Saturday, November 3. 2012
With every big storm you find a lot of people wanting to talk about climate change again. Sandy, especially with its record coastal surges, is one such storm. In its wake, Andrew Leonard wrote:
It's normally impossible to attribute a specific storm to something with such a broad sweep as climate change, but Trenberth does a good job of putting the factors into perspective:
Those numbers sound credible to me: global warming is small part of the storm, and it's easy to see how that small part makes big storms more likely, and given enough time inevitable. However, it's also easy to see why so many people don't get it: weather itself is so much more variable than climate, and unless you're a farmer or someone attuned to subtle climate disturbances weather is what you experience. You're used to temperatures changing 30 degrees or more in the course of a single day, so why should you get wound up over a barely perceptible 1 or 2 degree average change? Ocean levels vary several feet over a single tidal cycle, so how is a sea level rise of a few inches any different? Of course, it is different, as those inches get magnified by tides and low pressure and high winds into a record storm surge.
On the other hand, I'm convinced that there is a mind set that instinctively overreacts to climate change. I've noticed this most convincingly in paleontology, where every extinction event is bound to be written off to climate change before anyone can develop any actual evidence. I've never quite understood how this works, even if I can think of some specific cases where it might. Again, the problem is that climate changes are so much smaller than everyday weather changes, any shift of a degree or two is within what the species has adapted to. Many species can move, and some adapt fast enough. Clearly, there are cases where climate change cause species to go extinct: where mobility is blocked, or where new competitive pressures develop.
Still, we've found many examples where climate change hypotheses turn out to be unsatisfactory. The late Pleistocene extinctions of large animals have become a clear case, despite widespread and often very dramatic climate change. It turns out that what correlates far better with the extinctions is the arrival of human beings -- in Australia 40,000 years ago, in the Americas after 20,000 years ago, in isolated islands like New Zealand much later, in Mauritius (the dodo) in historical times. It may not be true that humans hunted down every last mammoth. It may even be true that their numbers were stressed by the end of the Ice Age, but it wasn't just climate.
Similarly, it's hard to imagine that any amount of climate change would decimate the human population. People have already adapted to nearly every plot of land on earth. Major climate change would push people to move, and cause local problems -- low-lying islands are an obvious concern -- but people would adapt. Property owners would be harder pressed: farms may no longer function as expected, and those premium seaside resorts may vanish under the rising tides. Expect an economic impact, especially from freak events like Sandy. But don't get overly worked up about "saving the earth" -- sheer hubris, especially when compared to a geologic record that shows the planet, if not necessarily much of its fauna, surviving far worse.
Bill McKibben is one such person who overreacts to climate change, especially in his sweeping metaphors like "the end of nature," but he's spent a lot of time and effort distilling the science. And he has a useful critique of the gospel of unlimited growth which is as far out of step with mainstream Clinton-Obama Democrats as it is with Republicans. One nit I'd like to pick is that it isn't human change to the environment didn't begin with greenhouse gas warming: we've been remolding the environment for hundreds, indeed thousands of years -- ever since we got rid of all those mammoths. For me, the full extent of human change on the landscape was driven home some years ago when I drove from Boston to Wichita and couldn't identify a single vista that would have been the same 500 years ago (even if you discount the missing bison).
It beggars the mind to understand how anyone, given how deeply humans have disturbed the world, can doubt that we have had a significant impact on the weather. If you want clear proof, you have to look no further than to the days after 9/11, when all private aircraft were grounded: over three days, the temperature rose three degrees simply because of how much sunlight was no longer deflected by vapor trails. No less clear is the physics of greenhouse gases, something we've understood for more than a century. As carbon dioxide concentration increased steadily over the 20th century, the question wasn't whether the physics was valid, just how the captured heat affected the weather. It's clear now that vapor trails, other pollution, and increased cloud cover helped mask the greenhouse effect -- less so in the Arctic, for reasons that should also be obvious -- but in the last 10-20 years the thermometer has been catching up with the physics, turning predictions we had blithely ignored into news, like last week.
People like Leonard jump on those occasions because the basic facts are so obvious, yet for so many people denial has become hopelessly ingrained -- so much so that they are unapproachable with facts, with reason, with anything. Even people who know better -- Barack Obama being a conspicuous example -- shy away from bringing up the subject, so fierce is the resistance. For many years that resistance was easily traced to a handful of carbon dioxide-producing companies, notably ExxonMobil -- they style themselves as oil, gas, and coal companies, after their immediate products, or as energy companies, after the service we obtain from their products, but in the final analysis most of what they produce ultimately wafts through the atmosphere as carbon dioxide (and a few other noxious chemicals). But in recent years, the company propaganda has gone viral, infecting the oxygen-starved brains of self-appointed conservatives -- you know, the people who'd rather wreck and waste things than conserve them.
I don't know, or at least can't explain, all of the reasons the right has for maximizing the transfer of fossil fuels to the atmosphere. In particular, I'm not sure whether the fundamentalist religious issue is that God gave us dominion over the earth and that makes it property so it's ours to ruin, or that the rapture is coming soon anyway, so why not use it before we lose it? (Either view is simply nuts.) Three reasons are clearer: one is the right's instinctive deference to the rich and powerful, a class that includes plenty of oil and coal magnates; another is that externalities -- unaccounted for side-effects of the sale of products -- are a form of market failure, but the right believes that markets are perfect so they persist in ignoring failures; and the third is that the only way to correct market failure is for a superior party like the government to step in and regulate the market, and that, of course, is the root of all evil.
Ergo, since the only way to arrest or limit climate change is for government to take a more involved role, in order to fight back the government the right winds up denying the rationale -- either that climate change is happening, or that anything can be done about it, at least any intrusion on their lifestyle that the American people will tolerate, at least as long as they don't know any better. Admittedly, the right isn't always consistent about these things: they rarely balk at using government force to limit things they don't like, such as drugs or illicit sex (or its enablers, like birth control and abortions). But oil and coal are things they like, because the far right was literally built on those fortunes.
But as we see -- and as Leonard, among others, keep reminding us -- the right's ability to snuff out debate over climate change in mainstream media and political circles doesn't suffice to make the weather behave itself. The issue keeps bouncing back, because it keeps affecting people in myriad ways. And when people get hurt by the weather, which in the US happens hundreds of times in dozens of ways every year, they tend to look to the government for help, partly because the market is no help, partly because charity is inefficient, but mostly because in the deep recesses of their minds they still harbor the far-left idea that a democratic government works for them. And the funny thing is that when disaster strikes, even confirmed ideological right-wingers -- the very people who laughed at Reagan's joke about the scariest thing you can hear being: "I'm from the government, and I'm here to help" -- demand to be helped.
At some point, you'd think the right would try to sort out its own schizophrenia: to recognize that sometimes markets don't work and sometimes government does and is necessary, and a long list of other related issues that keep driving them crazy. But for now they can't: they'd rather bury themselves in ignorance, blind themselves with superstitions, live in a Dark Age of their own delusion. Or so they think, when they think at all.
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