Kathryn Sullivan can give you plenty of reasons to care about the upcoming international climate talks in Paris.

The administrator at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (and first woman to walk in space) tells a fairy tale with an uncertain ending:

For the past 10,000 years, humans and the Earth have benefited from a relatively stable climate — a “nice Goldilocks habitable range.”

We’re moving out of that range, she told a recent gathering of the Society of Environmental Journalists during a discussion of climate change and extreme weather. Humans, she said, no longer reside on a “quasi-stable planet.”

Sullivan outlined key evidence:

As the burning of fossil fuels pumps more carbon dioxide and other dangerous greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, global temperatures continue rising. Nine of the 10 warmest years on record have occurred since 2000.

Our oceans, the foundation of life, are in “some significant trouble,” Sullivan said. Atmospheric carbon emissions have been linked to increasing acidity in oceans, which threatens shellfish and other marine life.

One-third of U.S. counties can expect water shortages by mid-century.

“These are not passing changes,” Sullivan said. “We’re tinkering very seriously with our own life support systems.”

The previous day, her own agency declared a global coral bleaching event, the third on record, due to record ocean temperatures. NOAA estimates that almost 95 percent of coral reefs in the U.S. will experience conditions that can degrade and kill corals by the end of this year.

Sullivan left it to others at the conference to address an unprecedented El Nino unfolding in the Pacific and “The Blob,” an unusual pool of warm water south of Alaska — not to mention localized extreme weather such as the recent flooding in South Carolina.

David Parsons, a climate scientist at the University of Oklahoma, offered a sobering summary: “We’re in a regime we haven’t seen before.”

Which brings us to Paris, where the United Nations in December will seek an international agreement on the contentious issue of how individual countries will curb emissions and, consequently, global warming.

Three days after the Society of Environmental Journalists conference ended in Norman, Oklahoma, a coalition of organizations took to the Missouri River in canoes and kayaks to deliver 2,000 petitions to the governor and attorney general as part of a national day of action designed to mobilize citizens in advance of the talks in Paris. As the Missourian reported, the petitions called for a reduction in carbon emissions as well as more wind and solar energy.

It could be an uphill battle in Missouri, where coal provided 83 percent of the state’s electric generation in 2013. Attorney General Chris Koster, in a speech earlier this month, vowed to sue the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency over plans that would require states to reduce carbon emissions by moving from coal-fired electricity to natural gas and renewables. The federal plan is part of U.S. efforts to set the table for the talks in Paris.

Koster cited “economic risks” of the federal plan, which has yet to be finalized, and said it would take away Missouri’s “competitive advantage as a low energy-cost state.”

At the global level, there seems to be more optimism about reaching a meaningful accord in Paris than previous talks in Kyoto and Copenhagen. Delegates from nearly 200 countries have made pledges to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and met last week in Bonn, Germany, to finish a draft agreement leading up to Paris.

“There is a deep desire by all the countries to have an agreement to curb greenhouse gas emissions,” Scott Barrett, professor of natural resource economics at Columbia University, told the Christian Science Monitor. “But it is not clear that the pledges being made will meet the goal, or how the pledges will be met at all.”

For those of you uncertain about how much climate change can be attributed to human behavior versus nature, Kelvin Droegemeier, a meteorology professor at the University of Oklahoma, has an answer: It’s both, he said, and the debate comes at the expense of taking action that can help us adapt to “this new normal.”

If you have doubts that climate change is happening, you might want to check out this short National Geographic video featuring Bill Nye.

One theme of the SEJ conference was that extreme weather events and climate change are not only here to stay but bound to get worse. Associated Press science writer Seth Borenstein, serving as moderator, asked whether human modification of the planet's biosphere, known as geoengineering, might offer a solution.

Sullivan turned the question on its head by referring instead to “the unintentional geoengineering experiment we have under way.”

John Schneller is enterprise editor at the Missourian and a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists.

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