I just returned from a presentation at the University of Oregon’s Law Center given by James Hansen, head of Nasa’s Goddard Institute forSpace Studies in New York City. Hansen has been dubbed the ‘Grandfather of Global Warming’ though he demurs the moniker. He shows pictures of his Grandkids and says that the title is at least half right but that there have been plenty of others who have previously warned of human influenced climate change or anthropogenic global warming (AGW), often referred to informally as just global warming.
It was a very interesting talk and Dr. Hansen presented very clear and concise data gathered from recent and historical climatology studies (many 538ers have heard me make some of these points before but they bear repeating). Warming and cooling IS anatural phenomenon. The problem has to do with scale and time. Prior to the industrial revolution warming or cooling took place at an infinitesimal rates spanning hundreds of centuries allowing for life on earth to adapt. The amount of natural carbon released in the atmosphere was .0001 parts per million (ppm) annually. Post industrial revolution and the massive increase in use of fossil fuels combined with exponential population growth and technological advancement and we now release 2 ppm/year. That’s a 10,000 times faster than natural change.
Why is that problematic (I ask rhetorically)? Because it pushes us towards a tipping point of catastrophic failure. It also means that there are considerable warming consequences already in the pipeline. Our atmosphere can only realistically tolerate 350 ppm total in any given moment. We are currently at 389 ppm and rising. And there is no shortage of fossil fuels (about half the oil is gone, but there is plenty of coal and natural gas left).
The effects are already evident. The arctic ice cap will be gone in a few decades. Glaciers have retreated far too rapidly. Greenland’s ice cap is diminishing rapidly and the Antarctic ice shelf is breaking off in greater succession. Add to this the frozen methane hydrates being released by the melting of permafrost in the arctic tundra and you have a cocktail of disaster waiting to happen. Climate zones are already shifting northward at 35 miles per year.
But enough of the doom and gloom. The key political problem is the knowledge gap between what is understood by science and what is known by the public. This allows for false conjecture of climate change deniers. And the denial extends from a selfish adherence to unbridled capitalistic beliefs (this is an argument I’ll wade into in a later article).
If the public understood the science better they would appreciate the consequences of their behaviours or their complicity in the actions of the whole system. This is why Al Gore won so many awards for ‘An Inconvenient Truth’. He uncomplicated the science. I urge anyone and everyone to check it out for yourself. Do a Wikipedia search on climate change for a good summary. Here are a couple of other related places.
I don’t entirely agree with Dr. Hansen’s solution (also for a later debate) but I do agree that drastic steps need to be taken. The good news is that there are many people, organizations, and even nations doing so. In particular: China. China has far more people than we do yet we emit 10 times more carbon per capita than they do.
This is a shot across the bow that we need to heed. The window of opportunity to avoid the deleterious effects of climate change will not remain open for long. You owe it to yourself to find out all you can about AGW. More to the point, you owe it to my Grandchildren.