Monday, February 7, 2011

The Problem with Global Warming and Climate Change... 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


Gaelyn said...

Yes, climate change is a reality. Wondering if our species can/will adapt.

Randy A. said...

Garry, you say: "It is hard to know who to trust." You go on to answer your own comment, but I'd like to expand on that:

I trust experts. If my sink isn't draining, I trust a plumber to figure our why and fix it. If I have a legal problem, I trust a lawyer to help me solve it.

And if I see the climate getting screwy, I trust climate scientists to explain the causes and suggest solutions.

There is a feeling in this country of "Don't trust the experts!" We can all tell stories of experts who let us down.

But we can all tell stories of experts who really know what they're doing, and helped us out.

The idiots who continue to discuss subjects that they know nothing about are full of schist (or full of recent coprolite -- take your pick). We'd be doing them, and ourselves, a favor to ignore them.

Keep up the good work, Garry!

Anonymous said...

Excellent comment Randy A. I just finished a book called the Panic Virus, about the anti-vaccine craze, and the author makes the same point you're making. It just seems to be a popular sentiment right now.

Also, I enjoyed both the entries on flooding and global warming, especially since they really go hand in hand to some extent. As someone who works in the environmental field, I've had projects in the San Joaquin delta. Many levees out there are basically held by quasi private reclamation and irrigation districts and were built many years ago (even before 1900). While they get re-engineered periodically, many are made of porous peat soils, easily undermined in the right conditions. Flooding is always a danger in the Valley; the haphazard infrastructure promises the inland sea will return, at least in part, someday.

Malcolm V L said...

I'm not that privy to what the general spread of opinion regarding climate change is outside of my own country, but one does get a sense of attitudes through the media. It seems that their is a debate in the USA still going on as to whether climate change is completely natural or not. The rest of the world is already trying to measure how much man-made contributions are going to exacerbate problems within systems (forest, marine, glacial, urban, etc..), yet the USA is still stuck on concluding the reality of the situation? What gives?

Garry Hayes said...

Scientists and most of the people accept the science, but there are powerful money interests that stand to profit from the status quo. And they are paying to keep the waters muddied, so to speak.

Or at least, that's my conspiracy theory and I'm sticking to it no matter what you say!

Joe Earth said...

It's true that people sometimes mistake individual weather events for evidence of climate change (or the lack of it). But that works both ways - a heat wave or a hurricane isn't evidence in itelf that climate change is occurring, either.

And of course it is political. Politics is about dealing with people, their problems and how they interact with one another. Regulations to deal with climate change affect industry which affect jobs. If climate change does lead to food shortages, then politicians are going to have deal with the consequences of that.

Regarding whether human beings will be able to deal with the effects of climate change - we've dealt with the effects of climate change before; why shouldn't we be albe to deal with the effects of climate change now.

Randy A. said...

Joe Earth: The point isn't whether we could "deal with" climate change. The point is that we need to anticipate problems and ameliorate hazards.
An example: my family and I could deal with our house burning down. But because we would rather avoid homelessness and bankruptcy, we have taken actions to make fires less likely (re-wiring the house, getting the furnace fixed, etc.) and less catastrophic should one occur (fire extinguishers, insurance, etc.).
For global warming, the best bet is to use less energy, and switch as quickly as possible to renewables.

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately I also see a large segment of my population of students, as well as the US population at large who simply do not care because they believe that the human population will not be around to deal with the repercussions. I have had students tell me it is not their worry because the "rapture" will happen soon. If you listen carefully you can here the same rhetoric from members of the US House and Senate.

Crazy Life of a Writing Mom said...

I agree. People need to step back and look at the whole picture.

Unknown said...

People need to step back and look at the data.

Then the models.

Then whether the models make accurate predictions about data collected at later times.

Unfortunately, calibrating a model that includes many self-loop feedback systems of chaotic order is a tricky thing, and so are the factors/coefficients you use for initial conditions and boundary values. Also, in underdetermined and overconstrained problems, you really do not have a good and tight idea as to which variables are dependent on the other variables in a statistically repeatable way. The error bars remain significantly large when unknown unknowns are at play that are not included in the study.

But whether model predictions match reality to even within one or two orders of magnitude is measurable.

When modelers start to claim that all measured or imagined future data fits their preferred models, my alarm bells start to go off as to whether we are talking about science anymore, or human psychology. And when all sides of a topic revert to ad-hominem attacks, rather than referencing the data, I turn my attention to other matters.