It's Time To Face Facts

The other night I heard a lecture (on YouTube) given by a Stanford professor of the history of science, Naomi Oreskes, who has co-written a book with Erik M. Conway, Merchants of Doubt. Permit me to reprint a small portion of her lecture and her book:

Imagine a gigantic, colossal banquet. Hundreds of millions of people come to eat. They eat and drink to their hearts' content, eating food that is better and more abundant than at the finest tables in ancient Athens, or Rome or even in the palaces of medieval Europe. Then one day a man arrives wearing a white dinner jacket. "Not surprisingly the diners are in shock. Some begin to deny that this is their bill. Others deny that there even is a bill. Still others deny that they partook of the meal. One diner suggests the man is not really a waiter, but is only trying to get attention for himself or to raise money for his own projects. Finally the group concludes that if they simply ignore the waiter, he will go away. This is where we stand today on the question of global warming. For the past 150 years, industrial civilization has been dining on the energy stored in fossil fuels and the bill has now come due. Yet we have sat around the dinner table denying that it is our bill, and doubting the credibility of the man who delivered it.

We have experienced prosperity unmatched in human history. We have feasted to our hearts' content. But the lunch was not free. So it is not surprising that many of us are in denial. After all we didn't know that it was a banquet — and we didn't know that there would be a bill. But now we do know. The bill includes acid rain, and the ozone hole and the damage produced by DDT. These are the environmental costs of living the way citizens of wealthy developed nations have lived since the industrial revolution. Now we either have to pay the price, change the way we do business, or both.

No wonder the merchants of doubt have been successful. They've permitted us to think we could ignore the waiter, while we haggled about the bill. The failure of the United States to act on global warming as well as the long delays between when the science was settled and when we acted on tobacco, acid rain and the ozone hole are prima facie empirical evidence that doubt-mongering works."

This banquet is a telling metaphor for today's environmental reality. Unfortunately, the "bill" for the banquet is the utter destruction of the earth's ecosystems, a "bill" far too costly to pay. Wastes from mineral extraction, processing and manufacturing, energy production, transportation, and end-use are ruining our environment. Virtually every process step in all of our many hundreds of thousands of different manufactured goods throws something away that increasingly mutilates our ecosystem.

Government action is clearly key, because unilateral mitigation of climate change and environmental damage is rarely, if ever, in the self-interest of firms or individuals. That's why the climate problem exists, in the first place. That means we should be prodding our city, state, and federal governments to make much better environmental policies and take needed actions.

Dr. George Woodwell, founder, Director Emeritus, and Senior Scientist at the the Woods Hole Research Center has recently written to Dr. Joseph Romm's climate science blog, ClimateProgress.org to urge fellow scientists to change our communications approach as follows:

"The response to the [email] vandals is to bury them with the data and experience of a century of scholarly research and analysis. The information that is important in making the decisions as to how to manage our world is unequivocal and must be advanced, not as questions at the edge of scientific knowledge where scientist like to dwell, but as the facts that they are, facts as immutable as the law of gravity. The climatic disruption is not a theory open to a belief system any more than the solar system is a theory, or gravity, or the oceanic tides, or evolution. This approach is uncompromising, partisan in the sense of selected for the purpose. It is not a lecture to undergraduates; nor is it ecology 101. It is a clear statement of what is required for government to do its job in protecting the public welfare. The scientific community has a firm responsibility in this realm now. This is not the time to wring our hands over the challenges to hyper-scientific objectivity, the purity of scholars, and to tie ourselves in knots with apologies for alleged errors of trifling import."

Dr. Woodwell has been at the forefront of warning the public about the dangers of human caused global warming. He has published more than 300 papers in ecology. He presented the case for action on global warming in his testimony before the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, U.S. Senate, on June 23, 1988, twenty-two years ago. Reading this, the first part of which I am reprinting here, reminds us all that nothing has really changed during the ensuing 22 years:

My colleagues and I in science have done research on various aspects of climatic change for more than 25 years; my colleagues and I in the Natural Resources Defense Council have made formal efforts spanning nearly two decades to make better connections in public affairs between what we know and what we do.

I am reporting on experience gained through two conferences held during the fall of 1987 in Europe dealing with climatic change. The first was in Villach, Austria, and was a review by scientists of the details of the global climatic warming that appears to be underway. The second, held in Bellagio, Italy, was an exploration of the implications of the changes in climate for governmental policies. A report of these conferences has been published by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO 1988) and is available to you. I am emphasizing in what follows the biotic interactions involved in climatic change because those interactions affect people most directly and have the potential for affecting the course of the climatic changes. I am also giving emphasis to the need for general solutions to the regional and global problems that will become increasingly acute through the next years. I find it necessary to do so because we tend to overlook the fact that 5 billion people now occupy the globe, twice the number present as recently as 1950. Before 2030 the human population could be 10 billion. The 5 billion we now have use half or more of the energy available from plants globally. Big changes in the human condition will be occurring without climatic changes. The climatic changes will compound the difficulties in accommodating such extraordinary rates of growth.

