(43) Climate Science

Climate Science: What You Need To Know


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The time of global warming as a controversy is over. Nearly all of the skeptics have come around. Thousands of scientists have gathered and analyzed trillions of bit soft data and constructed sophisticated climate models using the world’s most powerful computers. They have used those models to explain the environmental changes that are now being observed. And they have arrived data consensus. The data, the models, the observations, and the anecdotes all point in the same direction:

Earth is warming, and human activities are largely to blame.

Scientists mostly agree on this point, too:

People must take action on climate change, and they must do it now.

Unfortunately, society has not kept up with the scientists.

News reporters still seek out the few remaining skeptics to provide“balance “to their readers, despite the fact that these doubters have largely been discredited. Political leaders see no advantage in recognizing climate change because it is not relevant on the Short time frame of an electoral cycle.

People are happy to fall back on ideas such as “Well, Earth has been warmer in the past” without knowing what that really means and what the consequences really are. Therefore, while the problem of climate change is moving to the forefront of public consciousness, little organized action has been taken. Ultimately, climate change cannot be ignored. In human history, people have thrived when the weather was good and suffered and died when conditions were too dry, too cold, too hot, or too wet. The Vikings prospered on Greenland during the Medieval Warm Period, while at the same time the Maya civilization was collapsing due to a tremendous drought. But the good times did not last for the Vikings once the Little Ice Age arrived and wiped them out of their northern colonies. Cycles of floods and drought have initiated the spread of disease; the demise of past populations due to bubonic plague provides a chilling example.

Today, people may think that they are above the perils posed by global warming, but they are not. Small increases in temperature may benefit some crops in some regions, but that will not be true in other regions. Larger increases in temperature will hurt agriculture almost worldwide. Storms will increase in frequency and intensity, and sea level will rise, causing tens or hundreds of millions of people to become climate refugees. Vulnerable ecosystems-polar, alpine, and coral reef, to name a few-will disappear, as will the many species that will be unable to escape from, or adapt to, the new conditions. It is very unlikely that human society will be able to maintain its population and its lifestyle under these very different circumstances. But these changes are not yet inevitable.

Climate change is a more difficult environmental problem to understand and to fix than most. When a stream of toxic chemicals flows into a river, fish die. A coal-fired power plant visibly pollutes the air, and trees downwind are harmed by acid rain. These problems are visible and their effects immediate. But the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere cannot be seen and has no immediate consequences. No single event, even one as destructive as Hurricane Katrina, can unequivocally be attributed to it.

Nonetheless, there is a precedent for dealing with a similar environmental problem-a problem caused by substances that do not outwardly appear to be harmful, that bring about consequences that cannot be seen, and that are international in their effect. The problem was ozone depletion, and the cause was the chlorofluorocarbons and other man-made chemicals that caused it. When atmospheric scientists became convinced that these chemicals were causing the Antarctic ozone hole, the international community responded by phasing out and ultimately eliminating the production of ozone-destroying chemicals. As a result, the rate of increase in the size of the ozone  hole is decreasing, and the hole is likely to start healing by the end of this decade.

Solving the climate change problem will take much more effort and sacrifice than solving the relatively simple problem of ozone depletion. After all, the world economy is built on fossil fuel burning, and many portions of the economy benefit from the destruction of the

rain forests. To start dealing with the effects of climate change, climate scientists recommend that society first work toward becoming more energy efficient, and then work toward converting entirely to energy sources that produce zero carbon emissions. They also recommend reductions in the emissions of other greenhouse gases: For example, changing farming practices to reduce methane emissions and stopping the production of man-made chemicals that contribute to greenhouse warming. Finally, they recommend researching and developing more technologically advanced solutions, such as sequestering carbon and harnessing solar energy in space. The important thing is to start making these changes soon, before the temperature rise to which we are committed becomes dangerous. So far, it has been easy to ignore the environmental effects of climate change, in part because no single incident can be attributed to global warming and because the most serious consequences will not occur until the future. It is easier to deny the contributions people are making to global warming than to recognize and deal with them and make the sacrifices that this will require. The people now in power and those who are now producing most of the greenhouse gas emissions are not the ones who will suffer most of the consequences. The ones who will be most affected by global warming are the young people of today and those yet to be born.

As NASA’s James Hansen said in The New York Review of Books in July 2006, “Who will pay for the tragic effects of a warming climate?

Not the political leaders and business executives I have mentioned. If we pass the crucial point and tragedies caused by climate change begin to unfold, history will judge harshly the scientists, reporters, special interests, and politicians who failed to protect the planet. But our children will pay the consequences.” Because the consequences of global warming will largely be felt by young people, it is especially important for young people to become educated in climate change science and to learn what to do to mitigate climate changes and adapt to them. Young people can voice their dissatisfaction with the political status quo and work to help turn the situation around. It is not too late to begin.

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