I am overwhelmed with the data and analyses of global warming and climate change. A quick search on Google reveals over 74 million articles on global warming. While that is certainly overstated due to multiple “finds”, even if I could find the most authoritative 1000 of them, and spend as little as 5 minutes skimming each one, it would take me 83 hours, and I am lucky to have a few hours in the week for any activity like this. At this rate, in the 6 months or more it would take me to do that, there would be … how many more articles? I hate to guess, but I expect I would never catch up. I have learned what I think I know now from a diverse mix of news, scientific articles, the movie “An Inconvenient Truth”, and blogs like Anthony Watts’ “Watts Up With That?“. I am recognizing my limitations, however. Will we ever have a definitive answer as to whether and how much human activity is affecting the climate? And isn’t it more important that we retain the ability to respond to climate change, since nature will inevitably change the climate anyway, sooner or later?
There are more than a few reasons I am unsure about the science, and they aren’t the fault of the scientists (in most cases, anyway). It seems possible that, due to the dynamic nature of the atmosphere and the oceans – the continuous mixing of water and air which move in enormous, complicated, interrelated systems – it will continue to be extremely difficult to assess the amount of human responsibility for changes in our climate. In addition, I have been given so many reasons not to trust either the mainstream media or our highly-politicized and corporate-influenced government that I don’t know whose reports to believe. (Sometimes I wish it was illegal to lie or purposefully hide the truth for personal or a special interest’s gain.) I recognize the simple facts, I think: overpopulation and non-renewability of our primary energy supplies, and write about them here extensively, so those end up being what I feel I can really plan for and attempt to address.
Human impact on the global environment seems a very high probability, either now or in the future. Of course, too much of anything is a bad thing by definition, and overpopulation threatens too much of many things. While it appears difficult to know for sure whether humans are affecting the global climate, there is a good reason to expect that the total population of humans and the amount of energy and artificial chemicals we use per capita have a relationship with the climate. Even if humans are only responsible for 0.01 degree centigrade of average warming or cooling globally, it is probable that more humans would produce a greater effect. If that temperature change is related to emissions from energy use, then it makes sense that conservation and the use of less energy per person would lessen the effect. The question remains, however: how do we know?
Perhaps a better question is: does it matter? Certainly it would be good to know which of our activities are affecting the climate, and how much, as it would give us a better chance of addressing the situation. On a localized and even regional basis we can measure the affects of many human activities, and we already have some pretty good answers as to which activities are harmful to the environment, how harmful, and how long it might take the environment to recover. On a global scale, based on my reviews of available studies and articles (which are not all inclusive by any means), it appears to be quite difficult to know for sure whether carbon dioxide is a big or small problem, for example, and whether other emissions of human and natural activities are posing problems, or will in the future. Worse yet, the public bickering over climate change only makes it harder to know what is really going on.
Preserving and developing our capacity to adapt to change may be the best course of action. However and for whatever reasons the climate changes, we will have to adapt to it. Most of the ways I can imagine we would deal with it – changes in our agricultural systems, where we live, and how we live – could be easier if we have more energy sources (fossil fuels) at our disposal, which is another good reason to push hard for conservation. Change may be quick or gradual, much evidence of both is clear in geological and other historical records, so it seems pretty certain the global climate will change, and the question is only when and how.
Adaptability and learning are the key to the continued success of humanity. The great success story of humanity has been in our ability to adapt, but we need to advance our knowledge (and that story) into an era of sustainability, in which we can survive with only renewable resources at some point in the not-too-far-off future. This will require immediate and continuing scientific research and long range planning. Too little of the former appears to be going on, and the latter is frighteningly absent from our government and corporate thinking. We need plans for the next 50, 200, 1000, and 5000 years if we are to survive long-term as a species and a planet. It appears that just getting through the next 50 will be a severe trial, given what we know about our population and the amount of energy we have come to depend on, but that doesn’t reduce the need for longer term plans.
Nationalism and other divisions do not work in our favor. Of course, our continued success also will require self discipline and increased emphasis on cooperation, based on the global understanding that we are all in this together on our lifeboat in the cosmos, Earth. Our long term survival will certainly require coordinated action on a global scale at some points, and we, the people, need to elect leaders who are willing to collaborate and work for consensus with other countries rather than waste our precious resources in wars and conflict.
I’ll bet you hadn’t considered this angle. Beyond our lack of global cooperation, based on the simple probability that there are other intelligent species in the universe, we can’t expect that they will help us until we stop killing each other and squabbling like animals. Considering that our radio signals are now a hundred light years away, and our television signals 60 light years away, and all are propagating away through space at the speed of light, any alien species within that range probably sees who and where we are with considerable clarity, and I don’t think we’ve painted an inviting picture. That pretty clearly leaves us on our own as a species and planet for some time to come.
Action is needed to achieve a best-possible, sustainable future, and you can help. As I frequently repeat in this blog, the representatives of our governments, and our corporate suppliers and employers, don’t know what we want unless we tell them. We should each be demanding long term thinking and appropriate action of these people, and doing so often. The squeaky wheel gets the grease, and we all need to be squeaking now.
As always, I appreciate your comments.
NASA – Global Warming Worldbook, Mastrandrea, Michael D., and Stephen H. Schneider
Tim’s commentary – Note that this article paints a gloomy picture but fails to give specific information on a number of fronts, making it seem it is intended to scare us without giving us definitive proof of its claims. It also fails to explain why, if the Kyoto treaty is appropriate, our government has failed to ratify it.