Monday, February 7, 2011

The Problem with Global Warming and Climate Change...


...is that it is so hypothetical. Following up on my previous post on the flooding in Queensland and the potential for flooding in California, I was thinking about how concerns by literally all climate scientists about global climate change have become such a political football in the U.S. Part of the problem is that many individuals mistake singular weather events (like snowmageddon or whatever they're calling the recent storm) with changes in overall worldwide climate (which in general is experienced by thermometers and other machines, not people). A change of just a degree in average temperatures worldwide has profound consequences, but to someone stepping outdoors it is unnoticeable.

It doesn't help that the warnings are often about distant future effects, like sea level rise next century. Farmers in the midwest or in my Central Valley planted trees as windbreaks on their lands, knowing they would never see the trees mature. Their children would be the beneficiaries. It's a noble concept, and sacrificing now for the future of our children sounds good on paper, but has a tendency to fall by the wayside when one is working hard just to put food on the table.

It's the concept of "food on the table" that I want to comment on. The economist Paul Krugman has an editorial in the NY Times that deserves attention. A few snippets:

...But the evidence tells a different, much more ominous story. While several factors have contributed to soaring food prices, what really stands out is the extent to which severe weather events have disrupted agricultural production. And these severe weather events are exactly the kind of thing we’d expect to see as rising concentrations of greenhouse gases change our climate — which means that the current food price surge may be just the beginning...

...But that’s not the whole story. Don’t let the snow fool you: globally, 2010 was tied with 2005 for warmest year on record, even though we were at a solar minimum and La NiƱa was a cooling factor in the second half of the year. Temperature records were set not just in Russia but in no fewer than 19 countries, covering a fifth of the world’s land area. And both droughts and floods are natural consequences of a warming world: droughts because it’s hotter, floods because warm oceans release more water vapor.


Global warming and climate change is a serious problem, and it is not a hypothetical future scenario. The predicted changes started decades ago and are with us today. Sea level is rising, glaciers are melting, mid-latitude forests are burning up and being eaten by pests, Artic ice is disappearing, spring is arriving sooner...and agriculture is being disrupted.

Climate change is literally a bread-and-butter issue. Unfortunately, some of the steps we could be taking now to ameliorate the worst of the effects of climate change are being stymied by political roadblocks. We are arguing as Rome burns, so to speak. There are lots of voices out there, on the radio, TV, and the Internet, and it is hard to know who to trust. I can say this much: politicians may always have an agenda and an opinion on climate change, but few of them are actually educated in the earth sciences. Some have made the effort to learn, but not enough to make a difference yet. The talking heads and pundits, especially the ones with spittle on their chins, don't know jack about climate change, and they don't care to be educated, either. They are parroting the words they have been told to say.

Science is one of the few human endeavours where an objective search for knowledge is still the operative norm. I trust climate scientists more than anyone else in this debate because they are the ones who are measuring the changes and documenting the effects. No human can be fully and completely unbiased, but those who do science quite often come the closest to the ideal.

Today's picture is St. Mary Lake in Glacier National Park in Montana. The glaciers in the park have been melting away, and will be gone in a decade or two.

UPDATE: Another perspective on the possible disruption of global food supplies can be seen here. Thanks to Lockwood for the catch!

UPDATE 2: And there is this on the same theme
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