II. A Consensus among Scientists

Several points about climatic change now constitute a consensus held by meteorologists and other scientists who have worked on the problem. Most of these points have been made in slightly different form in the Villach-Bellagio report.

1. The dominant influence on global climate for the indefinite future is expected to be a continuous warming caused by the accumulation in the atmosphere of infrared absorptive gasses, especially carbon dioxide and methane, but including nitrous oxide and the CFC's.

2. The warming marks the transition from a period of stable climates to climatic instability. Stable or very slowly changing climates have prevailed during the development of civilization. We are now entering a period of continuous warming accompanied by changes in precipitation. The changes in climate are predictable in general at continental and broad regional levels; they are not predictable locally.

3. The rate of the warming is uncertain. Estimates based on models suggest that a doubling of the carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere (or the equivalent through increases in other gasses) above the levels present during the middle of the last century will produce a global average warming of 1.5-5.5 degrees C. Such an effect [doubling] is expected by the period 2030-2050.

4. The earth has warmed between 0.5 and 0.7 degree C over the past century and the rate appears to be accelerating.

5. The warming in the tropics will be less than the mean for the earth as a whole; in the middle and high latitudes the warming will exceed the mean by two fold or more and will fall in the range of 0.5-1.5 degrees C/decade.

6. The current sources of carbon dioxide are the combustion of fossil fuels and deforestation. The dominant source of methane is anaerobic decay.

7. A rate of warming in the middle and high latitudes that approaches 1 degree C/decade exceeds the rate at which forests can migrate and will result in the destruction of forests at their warmers and drier margin without compensating changes elsewhere. Such destruction of forests and soils release additional carbon into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide.

8. It is possible that the warming already experienced is stimulating the decay of organic matter in soils globally, increasing the total releases of carbon dioxide and methane.

9. No stimulation of the storage of carbon in forests or soils that is large enough to compensate for such rapid releases is known.

10. The warming will cause accelerated melting of glacial ice and an expansion of the water in the oceans. The effect will be an increase in sea level of 30 cm to 1.5 m over the next 50-100 years.

11. The changes in climate anticipated over the next decades extend beyond the limits of experience and beyond the limits of accurate prediction. Surprises such as the discovery of the polar ozone holes are common in such circumstances. The possibility exists that a rapid warming will change the patterns of circulation of the oceans and produce sudden but profound changes in climate in regions such as Western Europe, now kept warm by the Gulf Stream. The same changes may have equally surprising effects of the storage or release of carbon from forests and soils.

The warming will move climatic zones generally pole ward, shift the arable zones of the earth continuously, cause large and continuous dislocations of natural vegetation, and cause flooding of low-lying areas globally. The arid zones of the northern hemisphere will expand because there is more land at higher latitudes in the northern hemisphere. The warming will be greatest in winter and will be accompanied by increased precipitation in high latitudes.

A one degree C change in temperature is equivalent to a change in latitude of 100-150 km, 60-100 mi. Rates of warming, if they occur as anticipated over the next decades, will exceed the capacity of forests to migrate or otherwise adapt. In that circumstance forest trees and other plants will die at their warmer and drier limits of distribution more rapidly than forests can be regenerated in regions where climates become favorable. The destruction of forests will add further to the releases of carbon to the atmosphere. The seriousness of this problem will depend heavily on the rate of warming. There is sufficient carbon in forests and soils of middle and high latitudes to affect the atmosphere significantly. While there is no proof of this process and there will probably not be proof until the changes are well underway, the process will hinge heavily on rates of warming. Rates that approach 1 degree per decade exceed by a factor of 10 or more the capacity of forests to accommodate the changes.

Our scientific understanding in 1988 was not that much different than today. The major difference is that the newest climate models predict even higher temperatures. Woodwell, and all the rest of the world's environmental and climate scientists, are justifiably frustrated now that such frank, science-based warnings have not only been ignored for decades, but also that those who have made such warnings have been subject to a well funded disinformation and harassment campaign. The media continues to embrace a false balance and thus mislead the public about our basic understanding of the science. All scientists, indeed all people who understand what we face from unrestricted greenhouse gas emissions, must be as blunt and repetitious in explaining the science as the anti-science people have been in spreading disinformation.

The fact is that we have added so much greenhouse gas into the atmosphere that we have started to change the global climate, not into a new steady state, but "into an open-ended warming that is pulling the environment out from under this civilization." (As stated by Joseph Romm recently).

It is time now, thirty years after the problem was recognized as threatening this civilization, for the scientific community to come forth with clear instructions, relentlessly repeated and amplified, as to how to restore a functional habitat for humanity. More important, the world's political leaders have the responsibility to get together and use those clear instructions to solve the problem through collective action immediately.

 Phil Eisner writes about environmental issues.  He is a resident of Summit, NJ.

The opinions expressed herein are the writer's alone, and do not reflect the opinions of TAPinto.net or anyone who works for TAPinto.net. TAPinto.net is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the writer.

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