Wednesday, June 27, 2007

It's not academic

I’ve heard a great deal of "so what?" about climate change, lately. Many people hear terms like "general circulation model", "albedo", and "aeronomy", and shrug their shoulders. Even as physical sciences go, these concepts can be fairly abstract. Moreover, we all remember hot days and cold days, and we’re fairly hard-pressed to remember how many of each we had last year. The reader can’t look out the window and "see" climate change.
Or can we? Climate drives a dizzying array of physical and biological processes. It’s impossible to overstate the relationship between climate, ecology, and adaptation. I’ll spare the reader my normal purple prose, and instead focus on this image.
This MODIS image published by NASA shows African dust blowing across the Atlantic Ocean, to be deposited in the Caribbean Sea. Higher temperatures yield more airborne African dust, and more energetic winds to carry it. This dust clouds the clear Caribbean waters, interferes with algae and coral, and has been linked to coral reef die-offs. The reef die-offs directly impact the livelihood of local fishermen.
I urge the reader to look past the sometimes confusing details of mathematics and science for a moment and focus on what scientists are actually concerned about: quality of life and livelihood across our human family. Is this not worth our time and consideration?

10 comments:

Pat Jenkins said...

erd, i apologize for not having stopped in a period, i see you have been busy and i will make it a point to check in more frequently. now to your post, if climate change has reached this magnitude, is there anything that can be done? shouldn't this problem have been recognized before now, and hopefully solved.

Progressive said...

ERD - elegant and well said as usual. I am currently reading a series of books on the timeline of extinctions and biological change that has occurred so far due to G.W. For example, a type of tree frog in a South American mountain breeds in puddles formed by cloud mist. Increased temps warmed the mountain enough so that the clouds that form long term over the mountain, formed higher, eliminating the puddles. Therefore in a short amout of time the frogs became extinct, and the animals that fed off of those frogs are doing the same or are near extinction. Makes me sad.

E. R. Dunhill said...

PJ,
Thanks for stopping by. No need to apologize- you’re only obliged to keep reading as long as I’m writing something of interest to you, and you have the time to read. I’ve been out of the loop a bit too, between work, school, and community commitments.
As for your questions, I’ll address the second one first: People did recognize the problem before now. Human impacts on the atmosphere have been the focus of public debate for years. Consider Kyoto (1997), Rio de Janeiro (1992), and Montreal (1987), to name a few of the many international meetings on this issue. In 1988, the director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies testified before the Senate GISS was "99 percent certain" that the unusually hot summer of 1988 was evidence that global warming was already underway. Granted, there was a great deal more scientific debate about the concept of GW at the time, but there were scientists who believed that they had identified observable effects.
Your first question raises a very important point. There are indeed some scientists (a minority of scientists) who believe that because of positive feedback systems, we’ve already passed the climate’s point of no return. They believe that no matter what we do, things will get slowly and steadily worse for some years to come. "So long and thanks for all the fish."
However, most scientists believe that while we are stuck with some measure of warming in the present and for the near future, we can prevent further warming, and we can avoid some of the most harmful effects of climate change. This is the reason that many people in the science and policy sectors are advocating so strongly for new policies and changes in behavior now. The rationale is that we can nip the problem in the bud, rather than trying to create solutions once we discover that it has gotten out of hand.

E. R. Dunhill said...

progressive,
Thank you for reading and commenting. I’ve been looking around for some literature on the topic of extinctions and climate. What is the series you're reading? While I’m on the subject of grilling you for book recommendations, do you know any good texts (or articles, for that matter) on pedology & geography, soils & climate, or related topics? When I have a little more time for reading, I’d like to explore the question of agriculture migrating away from the current breadbaskets and moving in the direction of the poles. I have some questions about soil fertility vis-à-vis genesis, morphology, and climate.

Pat Jenkins said...

erd, why do you beleive it has only now seized the public's consciousness, having been a threat for quite some time then?

