Sunday, January 28, 2007

The Writing on the Wall has Become a Smoking Gun

I woke up this morning to see the article "Report to Reveal 'Smoking Gun' on Climate Change" in the news links on my homepage. A new report to be issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, produced by hundreds of climate scientists, will elucidate that
"The smoking gun is definitely lying on the table as we speak," said top U.S. climate scientist Jerry Mahlman, who reviewed all 1,600 pages of the first segment of a giant four-part report. "The evidence ... is compelling."

The real question is, "is this anything that new?" The majority of respected climatologists have been trying to direct attention toward climate change for decades now.

The earth is a complex, dynamic, living system. Climatologists and earth systems scientists study how many different factors affect one another on this lively sphere. They've developed computer models that can handle far more factors of interaction than a human mind can, and that, while far from perfect, are capabable of predicting much of what is likely to happen from given information (to show how much we rely on such models, consider that modern meteorology depends on them). One of the most striking effects of the earth system is the positive feedback loop--the effect that, once a certain process starts, reinforces change, leading to more change, which becomes a runaway process that doesn't stop until some natural threshold or factor outside the closed loop stops it. For example, polar ice caps have a significant "albedo" effect--they reflect much of solar radiation back into space without absorbing it as heat on earth. But as they melt, that effect is decreased, and arctic regions absorb more heat, hastening the melting of the ice caps. What's more, there is a significant amount of carbon dioxide in the ice that is released into the atmosphere as it melts, increasing the concentration of greenhouse gases that trap heat in the atmosphere. It is easy to see how such a feedback loop, once reaching a critical level, could go on and on until some unspecified limit. For the earth, that limit could be a world significantly different from the one we live in now--different from the one to which our agriculture and fisheries, populations and cities, ways of life, and even much of our technologies are sensitively tuned. While the earth has certainly in its history been warmer than it is now, it has never happened like this, especially in human history. And the few times that there have been cataclysmic climate change events have also coincided with mass extinction events.

So the point then, that I'm trying to make, is that this is something that is important--really, really important. When climate scientists started pointing to striking evidence of climate changes even possibly associated with human activity, then was the time to start taking it seriously, then was the time to start doing something about it. But we didn't. And I'm not just talking about the government. I'm talking about everyone. I'm talking about ordinary citizens, community organizations, and industry itself. Why is that? I think anyone who thinks about it a little bit can come up with some pretty good answers by themselves. I've always thought, "complacency." But you know what? That's not the answer. Complacency with something this big isn't innate. It has to be taught and reinforced.

People are still buying SUV's with horrible fuel economy compared to what they could buy that is just as practical if not in many cases more practical. People still leave lights and appliances on in their homes when not using them. Standards by and large still don't take environmental impact into account. And why? "Because there's nothing wrong with that," has said the messages we've been given. George W. Bush just made his first expression of real acknowledgement that climate change is a problem in his State of the Union address. Unless it actually leads to some changing policies, however, it's an empty gesture. Hopefully, at least, the United States government will stop actively reinforcing the message that climate change isn't enough of a problem to change attitudes or behavior.

My hope is limited, though. For one, there should be a huge acknowledgement by some people and entities that they were wrong. That would be something really effectual. People would wake up to how real climate change is if some important people actually admitted their fault, and said, "okay, I was/we were wrong, and now we need to address this." But I doubt they'll do that. Instead, what they'll do is either accept the reality of climate change while continuing to deny the risks or causes associated with the phenomenon, or, conversely, whitewash their own history of denial, and make it seem as though they were always aware of climate change and its risks. In either case, those entities won't be doing anything about climate change, only serving their image or objectives.

So what does that mean? I think it means that, as has been the case for decades, it's up to us to do something. We don't need the government to act for us. It really is up to us, and how we live--just like the resolution to many of the problems that plague our society. We need to feel nagging, persistent pangs of guilt that we drive SUV's with low fuel economy, or that we leave things on that we don't use, or that we have little regard for how much energy we use and its disparity with how much we need to use. Community organizations need to hold meetings to talk about ways that wasteful energy use by communities can be reduced. We need to ask for energy efficient designs, and if necessary, find a way to make our homes and buildings more energy efficient ourselves. We need to try to find the natural catalyst for change, that natural desire to preserve what is good and what matters to us most, that would have spurred us into action a long time ago had we not been lulled away into a false sense of security.

Here's a thought that might help with that: we have scientists who are specifically trained to study climate, who are more qualified than experts in any other other field to speak concerning it. And they are worried. Very, very worried.


Blogger Jim Blynt said...

It is, indeed, up to us, and there is great truth in the slogan "to think globally and act locally." Destroying the environment for short-term gain (which largely describes the history of the U.S. from the start), is fouling one's own nest. I am continually astonished by those who do it. I am lucky to live in a pretty nice nest, Vermont, where people have worked hard to protect the environment for decades (I swear the state symbol should be a recycling bin), but even we are not immune. People come here in droves, having fouled their own nests, with plans to foul ours (we have bumper stickers that say, "Don't Jersey Vermont," but they have only limited results: still the McMansions go up). When all is said and done, it's a hell of a lot simpler than people think: leave no trace, do no harm, walk don't ride, turn off the lights, quit buying so much crap, and clean up your own damned mess.

10:50 AM  

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