Monday, January 30, 2006

We're Not Scaremongering, This Is Really Happening


I'm tempted to write in my introduction to this piece some glib little remark about how this particular January in New York has been disconcertingly warm. How there have been twice as many days (12) that have seen temperatures 50 degrees and above as there have been nights that have seen lows below 30 degrees (6). Further, there have been as many days over 60 degrees (1) than nights below 20 degrees (1).

Think of how different history would have turned out had either Napoleon or Hitler been so fortunate as to encounter similarly out of season balminess in Russia during their respective ill-fated winter campaigns. If Stalingrad's temperatures were anything like New York's in 2006, it would have been Springtime For Hitler in January. But that would be falling into a couple common pitfalls that laymen trip over when discussing global warming.

It is not unusual to hear people hold out global warming as the nefarious cause on an unseasonably warm day, and with similar frequency one can hear the shivering recitation of the claim that the then-current cold spell was proof positive that global warming is a myth. How, after all, could it be this cold in May if there was such a thing as global warming.

But the truth of the matter is, most science points to the likelihood that man-made climate change will have different impacts on different regions at different times. In general, weather patterns will be disrupted leading to out of season effects, more extreme weather (landslides, hurricanes, droughts, flooding), and the melting of the polar ice caps could interact with weather-affecting ocean currents that could result in paradoxical cooling in certain regions.

So it is possible for global warming to make some places warmer, and others colder, or even both occurring out of pattern. In either instance, limited, anecdotal and isolated data is largely irrelevant. Thus, January 2006 in New York City is too small a sample to be used as a predictive model, or even as dispositive evidence (on its own) of a larger trend.

But we don't have to rely on stories about "the coldest winter I ever spent" and the like. Since circa the Enlightenment, the world has been blessed with enough scientific thinkers who know about the value of empirical evidence and the scientific method that we as a people have evolved beyond the realm of limited anecdotal evidence and/or superstition as the basis for scientific prediction/description. Speaking of which, scientists say the darndest things:

Now that most scientists agree human activity is causing Earth to warm, the central debate has shifted to whether climate change is progressing so rapidly that, within decades, humans may be helpless to slow or reverse the trend.

This "tipping point" scenario has begun to consume many prominent researchers in the United States and abroad, because the answer could determine how drastically countries need to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions in the coming years. While scientists remain uncertain when such a point might occur, many say it is urgent that policymakers cut global carbon dioxide emissions in half over the next 50 years or risk the triggering of changes that would be irreversible.

There are three specific events that these scientists describe as especially worrisome and potentially imminent, although the time frames are a matter of dispute: widespread coral bleaching that could damage the world's fisheries within three decades; dramatic sea level rise by the end of the century that would take tens of thousands of years to reverse; and, within 200 years, a shutdown of the ocean current that moderates temperatures in northern Europe.

The debate has been intensifying because the Earth is warming much faster than some researchers had predicted. [emphasis added]
As that article noted, and Kevin Drum added, the particularly frightening tone of these findings stems largely from the concept of a point of no return, a fast approaching boundary that, if crossed, will lead to near-irreversible changes that will take decades if not centuries to rectify:

And keep in mind that the issue is not that the things she writes about are going to happen in 50 or 100 or 200 years. The issue is that within 20-30 years it will become impossible to stop them from happening no matter what we do. And since it will take a minimum of 20-30 years to make any serious progress on greenhouse gas emissions, we need to get our asses in gear now.
Some of the scientific findings from the article:

James E. Hansen, who directs NASA's Goddard Institute of Space Studies, last week confirmed that 2005 was the warmest year on record, surpassing 1998. Earth's average temperature has risen nearly 1 degree Fahrenheit over the past 30 years, he noted, and another increase of about 4 degrees over the next century would "imply changes that constitute practically a different planet."

"It's not something you can adapt to," Hansen said in an interview. "We can't let it go on another 10 years like this. We've got to do something." [...]

Greenland's current net ice loss is equivalent to an annual 0.008 inch sea level rise.