E. R. Dunhill said...

PJ,
First, I think it’s because of the nature of the science. Good science involves a great deal of debate, often heated. I’ve often joked, “For every PhD, there is an equal and opposite PhD.” Moreover, climate science is fairly complicated, even as sciences go. It samples heavily from subsets of physics, chemistry, geology, biology, and geography, to name a few of its sources. Beyond this, climate science has advanced a number of techniques, like computer modeling, that are relatively recent developments in the broader history of science.
Second, it’s human nature to resist change, whether that’s change in thinking, or change in lifestyle. The environmental camp, on the whole did a fairly poor job of involving people in climate change action. The model of environmental outreach from the 1970s and 1980s was very negative. Nobody wants to be told that they’ve been destroying the world their entire life, and that what they want is wrong. Likewise, scientists did what they do: they used science to communicate. Many people, particularly those who don’t want to understand, find this mode of communication challenging.
Why is it catching on now?
-The science is more mature, and people increasingly feel that they can trust the conclusions.
-Activists and organizers have figured out how to talk to people.
-People are more educated about the natural sciences.
-Some important changes have occurred in environmental regulatory practices.
-People want to get out from under oil for reasons other than environmental ones.
-Scientists have successfully made the point that oil will run out at some point, anyway.
-Hollywood told us it’s finally OK to do something about climate change, so it must be true.
-Some prominent republicans have adopted climate change as a key issue, and the democratic leadership continues to at least pay lip service to doing something about it.
-Local and state governments are moving ahead, making national political groups look irrelevant.
-We’re feeling pressure from our friends and allies.
-People just started to realize energy efficiency saves money.
-In an increasingly chaotic world, people want to believe they can do something to fix it.

Pat Jenkins said...

erd, i will have one last question for you and thanks for your explanations, you mention something that is the underlying theme in all this debate the consumption of oil. why the disgusts with it usage?

E. R. Dunhill said...

PJ,
Speaking for myself, I’m not disgusted with the use of petroleum. I think it’s a bad solution to the energy problem, though. The question of carbon dioxide and climate notwithstanding, petroleum has some serious drawbacks.
The drawback at the forefront of many people’s minds is related to geographic distribution. Petroleum only occurs in large quantities in certain places, but the demand for it is ravenous and nearly universal. The result is that people mistreat, exploit, extort, and kill one another for it. The corollary to the geography problem is that the US has not had consistently friendly relations with much of the oil-exporting world. Oil exporting states have proved in the past that they are willing to manipulate price and supply to their own advantage and the detriment of the US- after all, it’s just business. As South Asian and East Asian demand for petroleum continues to boom, the US becomes less of a market force; the logic that "the producers have to sell it somewhere" is less and less a shield for the US. If the oil embargoes of the 1970s didn't prove this point, perhaps an insatiable China and India will.
Another drawback to using petroleum as fuel is that it is useful for many applications other than burning it. Without going into the litany of petroleum-based products readers almost certainly buy, suffice to say that petroleum is the basis for a variety of plastics and fibers. Burning it just seems silly, given the other more permanent uses.
Yet another problem with petroleum is (again, leaving the lid on the carbon problem), is that of the ambient environment. Extracting fossil fuels frequently causes water pollution, some of it significant. There are thousands of drill sites in the US alone, many of them poorly documented or undocumented, many of them in very close proximity to wells that provide Americans with drinking water. I’ve seen firsthand what a natural gas well can do to the quality of well water. It’s a bad thing. Moreover, petroleum-based fuels often contain harmful pollutants like sulfur. Sulfur compounds cause acid rain and smog, both of which have done billions of dollars in damage to crops and to people’s health.
Given these problems, and the fact that petroleum will someday (perhaps in the foreseeable future) run out, many alternatives seem very attractive.

Pat Jenkins said...

erd thanks again for your honest response. all may well be true of oil, but what is also true is no natural resource is as productive and affordable as texas tea, and nothing will ever be able to take it's place.

E. R. Dunhill said...

PJ,
I appreciate you taking the time to follow my sometimes "very complete" responses to your comments. I also appreciate you asking insightful questions.
As for the cost of petroleum, I may get into the illusion of low cost in a future blog post. The US government does a number of things that make petroleum appear more economically attractive than it really is, and the apparent low cost of oil does not consider external costs. In truth, there is cheap energy to be had from a variety of sources, and efficient use makes it all effectively cheaper.
Regarding "…nothing will ever be able to take it’s place.": Americans once used this same sentiment with respect to the horse. Technologies of central importance often seem like the only option. But, there are several viable alternatives to fossil fuels, and some of those technologies are well-established. The fossil-fuel/automotive industry in the US has been very good at suppressing a market for these technologies and they have spent vast sums of money influencing our elected officials to help.
Beyond this, we need to recognize that fossil fuels will run out. If we simply conclude that there’s no alternative, then we have even bigger problems.
Thanks again for keeping this thread moving.

-erd