Staying with the big things that matter most: Climate

Brenda Cooper @ 01-06-2011

I’ve been talking a lot about media in this column lately. We’re seeing a lot of fast change in the amount of media available, the way we consume that media, and also in what that media says. One of the new media books I’ve been reading is Al Gore’s iPad app version of “Our Choice” about Climate Change. As I write this, it’s pouring rain and hail outside my window and ten degrees colder than normal. The city of Joplin has been almost leveled by a tornado, and at this very moment there is a tornado warning in effect in Northern California (which is not historically a place where many tornadoes touch down). So I decided to write about climate change.

Current State

Let’s start with arctic sea ice. The extent of sea ice is shrinking according to every indicator I could find. Not always (there is always more in winter than fall, some years the fresh ice – ice less than a year old – grows). But overall ice in the Arctic and ice locked away in in the Greenland Ice sheet is all shrinking. By 2019, it’s predicted that we’ll see an “ice free fall” in the Polar Regions. This, if course, affects sea level, which in turn eats at our coasts and the lifestyles of those living on them. Melt may cause massive releases of methane. While not as dangerous as Co2 – because it has a shorter “life” in the atmosphere – large volumes of methane release could jolt the climate into quick change.

Animal habitat is changing. I’ve seen this for myself riding horses through bark-beetle kill in the mountains of the Pacific Northwest where I live. Some animals are losing habitat. For example, a rare mid-eastern songbird is threatened by shrinking habitat. Others are shifting habitat (malaria bearing mosquitoes are moving into places that may not be prepared for them).

We’re not talking about slow changes here. Many children alive now will see the end of this century, and something more than half of the living population will see 2040, when the world population is estimated to around nine billion, give or take a half a billion (It’s just under seven billion now). Those additional two billion people will by definition be under 30 years old in 2040. That’s a lot of kids and young people we are setting up to live in a world that is massively stressed by climate variability. Food could be harder to get, and if we’re not fast and agile, energy may be harder to get in any form.

Okay – so that’s probably a decent “what is happening” bit. I’ve left a lot of links below in case anyone wants to see where I drew my information from.

What are we doing about it?

I could write a very long post of what is being done. Most regions and countries are doing more with greener power. Many people are driving cars that get better gas mileage. Many of us have changed over our appliances for greener versions. Laws are slowly getting more supportive of green initiatives, particularly at the local level. The problem is that even taken all together, what we’re doing isn’t enough. It’s an uphill battle: previously third-world countries are modernizing, population is growing, and entrenched interests are slowing legislative change via lobbying and misinformation.

I have some thoughts about why we aren’t doing enough. I think we’re holding on to some myths about climate change.

Myth #1: We have time. We seem to think we can pick around the edges of this problem, that we can almost ignore it for a while and then get busy. We can wait for the economy to get better and then we can fix the world. It’s not true. How long ago was 1980? Not very – I remember it. 2040 is only that far away, with its one and half to two billion more people and everything from one foot of sea level rise to more storms to more droughts to more mosquitoes etc.

Myth #2: The government will solve it. Sorry. The government is owned by people who don’t want to solve the problem. Check the money flowing to your people in power. Check the halting process of any laws with real teeth.

Myth #3: We’re not really sure it’s happening. Read through the links I’ve given you and see if you still believe that. We’re sure. Not exactly of WHAT will happen, but we know that the world’s climate is changing in human-scale timeframes and that humans are most of the problem.

So should we do?

I watched a really excellent TED video as part of my research for this column. In the video, a man named Lewis Pugh talks about a swim he took in meltwater off of Mt. Everest. It’s worth watching, even though it has more emotion than substance. Pugh says we need to think differently, and with care, to solve this problem. That climate change is as big as Mt. Everest. But people have climbed that mountain, and if we want to leave future generations a better quality of life, we need to be willing to change. We need to change now. We need to force the government to help, and provide parts of the solution in spite of our governments, and we need to stop wavering.

