“What Global Warming?”/Global Warming is Good”/”The Mother of all Environmental Issues” Or The (Initially) Slow Emergency?
Are you doing what you can to help slow the acceleration of global warming and broader climate change? Or do you view it as a silly, highly-disputed, or distant concept; unlikely to impact your family, or millions of other families? Or the natural world you may have come to appreciate? What if there’s something you don’t know that makes it an immediate problem, whether your perception (or favorite political pundit) says so or not? Something suggesting that Earth’s holocene carbon cycle and climate were in a firm state of quasi-equilibrium, but subject to disruption by a lagged response to cumulative human pressures?
Right now, it’s chilly outside. So really, what is all this “global warming” talk anyway, and why care? Well, it doesn’t mean the end of natural fluctuation (particularly local, since heat distribution varies), most of which is a matter of short-term weather rather than climate. For now, the climate trend of warming is pretty gradual (with some stronger regional affects), and subject to modulation by things like ocean heat exchange. This, along with a misinterpreted paper on the less-predictable annual to decadal variability, is key to why certain political pundits have been getting away with “global cooling” innuendo (despite independent analyses to the contrary). Other than the fact that a few years don’t constitute a trend reversal, there’s also the reality that the standard solar cycle and at least two ocean cycles have been in their cool phases. And yet compared to the long-term average (not just 1998, somewhat biased to the warm side by a strong el niño), there’s still a global mean temperature anomaly, with 2009 in the top five years on record.
It’s become clear that there’s a massive disinformation effort, based on falsehood and half-truth, to downplay climate concerns. This has severely delayed meaningful action to transition society from fossil fuels in an orderly way. Now the issue is more urgent, given the size of the task at hand, and the limited time available to minimize the risk of shifting the climate and biosphere to a much less friendly regime. After all, inertial lag and long-term feedbacks in Earth’s climate system mean the atmosphere will continue warming long after emissions are cut.
Increasingly at the expense of their ecosystems, the oceans continue to sequester large amounts of carbon dioxide (subject to future reduction) and heat (the oceans are warming, from the surface down, contrary to a flawed analysis recently caught in peer review). And so it takes time for the climate to fully respond to “greenhouse gas” accumulation. What we’ve already seen (an overall trend mixed with natural fluctuation) is just the beginning, even if we start seriously cutting fossil carbon emissions. But the goal now is to prevent the further acceleration of climate change well beyond it’s natural holocene range. A range that has fostered widespread intensive agriculture and the ecosystems human societies are linked with.
I have also come to acknowledge that some moderate warming could be good. That is, what has already occurred, and will occur into the next few decades due to thermal inertia (even with GHG emission controls). It may be good in some ways to temperate regions, and the consequences for most others are unlikely to be catastrophic. We’ve already set the potential for some benefit to agriculture in Northern regions (those where soils are suitable and water will be available), along with fewer and generally milder cold spells. But what if we’re indeed near the brink of something bigger, as the sustained influence of a stronger greenhouse effect triggers major change in the cryosphere (think heat-absorbing, sunlight-reflecting glaciers & sea ice), the oceans, and other systems that have so far softened the effects of global warming?
What happens when we push Earth’s climate to the point of widely hazardous rates of change? What happens when greater instability sets in, while the naysayers keep telling us it’s all natural? When perennial glacial watersheds for millions of people shrink, ice sheets disintegrate, and sea levels rise in fits and starts, not any particularly predictable manner? When vital ecosystems deteriorate, and regional hydrology ranges from more persistent drought to stronger storms with heavier rain/snow? And greater warmth and drought fuel insect invasions, wildfires, and the expansion of disease? Do we just say “oops”, and use our failure to look beyond our immediate wants and perceptions as an excuse?
There are no proven technologies that can significantly reverse climate change after-the-fact, let alone safely and economically. Even natural offset methods like tree planting have their limits, especially in a world of continued high emission. So the question now: What can you do to support efforts to quicken the pace of efficiency improvement, and the adoption of alternative energy technologies (we need both)? What can you do to reduce your consumption of fossil fuels and conventionally-farmed beef (currently another contributor, directly and indirectly)? Even the smaller things can make a difference when multiplied by hundreds of millions of people. For additional information, and some suggestions, you can read more at Understandit.ml1.net and follow the blogging at Climateprogress.org and Realclimate.org.
Thanks for taking the time.
We sometimes hear the implication that global warming is just the perpetuation of bad science. Obviously, the scientific process isn’t perfect in any field (including those like medicine that have greatly improved modern life), but the peer review and assessment process doesn’t tend to lend itself to successful global-scale fraud. Work must be re-analyzed/independently replicated to be taken very seriously. There may be pressure to get interesting results, but in high-profile fields there’s also pressure to get it right or risk losing credibility (something most scientists value).
With such a contentious issue, and plenty of money on the fossil fuel side of the discourse, it surely wouldn’t take decades to uncover a major flaw in the concept of cumulative human influence. A flaw that would attract a lot of attention, for both the researchers involved and the media outlets that thrive on (and sometimes manufacture) controversy. And any significant natural phenomenon involved, along with refinement of regional climate projections, would also receive research funding. So even chasing grants (if that were a primary reason for getting into such a demanding career) wouldn’t require dedication to the human factor.