Wow, I’ve been asked by Barry Bickmore to respond to the anti-global warming editorials that appear in the Daily Herald, and I’m reading one for the first time. I’m doing some catch-up, as I don’t normally read the Herald; I live in Salt Lake. I happen to be looking at an editorial written Dec. 29, 2009 titled, “Warming theories cooling off.” Where do I start? Each paragraph is so packed with misunderstandings of the science that I feel like I need to personally invite the Daily Herald editors to take one of my introductory physical science classes. (I teach in the Earth Science department at UVU.)
Let’s start with Climate History 101 and analyze paragraph two: The editorial states,
But even if the globe is warming, it’s fair to ask: What’s the harm? Earth would just be returning to its more natural average state after experiencing a marked cooling period known as the Little Ice Age in the years from 1250 to 1850.
To be fair, seeing the misunderstanding in this quote requires a little more sophistication than students would normally get in an intro physical science class. Europe did indeed experience a cooling time called the Little Ice age. Glaciers advanced in the Alps, ice bergs got in the way of cruise ships in the North Atlantic, and, according to historian James Burke, in his book Connections, this is when Europeans brought their kitchens indoors and invented chimneys to vent the smoke from their cooking fires. It is also true that we are no longer in the Little Ice Age. It is superficially plausible that we are still emerging from it. However, consider these facts: (1) the Little Ice Age was not a globally significant phenomenon. It was restricted mostly to the European region and has received a lot of historical attention in the western literature because this is where most of the West was during this time; (2) in contrast, the present warming of Earth’s climate is global in scope. This is not to say that every place on Earth is warming; there are isolated cooling anomalies. But, on average, warming is the trend seen in a pronounced way on every one of Earth’s continents; (3) Earth’s climate is not just returning to the pre-Little Ice Age climate; it has surpassed it in warming. Earth’s average surface temperature is now higher than it has ever been in the last 1000 years, and it is still rising, on a time scale of decades, just as fast as it has been since 1970, which, by the way, is a much faster rise than was the cooling trend to get into the Little Ice Age; (4) Earth’s climate began warming several decades after carbon dioxide began accumulating in the atmosphere as a result fossil fuel combustion during the Industrial Revolution, as predicted by climate models.
To say that the current global warming is part of a natural cycle would be like watching a person recover from pneumonia after being given antibiotics and to say that the antibiotics had nothing to do with it; they returned to normal as part of a normal cycle of sickness and health (the pneumonia being the Little Ice Age and the antibiotics the CO2 emission).
I may have just chosen a poor analogy. I mean, recovering from pneumonia is a good thing, right? And it leads me to return to the first sentence of the part of the editorial I quoted above:
But even if the globe is warming, it’s fair to ask: What’s the harm?
The harm is not so much in returning to pre-Little Ice Age conditions but (1) warming beyond pre-Little Ice Age conditions and (2) warming fast enough to stress plants’ and animals’ ability to adapt, especially given that pollution and ecosystem reduction and fragmentation have already put tremendous stresses on Earth’s biota. Let’s focus on humans, though. Most of us like the idea of having polar bears around, but the bottom line is what climate change will do to humans. It is well established that preserving a robust global ecosystem, including species diversity and a naturally evolved balance of flora and fauna, predators and prey, is good for humans; however, this argument is complex and I won’t go there now. Let’s focus on direct impacts to humans. For this, if you want an answer to “What’s the harm?” I encourage you to visit the NASA web site on climate change (http://climate.nasa.gov/; click on the “effects” link). It summarizes many of scientists’ findings on what Earth will be like with continued warming into the 21st century. It is not a doomsday scenario. Human beings will survive!
But survival is not the question. If I am put in jail for the rest of my life, I will survive. The question is about quality of life, including pressures that will be put on our economy. The Rocky Mountain west, for example, is likely to get drier, and this will impact our water resources and our skiing industry. The climate will become too warm in Vermont for sugar maples to thrive, and this will impact Vermont’s maple syrup industry and the quality of my weekend breakfasts. Many climate skeptics seem to be convinced that “doing something” about climate change will have adverse economic impacts. We need to weigh these against predicted adverse impacts from climate change that will occur if it is not mitigated. We also need to seriously examine the assumption that mitigating climate change will be harmful for our economy and look at the climate change issue as a stimulus for innovation. If I have a correct read on recent history, innovation is typically positive for the economy.
Well, that’s it for paragraph two of the Daily Herald’s December editorial on climate change! There’s a lot more good stuff there to analyze, but I’m afraid I might fall behind. Stay tuned for a continued discussion of that editorial—we definitely need to address CFC’s for example—stay tuned for Waterloo!