The effects of the collapse of either ice sheet would be "huge," [Princeton University geosciences and international affairs professor Michael] Oppenheimer said. "Once you lost one of these ice sheets, there's really no putting it back for thousands of years, if ever."
How To Disappear Completely

The Bush administration's response has been all too predictable, and fitting well within patterns of past behavior. As far back as 2003, well into the self-termed "Environmental President's" first term, Republican strategist Frank Luntz was cautioning Republicans about the collision course with science on the horizon.

Most scientists believe that [global] warming is caused largely by manmade pollutants that require strict regulation. Mr. Luntz seems to acknowledge as much when he says that "the scientific debate is closing against us." His advice, however, is to emphasize that the evidence is not complete.

"Should the public come to believe that the scientific issues are settled," he writes, "their views about global warming will change accordingly. Therefore, you need to continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue."
Wary of the impact all this inconvenient science could have on policy vis a vis important constituencies and environmental regulations seeking to contain emissions, the Bush administration and its Republican allies have decided to try to gag the scientists and muddy the waters:

Hansen said that nothing in 30 years equaled the push made since early December to keep him from publicly discussing what he says are clear-cut dangers from further delay in curbing carbon dioxide.
From the Washington Post article cited earlier:

"They're trying to control what's getting out to the public," Hansen said, adding that many of his colleagues are afraid to talk about the issue. "They're not willing to say much, because they've been pressured and they're afraid they'll get into trouble."
Biggest problem with this approach: Mother Nature is not susceptible to spin. Last time I checked, she doesn't watch Fox News. Controlling the flow of information and consensus on this topic might be good for book sales and certain industry sectors in the short term, but it's not going to mean much in the face of real world manifestations that will not suffer fools.

I know there were problems with Kyoto as written, but that doesn't mean we can simply ignore the underlying exigencies. The Bush administration didn't reject Kyoto because they had an alternative better-suited to the problem, they rejected Kyoto because they are intent on sticking, more or less, to the Party-line that global warming is a "hoax" perpetrated by malevolent environmentalists who tend to pick on the poor and defenseless fossil fuel industry. And in the meantime, the clock is ticking.

I generally have been focusing on foreign policy issues over the past several months of this blog's existence. I consider the stakes to be very high in this arena, and it is my natural area of interest. But without waxing overly melodramatic here, this one environmental sequence of events could have a much more drastic impact on our lives than terrorists ever could. In that sense, environmental calamaties can render so many other discussions moot. Maybe we should think about it that way - as a national security issue. Let's call it the "War on Global Warming" if that polls better. But we have to start acting in decisive ways, very soon.

Believe me when I say this, that the last thing I want is the ability to say in forty or fifty years time (God, and the ever-increasing life expectancy, willing): "I told you so." Here's a preview of the excuses/denials we'll undoubtedly encounter (some may sound familiar to our present circumstances):

1. This isn't happening.
2. Whoa! Nobody saw this one coming.
3. There was nothing that could have been done anyway.
4. Regulations would have crimped our automotive industry (which was already losing ground to competitors who were, ironically, forging ahead with more environmentally friendly and popular models).
5. Regulations would have been expensive, and there was no way to afford them and pass trillions of dollars worth of tax cuts primarily benefitting the wealthiest Americans.
6. This is a good thing because it will hasten the coming of the Rapture.*

Priorities people. Priorities. As Iraq war supporters are increasingly resigned to saying, history will be the judge. Unfortunately, we'll all be doing the time.

(* Please note that I did not mean this as a form of religious intolerance, it's just that James Watt - US Secretary of the Interior under Reagan [no irony intended] - once told the U.S. Congress that protecting natural resources was not as crucial as some claim becuase of the imminent return of Jesus Christ. In public testimony he said, "after the last tree is felled, Christ will come back." Secretary of the Interior.)

[UPDATE: Doh! I don't think James Watt ever actually said the above cited quote. Apparently, this was a fabricated line that meandered its way from a book, to an article appearing in Grist magazine to a speech by Bill Moyers (which is where I read it) and on to a Washington Post story. Either way, in all likelihood James Watt never uttered these words. My apologies to him and the reader.

And hat tip to Patrick for the fact check. I always appreciate corrections. An important part of improving the dialogue. If possible, I'd rather only make mistakes once. Dare to dream I guess.]

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