February 2010

A Harsh Climate

One of the most sensible things I have read about the climate debate is an opinion piece by Stewart Brand in the Dec. 15, 2009, edition of The New York Times. He argues that the popular depiction of the combatants as belonging to two camps, the alarmists and the skeptics, is fallacious. There are actually four sides: “denialists,” a group consisting of people with a right-wing political agenda who assert that the claim that global warming is caused by manmade emissions is a lie and is not based on sound science; “skeptics,” a group largely composed of scientists who argue that climate science, particularly large-scale modeling, is far too imperfect to form the basis of a consensus; “warners,” another group of scientists who believe that the best climate models accurately predict a looming planetary disaster and that human production of greenhouse gases is the primary cause; and “calamatists,” a collection of environmental activists whose agenda, like that of the denialists, is ideologically driven, but in the opposite direction: they have a neo-luddite view of industrialization and believe the denialists are evil. As Brand, a self-described warner, points out, understanding from which of these camps any given argument springs is useful in distinguishing propaganda from science and appeals to emotion from evidence-based assertions.

Yet even Brand misses what I think is the crucial point, the point I want to make in this column, which is that you can’t win a war if you are fighting in the wrong field. And in the war over climate change, which should be fought in the field of science, the denialists and the calamatists have dragged us into battle on their turf.

When you’re in a fight with an opponent who is not above using invective and illogic, the worst mistake you can make is letting the other side define the terms of the debate. That’s exactly what has happened in the argument about climate change. For decades, the denialists insisted that the Earth was not getting warmer. Short-term fluctuations were meaningless, they asserted. Climate modeling was worse than useless. The doomsayers were just trying to push a liberal political agenda, and so on. But after massive amounts of data were collected and analyzed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, it became clear, on the release of its report in 2007, that no sensible person could deny that a dramatic rise in the planet’s average temperature had been occurring for at least a century (see Figure 1). Largely thanks to Al Gore, this information also reached the general public, whose reaction even the staunchest denialists could not ignore.

So they did what clever, unprincipled losers often do: They changed the issue. Of course the Earth is getting warmer, they said (blithely ignoring the fact that they had said exactly the opposite the day before), but human activities have nothing to do with it. It’s entirely due to natural causes, and people who assert that manmade greenhouse gases are causing the problem are employing flawed science, deliberately distorting the facts (Climategate), and are using fear to advance the same old, tired environmental activism. Because global warming is not a manmade phenomenon, there is no scientific or political reason to limit manmade greenhouse gas emissions. Sarah Palin (why am I not surprised?) is one of the leaders of this chorus, stating recently that climate change occurs naturally “like gravity,” while warning that reducing greenhouse gas emissions will mean “job losses” and “economic costs.” (This is the same ex-Alaska governor who, before becoming a national political figure, said in July 2008, “Alaska’s climate is warming. While there have been warming and cooling trends before, climatologists tell us that the current rate of warming is unprecedented within the time of human civilization. Many experts predict that Alaska, along with our northern latitude neighbors, will warm at a faster pace than any other areas, and the warming will continue for decades.” I don’t know whether to laugh at that kind of soulless opportunism or just cry.)

This strategy is actually working, to some extent. It’s much harder to establish the cause of something than it is to prove that something is happening, and the data supporting manmade emissions as the leading driver of climate change are not nearly as persuasive, or as immune to challenge, as the data demonstrating the fact of global warming. And scientists, foolishly, have allowed that to become the center of the climate crisis debate. I say foolishly because, in so doing, they have given up the victory that they already won.

The denialists have conceded the fact of climate change. And here is my central point: Once you admit that the Earth is warming rapidly, it does not matter in the least whether that trend is due to manmade causes or not.

Regardless of its origin, a rapidly changing climate is a very bad thing. We have built an entire civilization on the assumption of long-term climate stability. We grow wheat in Kansas rather than in the Yukon, because Kansas has an ideal climate for growing wheat, and the Yukon is too cold, and we assume that will still be the case 10 years from now. We build our cities on the coast, because that is convenient for shipping goods, and we assume the coastline won’t suddenly move 10 miles inland. We don’t have air conditioning in many homes in Northern California, because we assume the average temperature won’t suddenly rise by several degrees, making summer unbearably hot. We assume that England won’t have a yearly climate like Lapland, even though its position on the globe might lead one to expect otherwise, because the Gulf Stream will always be there off the west coast, keeping things moderate. Every one of these assumptions fails in the event of significant global warming. One reason I prefer the term “climate crisis” to “climate change” or “global warming” in discussing this problem is because our dependence on stable long-term climate patterns means that any change in those patterns represents a potential catastrophe on a planetwide scale.

It doesn’t matter what the cause of that crisis is; once you accept the fact that the crisis is coming, the only thing that matters is how to prevent it or slow it down. And the only way we have of doing that at the moment is to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. Put another way, human activity may not even be causing the Earth’s temperature to rise, but human activity is the only means we have of doing something about it.

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