Part of thinking differently needs to be global. Kyoto helped, but not enough. The IPCC didn’t get the traction it needed. Copenhagen fell short. We need to find a global force with teeth, and then be very careful about how it works and how transparent it is. Corporations are larger forces across the planet than governments. They are doing some good, at least some of them. But they could do a lot more. Corporations, by nature, are selective about their marketing and message and not always truthful, so it’s hard to really tell what’s being done. We need better transparency laws and more consumer leverage. The super-rich matter. Bill Gates is finally engaged in climate change / clean energy. He came late to the internet party, and he’s late to this one, but he remains a bright enough thinker with enough business acumen and balls to make a real difference if he decides to. There are a lot of other business and entertainment celebs also doing real work in this area.

Conclusion

There’s not a lot of brand new information about this problem. Yet we have to keep moving forward, innovating, educating, and swimming upstream. We can’t just forget it, and wait so long that the only real choices are massive geoengineering. If we do, we are almost sure to fail. In spite of all these years of information, misinformation, and controversy, we still don’t understand climate enough to change the system’s gears – the best we can do is change the known dangerous inputs (carbon and a lot of other things) that are de-stabilizing it.

If you want to do more of your own reading, here is a rather extensive list of articles on the internet. It’s a longer list that I usually give here, but this topic matters even if we’re tired of it. Almost every article in here is from 2011. Note that not one of these links is about the politics of climate change – that would be an even longer and more depressing list.

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Brenda Cooper’s latest science fiction novel, Wings of Creation, is out now from Tor Books. For more information, see her website!

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8 Responses to “Staying with the big things that matter most: Climate”

  1. Robert Koslover says:

    Hmm. You don’t seem to have included this helpful link: “A complete list of things caused by global warming” at http://www.numberwatch.co.uk/warmlist.htm
    Enjoy.

  2. Robert Koslover says:

    And here’s a recent article (May 2011) written by an especially well-respected professor of physics at Princeton: http://www.firstthings.com/article/2011/05/the-truth-about-greenhouse-gases
    [Fear not, Paul. The world *may* yet survive after all.]

  3. Paul Raven says:

    I’ve never doubted that the world will survive climate change, Robert; it’s the comfortable and privileged lifestyles we currently enjoy that are going to suffer. But as the worst will happen to poor brown people far away first, and we’ll probably not live to see the worst of what will befall our children, so, well, why worry, right?

    For the record, I’ve given up trying to convince climate sceptics that there’s no conspiracy. As they say in Yorkshire where my mother lives: “there’s none so deaf as them as won’t listen”. If you’ll take a handful of isolated articles by scientists who don’t specialise in climate research over the mass of material from those who do, what hope do I have of convincing you otherwise? In some ways, I envy you the comfort of believing that the real problem is a shadowy cabal of liberal conspirators rather than the inertia of human greed and political myopia. Were that the case, fixing it would be comparatively simple.

  4. Chad says:

    I don’t have time for deniers anymore. The vast majority of the science and the scientists all points to climate change. On top of that, oil production has hit a wall, while world energy demand is increasing. Even if climate change is moderate like Robert’s link suggests (screw those people 195 years in the future), we need a new cheap energy source anyway, so why not create one that is substantially cleaner than coal or oil and kill two birds with one stone.

    This is also a national security issue for the Western world and it has been linked to asthma and other breathing disorders.

    Plus, I was just in LA last weekend and the smog was sickening.

    Even if by some miracle the climate change advocates are wrong, and as one I do hope we are wrong, there are still plenty of really good reasons to find a new energy source other than coal or oil. Finding the new energy source is the real issue. Who cares “why” that group wants it, just that they want it is enough.

  5. Brenda Cooper says:

    Since I wrote this, I have noticed a few good things — for example, the World Bank is helping cities (which is now where over 50% of the population lives). http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/02/science/earth/02climate.html?_r=1
    This is part of what we need, for more of the influential people to be interested enough in change to put real resources around it.
    Chad: I agree completely that there are a million reasons for changing energy sources – if we’re going to have the population we expect (See Paul Graham Raven’s excellent post from earlier this week) we have to make power available in some less harmful fashion. The human race isn’t going to slip back to a mythical pre-industrial happiness level. Rather we’re going to keep demanding energy and tools and information and we need a less geopolitically dangerous energy source than oil.

