Several things have finally prodded me to address climate change. Until recently, I had been content to let the continuing revelations from the scientific community speak to the issue. I thought the debate was essentially over, given the overwhelming scientific consensus that human-caused climate change is real and dangerous. But an April 18 op-ed in the Record-Eagle reprinted from the (Andover, Mass.) Eagle-Tribune which sneered at climate change concerns as “climate change religion,” in addition to the recent passage by the House of Representatives of an amendment to the annual Defense Department funding bill, have made me realize how naive I have been.
First, the op-ed. It attacks a University of New Hampshire climate study which predicts that “the summer of 2100 in Southern New Hampshire may be as much as 11 degrees warmer.” The op-ed correctly notes that forecasting climate is not the same as forecasting weather, but then criticizes the prediction thusly:
“Now that’s precision! We’d be a little more impressed if the boffins of UNH could tell us accurately how many degrees we’ll see tomorrow, let alone in the summer of 2100.”
I haven’t read the study they criticize, but this sarcasm seems misplaced on its face. First, with massive data collection and sophisticated computer analysis, climate scientists are better able to predict a range of average temperature trends over an 86-year period than weather forecasters are able to precisely predict a day’s temperature one month from now. (Unlike the op-ed, I think that forecasters do a pretty good job with “tomorrow.”) Moreover, the reference to “precision” doesn’t make any sense, if the op-ed accurately quotes the study. “Maybe as much as 11 degrees warmer” is scarcely a precise prediction!
Worse for me is that the op-ed simply shrugs off the fact that dire climate change predictions have the support of the overwhelming majority of climate scientists who have carefully studied and re-studied the issue knowing full well that flacks for the fossil fuel industries will jump on any weaknesses. The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recently re-examined the research on climate change and produced a strongly worded report which, in the words of USA Today, declares that “a rapid shift to less-polluting energy will be needed to avoid catastrophic global warming because worldwide emissions of heat-trapping greenhouse gases have accelerated to unprecedented levels.”
The sad truth is not just that predictions about climate change are coming true, but there is evidence that past predictions have been too cautious. You can find a lengthy executive summary of the report online. I believe you find it careful, supported by the data, and scary.
I should also note that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) just released a report which comes to essentially the same conclusions as the IPCC report. Speaker of the House John Boehner dismissed this report as “alarmist.” He should have said “alarming.”
The op-ed bases its denial on a single climate scientist, Richard Lindzen, who in its words “has endured scathing criticism from his fellow climate researchers for being what they call a ‘denier.’” Lindzen’s arguments have been carefully considered and found unconvincing by the vast majority of climate scientists. The IPCC report was a carefully constructed analysis written by 235 climate scientists from 57 countries who were fully aware of Lindzen.
The op-ed would have you believe that climate change has become a religion which will not tolerate heretics, of which Lindzen is a brave, lonely, example. Not so. Lindzen’s views simply don’t accord with the best scientific research. But they do accord with what is in the best interests of the fossil fuel industries.
Bad as the op-ed is, climate change denial recently reached new depths in the U.S. House of Representatives. For several years the U.S. Military — scarcely a bastion of muddleheaded hysteria — has been engaged in long range strategic planning which assumes that the world is going to be severely affected by climate change. The result, the military feels, could be wide-spread social disruption and famine, which will create an even more unstable world. So they wish to develop contingent responses accordingly.
But a few weeks ago Rep. David McKinley, a West Virginia Republican, succeeded in having the House of Representatives approve an amendment to the Defense Appropriations bill which forbids the Defense Department from taking into account in its planning and actions the IPCC climate assessment. I can understand why this astounding legislation could be introduced by a legislator from a major coal producing state. But the overwhelming Republican support for it is shameful and should be embarrassing to all sane Republicans.
I will be the first to concede that it is possible that the scientific consensus on climate change could be wrong. As deniers are quick to point out, there are examples where scientific orthodoxy has proved erroneous. But ask yourself two questions:
1. What if we do nothing and the scientific consensus is correct?
We will experience rising oceans, much more violent weather throughout the country, even more severe drought and forest fires in the West, disruption of agriculture and, eventually, the extinction of many species and at the least a miserable existence for humankind. Do you have children or grandchildren? How will you face them if the climate scientists are correct?
2. What if we engage in remedial efforts and the scientific consensus is incorrect?
We will have developed new sources of energy and the industries which sustain them. It is indisputable that eventually the energy needs of the Earth’s billions of people will outstrip the ability of fossil fuels to supply them. The fossil fuels industries, which are subsidized by us through tax breaks, claim that the economy can’t sustain the effort to create non-carbon energy resources on the necessary scale. This ignores the fact that even without taking into account the enormous cost of climate-related catastrophes, the development of new energy technology will create new industries. This — many economists believe — will actually help, not hinder, the economy over the long run. And eventually we simply won’t have a choice as carbon-based fuels fail to keep up with demand. The only question is when, not whether, this will occur.
But let us assume that the optimistic economists are wrong; that a shift to other energy sources will be an expensive proposition with little economic benefit. After the loss of three thousand lives in the 9/11 terrorists attacks, we proceeded to spend over a trillion dollars on the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan and the development of an enormous national security apparatus. The expenditures for our fight against terrorism continue apace. As outrageous as 9/11 was, it pales by comparison with what is at stake in fighting global warming. Literally tens of millions of lives will be at stake if the long-term predictions are correct. And all of us will be impacted.
I am reminded of the story of the frog and the pan of water. Apparently, if you drop a frog into a pan of boiling water it will immediately hop out. But if you place a frog in a pan of warm water which gradually heats to a boil the frog will remain in the pan until it is boiled to death. Sometimes I wonder if we aren’t just like that frog.