Friday, March 12, 2010

The Ultimate Place: Earth

It is now March of 2010, and despite a mountain of evidence, the consensus of 97% of the world's climate scientists, and images showing ice caps and glaciers melting, many people, including those I respect and consider friends, are either not entirely convinced that climate change is real or are firmly in denial. The "climate gate" scandal certainly has not helped matters and has underscored the need for climate change scientists, like all scientists, to remain apolitical and above reproach. Anything less gives the likes of Sarah Palin ammunition to twist the facts.

I asked a thoughtful, intelligent conservative friend of mine why so many of his ilk regard climate change as a socialist plot designed to destroy capitalism. He had two responses. First, people tend to think anecdotally, and weather patterns just have not changed that much around here.

I don't believe the vast majority of us will perceive climate change first-hand until it is far more advanced.  Right now, climate change is most palpable in extreme areas- particularly in polar and sub-polar regions, and mountainous glacial areas, where retreating ice and expanded growing seasons can be witnessed firsthand and can be perceived to have altered in a generation. Moreover, it is difficult to experience averages- especially when increments are small and geographic areas are vast.  We tend to remember singular events and are less likely to notice or recall subtle shifts in conditions.

Second, says my friend,  people think there is conflict in the science. As evidence of the latter, he sent me this link to a Time Magazine article from 1974 that predicts global cooling.I was quickly able to find a counterargument to this (and other climate change skeptic arguments), which identifies the 1970's ice age predictions as more media hoopla than science, and that indeed even then scientific consensus was leaning firmly toward a warming planet.

The climate of the earth, as anyone with a cursory knowledge of the historic record knows, is extremely variable. We are certainly headed for another ice age, eventually.  They occur quite regularly; scientists believe there have been at least five glacial periods in earth history. The last one ended about 15,000 years ago, when modern humans were just beginning to develop culture.  The causes of ice ages are not fully understood, and likely relate to changes in the composition of the Earth's atmosphere, changes in the orbital path of the Earth, and the position and amount of the continental landmasses. Eventually, glaciers will grow and descend upon the mid-latitudes once more.

Mass extinctions are also a regular part of human history. Five major and at least seventeen lesser extinction events are recognized by scientists as part of the historical record. The last one, as most third graders know, occurred 65 mya and did away with the dinosaurs. Reasons for these events are not fully understood and are hypothesized to include major impacts, cosmic radiation, and climate change.

I don't believe changes to the Earth's climate caused by human activity will permanently destroy the planet or avert another ice age. Only astronomical events, such as the sun going supernova or a massive impact, could bring about wholesale planetary destruction.  The systems of the earth are extraordinarily complex and have multiple feedback systems. The earth will rebound and change continuously. Whatever we do will be undone, eventually.

Does this mean that nothing should be done to mitigate the current global warming that threatens human civilization?

Agriculture, urbanization,and industrialization have occurred extremely recently, only since the last ice age.  While humans likely cannot destroy the planet, we can probably make it less hospitable to life until the next ice age arrives in another twenty millennia or so to cool us back down. We may even be able set events in motion to initiate another climate-change induced mass extinction.  At the every least, we will likely cause vast resource depletion, displace millions, and make things extremely uncomfortable.

Part of the trouble, I think, is that while climate models can predict big-picture, average conditions very well, they are less able to paint a detailed.picture.  And detailed pictures, drama, is what people respond to. It is well and good to clearly explain and debate the nuances of science, but my friend is right: people need to perceive and understand specifics to be convinced, and they need to know how those specifics will impact their lives in some way. When and where and how much will sea levels rise, will seasons change, will crops be depleted? The new NASA climate change web page is a good first step toward getting the imagery out there, but more needs to be done to paint this picture as vividly and with as much accuracy as possible.

We are in the midst of a shift in consciousness; everyone is "going green". Energy efficiency and alternative energy are closer to reality than ever. I attended a conference last week in which a U of M professor talked about her company's work to bring to market cheap batteries for drive trains. Cities are in a race to be the most "sustainable".  Yet some leaders are still loathe to use the words "climate change."

How do you solve a problem without naming it? Yes, there are many ancillary and complementary reasons to eschew fossil fuels, conserve energy and steward natural resources.As Republican Senator Lindsey Graham now says, politics, economics and legacy are enough reason without ever discussing climate change. Yes, let's create jobs, reduce our dependence on foreign oil, increase our economic competitiveness through reducing energy costs.  But in the end, I think we need to clearly identify the target, or we will be distracted.  And right now, that target needs to be very clear: eliminate greenhouse gases.

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