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Tom is an agribusiness banker in Greeley, Colorado, a Republican, and one of the nicest people I have ever met. During a visit to Greeley this year, thinking I had finally found a chink in his ideological armor, I pointed to the drought punishing the area as an example of the consequences of global warming that could not be more tangible and relevant to his own life.
He simply smiled and replied, “Natural cycles.”
Here on the other side of the world, in economically castigated Spain, ten major fires are simultaneously scorching the earth – 130000 hectares and counting – while daytime temperatures hover around 104° F during the second crop-punishing heat wave of the summer. But in a conversation with a left-leaning friend, Mari Luz, about the urgent need for more collective action to counter climate change, the conspicuous lack thereof, and thus the hopelessness of the situation, she took issue with my alarmism: “I just try to live my life morally and hope others follow the example.”
And that’s how most of us think, somewhere between Tom and Mari Luz. That’s because when most of us woke up this morning, it looked a lot like yesterday morning. The clock radio turned on, hot water came out of the shower, the toaster worked. It did not seem much warmer outside nor could we look out our windows and see any signs of melting glaciers or rising sea levels. And even if climate change did darken our thoughts, most of us quickly relegated it to the backs of our minds, some, like Tom, with knee-jerk disbelief, others with a slight tinge of guilt or maybe an exculpatory damning of the oil companies, because…didn’t we already have enough stress in our lives without having to worry about that shit hitting the fan, too? And, after all, what could we do about it?
And that is probably how the morning will go when the shit does hit the fan, or, as recent scientific reports suggest, a “tipping point” in global climate change is reached. A tipping point is the point at which relatively gradual changes in a system lead to sudden changes as a radically different state of the system arises – like what happens to liquid water when reaching the freezing point. In an article published in June, 22 of the world’s leading climatologists, ecologists, and biologists reviewed the geological evidence for global tipping points to have occurred in the distant past as well as recently on more regional scales (Barnosky et al, Nature, 2012).
In an article published this month, NASA scientist James Hansen and others point to the increased variability in temperatures over the last several decades as more evidence that global warming is already producing significant weather instability, instability that is highly unlikely to be explained by the normal causes of cyclic weather patterns, such as the El Niño phenomenon (Hansen et al. PNAS, 2012).
Warnings of human-influenced climate change have been around for decades now, long enough for most of us to become comfortable with the fact that nothing extremely bad has happened yet and, therefore, might never happen, at least before we conveniently die of something else. This sense of complacency pervades the entire political spectrum, left to right, even though political groups on the right, and the media they control, have taken it a step further, convincing a minority of the public that the overwhelming majority of climate scientists are involved in a worldwide leftist conspiracy, projecting catastrophic scenarios that are “only models” to advance their careers while snuffing out capitalism.
They are right about the limitations of models. No model can predict with certainty the future of something as complex as the global climate and ecosystem, and climate models are particularly problematic to test. But it turns out all of science is based on models, including the science that led to smartphones or cancer drugs. The important thing is that the models themselves are based on real data and any inherent assumptions are supportable. The acceptance of one model or another – whether quantum mechanics, evolution, or climate change – is a matter of consensus by the specialists in the field about which best accounts for the data. And though there is a healthy and necessary debate over global climate models, the overwhelming scientific consensus on global warming is that it is not only happening, with the likelihood of dire consequences, but humans have had something to do with it.
But according to most polls, the majority of us do believe that climate change is real, even if we don’t understand the scientific models or debate. That’s because it is occurring right before our eyes. Elevated air and sea temperatures, rising ocean levels and acidity, increasing weather severity – manifest in everything from the loss of life-sustaining coral reefs to devastating storms, prolonged droughts, record forest fires, and rising food prices – all these things are not simply a future projection of some complex model. They are happening now. And it is not a big leap for most of us, when it is explained in simple terms, to connect the climate trends in the last century to the concurrent rise in carbon dioxide levels – levels not seen on the globe for over 400,000 years. This extra heat-trapping and ocean-acidifying CO2 comes from the burning of fossil fuels and is compounded by increasing deforestation, removing the natural recyclers of carbon dioxide, and human land use, which now accounts for over 40% of the planet’s dry surface. There are indeed cyclic climate changes on the planet that are astro-geophysical in nature and have nothing to do with humans. But there is nothing “cyclic” about 7 billion carbon-burning, deforesting, and water-guzzling humans living on this planet – at least not yet.
So ignorance and disbelief, in spite of a small group of influential naysayers, are not really the problems. Nor is the only problem the corporations that benefit from fossil fuel extraction and pay well for that benefit before every election. The bigger problem is the rest of us. We are the great majority who can see what’s going on but do nothing about it. Our complacency is the problem, our convenient cynicism about what can be done, our finger pointing without action, our hoping that someone else will do it for us. Unfortunately, even if we are not concerned about the chaotic collapse of our societies and the world our children and grandchildren will inherit, it appears that conveniently dying of old age before life on earth radically changes may no longer be an option.
Chuck Gasparovic is a biophysicist living in Spain.