Thoughts on global climate change

25 04 2007

While watching the documentary Who Killed the Electric Car? with my wife and in-laws last night, my father-in-law brought up a good point; global climate change is lacking a symbol. When many documentaries cover the issue, footage of intense storms or photographs of hurricanes (especially Katrina) are shown, but there doesn’t seem to be one particular image that really resonates. For me, the most powerful was the lone polar bear, starving to death and having to swim many miles to find anything it could catch, featured in the BBC’s Planet Earth series, but much like many scientific concepts it’s hard to sum up the whole of such a concept (much like evolution) with just one image.

There has been some attempt to make global climate change relevant to the people of the United States, primarily by using Hurricane Katrina to explain that global warming could cause more (and if not more, then more intense) storms. Some, however, aren’t too sure about this correlation and are worried that it might end up hurting those who want to make sure everyone realizes global climate change is real. Indeed, while I won’t reveal his name or affiliations (I don’t want to get anyone in trouble or put words in their mouth), a very skilled friend of mine who is a meteorologist has explained to me that the connection between global warming and stronger or more numerous hurricanes is still tenuous at best; there may be a correlation but we simply do not know enough to say that it’s scientific fact. Mind you, he accepts that global climate change is real and that it’s man-made, but he has pointed out that by tying global warming to stronger storms we might end up shooting ourselves in the foot; if it’s coincidence or such predictions do not come true, those trying to explain global climate change to others may lose some credibility.

In the wake of the deadly 2005 hurricane season, scientists were predicting more deadly storms for 2006. Everyone was worried about another Katrina, or worse, but this did not come to pass. In fact, 2006 seemed relatively quiet, with no storms hitting the US. What’s the forecast for the approaching 2007 season? More major and powerful storms, this time unaffected by factors that were said to weaken storm activity last year, but whether the weather will be consistent with the predictions remains to be seen. Indeed, even though the recent IPCC report says that storms and global warming are linked, there is much debate within the scientific community as to whether this is really the case (where the real controversy over global warming is, in fact). Personally, I don’t think we know enough yet to say the warming-hurricane connection is an open and shut case, and we would do well to be careful (and honest) when invoking such examples to convince people that global climate change is real. It’s not like there’s a lack of things to talk about as far as changes to ecology and people in already impoverished regions paying the price for our gas-guzzling, and although such examples may not be as “close to home” as stronger hurricanes in our neck of the woods, we shouldn’t trade in potential relevance for accuracy.

Interestingly enough, after I finished Hunting Dinosaurs I decided to finish Peter Ward’s book Rivers in Time. While Ward’s style can be a little tedious at times, Ward does make the important connection that it is immensely important to understand past extinctions, especially in respect to what’s going on today. In fact, I am curious as to why there has not been more discussion about the Permian/Triassic mass-extinction being that we have already seen what drastic global climate change (likely fueled, at least in part, by carbon dioxide making the ocean more acidic and being dumped into the air) can do to the planet. While there are competing theories and I believe that extinctions are more complex than the average person realizes (rarely, if ever, is there one “smoking gun” that explains it all), we have a record of what happened to life when the climate changed quickly, although there is an important difference. The P/T extinction could not be avoided, nor could it be avoided now; it was caused by natural phenomena involving continental drift, volcanism, recession of the oceans, continent makeup, etc. In contrast, global climate change today is being created by us and can be eventually stopped or its impact reduced; it is not something that is entirely out of our hands. I think the P/T extinction can serve as a very potent example of what may await the planet if we do nothing; life will go on, I’m sure, but we might not be part of it. Again, if we were to use the P/T extinction as a model to help people realize the grave consequences we may face, we should be honest and attempt to be accurate, but I think it would be an effective tool to relate past catastrophes with our current situation.

Sometimes I wonder if we’ve passed the point of no return with global climate change; everyone’s aware of it these days, but getting people to actually do something about it is where the battle really is. Recycling has been around since before I was born and yet there are plenty of people who don’t do it (even plenty of states that don’t recycle), so how are we going to motivate people to “do the right thing”? How many people are going to want to make the sacrifices necessary to stop global climate change? While I’m sure plenty have good intentions, I personally am a bit pessimistic; I think the technology is going to have to change so that it forces people to be more “green” as they’re not going to do it of their own initiative. Things are far too convenient and comfortable, and I think the battle here is not so much to convince people global warming is real but to actually do what is necessary to reduce our energy input and pollution output.


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