  6. Robert Koslover says:

    Paul, for the record, I for one am not a believer that “the real problem is a shadowy cabal of liberal conspirators” per se. I do believe the real problem is that there exists a large number of scientists (and even more non-scientists) who are simply very mistaken about AGW. And I think Prof. Happer’s suggestions as to WHY they may have been so effectively seduced into such mistaken beliefs makes good sense. But just as you do not expect to convince me, I do not expect to convince you either. But if you are willing to limit yourself to examining predictions for time periods that will occur in your own lifetime, you can/will be able to test some of the AGW claims for yourself. So far, at least some of the more concrete near-term claims/ predictions, such as no more snowfall in the UK, or that we would have 50 million climate refugees by now, have proven false. I’ll acknowledge that some other claims may have come true. You are younger than me, so if you take good care of your health, you may get to test AGW’s predictions somewhat farther into the future than I can. But in the present day, there is one point on which I believe the evidence really is “incontrovertible.” And that is merely that the basic question of the existence of a global warming crisis, about which we must act now (or even soon), remains *unresolved*. Any claim that “the science is settled,” at least as of right now, is utter poppycock. Present day AGW alarmism may (or may not) turn out to be justified. But either way, far too many AGW alarmists severely damage their credibility by literally denying the existence of entirely rational and honest skepticism among their many fellow scientists. Most AGW skeptics (me included) overwhelmingly believe and accept the *existence* (but not always the validity) of the body of scientific work that has led many people to AGW alarmism. We variously disagree with the validity of the data interpretation, the discarding of certain sets of data, the processing techniques applied to the data, the adequacy of computer-based simulations, and/or the many dramatic conclusions asserted by AGW alarmists. In stark contrast, far too many AGW alarmists refuse to even acknowledge that their conclusions could ever, possibly, be wrong. And they likewise far too often choose to demonize and seek to damage/destroy the careers of those who simply disagree with them. I personally resigned from the American Physical Society (APS) specifically for the reason that Prof. Happer (see my earlier link) cites, i.e., APS management’s stubborn, arrogant, and anti-scientific (in my view) refusal to remove the word “incontrovertible” from their official statement on AGW, despite the incontrovertible existence of a rather long list of well-respected scientists (including numerous Fellows of the APS) who vigorously protested directly about this matter to APS management, but whose protests were summarily ignored and dismissed without a serious review. There is GENUINE science on BOTH sides of the AGW debate. But much of the AGW alarmist side blatantly refuses to accept that incontrovertible reality. And history shows quite clearly that refusal to acknowledge the *existence* of scientific disagreement/controversy is neither advantageous for the advancement of science nor for the betterment of humanity overall. Fortunately, the UK’s Royal Society is now being far more objective than the APS (see http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-1316469/Royal-Society-issues-new-climate-change-guide-admits-uncertainties.html), so perhaps there is hope that APS will yet come around. Let me close by saying thank you, Paul, for at least tolerating (and not censoring) the mere expression of AGW skepticism (e.g., from me) on your blog. In that regard, you are actually being truer to the practice of science than the leaders of the American Physical Society.

  7. brenda cooper says:

    Robert.

    Many of the problems we have in the US (and I suspect everywhere) are because the various sides of many arguments have entirely stopped listening to the other. It;s important we don’t – any of us – close our minds.

  8. Chad says:

    When I say I don’t have time for deniers, it’s not the scientific argument I don’t have time for. I encourage it. However, 99% of climate change deniers argue from belief. Not once have I come across a scientific fact offered up by a denier in personal conversation. Yet, I can offer up multiple facts supporting climate change and this is the vast majority of these discussions seem to go. Deniers using belief and climate change advocates using facts and belief (they need to remove this too, but at least they usually have some facts), so you don’t get a discussion.

    “Belief” is killing the U.S. I’m so tired that is respectable to be a believer. People should look up the definition of belief. It is not a respectable position to take.