth of property. If the world's rapid population growth continues, the impact would be even greater.

If you're a topical expert — researcher, business leader, author or innovator — and would like to contribute an op-ed piece, email us here.

The past year was also the warmest on record. The World Meteorological Organization announced recently that 2014 is on track to be one of the warmest — if not the warmest — year on record. Continued emissions of heat-trapping gases from energy use, land use, industry and waste contribute to these rising global temperatures. 

But there's hope

At Environmental Defense Fund, we spent a year talking to experts from academia, industry and the activist community to understand what must be done to address global warming. We analyzed the science, economic and political possibilities, and we see that it's possible to reverse the relentless rise of global greenhouse gas emissions within the next five years. But only if countries devote sufficient attention to the task. What may surprise you is that this can be done with current technology, and at a reasonable cost. There are two critical components of such a strategy.

First, a few countries can drive great progress. China, the United States and Europe account for more than half of all global emissions of carbon dioxide from energy use. Improving energy efficiency , employing carbon markets, enacting power plant standards, and accelerating clean energy deployment are all part of our five-year strategy to curb emissions. The European Union already has an emission reduction plan in place, the United States is taking action on carbon pollution from cars and power plants, and China recently reached a historic agreement with the United States to limit emissions.

Second, reducing short-lived climate pollutants will have an immediate impact. If nations cut emissions of short-lived pollutants such as methane, which only last in the atmosphere for at most a couple of decades, we can take a sizable bite out of warming in the near-term. Methane contributes to around a quarter of the warming the planet is experiencing today, so this is an enormous opportunity humanity cannot miss. The technology exists to reduce methane emissions from the oil and gas industry in a cost-effective way. By patching up methane leaks throughout the supply chain, industry would spend just a penny more for each thousand cubic feet of gas it produces.

While turning the corner on global emissions by 2020 is feasible, it can only happen with many partners working together. EDF will take actions that contribute to about half of the needed reductions, such as ensuring effective implementation of carbon caps in China and limiting methane leaks from the oil and gas industry, , in alliance with others, such as The Nature Conservancy, the Natural Resources Defense Council, China Electricity Council, and Google Earth Outreach. We're also working to set the stage for actions post-2020 that will drive down emissions even further, for example, laying the groundwork for carbon markets in emerging nations such as India as well as pursuing opportunities in Canada, Mexico and international aviation that could help build broader momentum through trade ties.

It's not too late. While some climate changes may be irreversible, as appears to be the case with West Antarctica, the nations of the world can still set ourselves on a much better path for the future by taking action now. The science shows that we can considerably reduce the rate and magnitude of warming by simultaneously mitigating emissions of both long-lived pollutants, such as carbon dioxide, and of short-lived pollutants such as methane. Our best chance for climate stability is doing both.

Follow all of the Expert Voices issues and debates — and become part of the discussion — on Facebook, Twitter and Google+. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher. This version of the article was originally published on Live Science.

Environmental Defense Fund