Monday, July 31, 2006

Why I am Optimistic About Global Warming

This month’s National Geographic, in an article by author Bill McKibben, lays out why it might seem that global warming is suddenly a much more serious issue. Here are his opening paragraphs, which do a nice job of summarizing information:

“This is the year when we finally started to understand what we are in for. Exactly 12 months ago, an MIT professor named Kerry Emanuel published a paper in Nature showing that hurricanes had slowly but steadily been gaining in strength and duration for a generation. It didn’t attract widespread attention for a few weeks- not until Katrina roared across the Gulf of Mexico and rendered half a million people refugees. The scenario kept repeating: Rita choked highways with fleeing Texans; Wilma setting an Atlantic Ocean record for barometric lows; Zeta spinning on New Year’s Day. Meanwhile, other data kept pouring in from around the planet: Artic sea ice melting past an irrevocable tipping point; thawing permafrost in northeastern Siberia creating so much methane that lakes didn’t even freeze in the depths of boreal winter; the NASA calculation that 2005 had been the warmest year on record.

In January, a trinity of announcements sealed the mood. First, British scientist James Lovelock, who invented the instrument that allowed us to detect our eroding ozone layer, published an essay predicting that we’d already added too much carbon dioxide to the atmosphere and that runaway global warming was inevitable. He predicted that billions will die this century. A few days later came a less dramatic but equally alarming announcement. The steady and long-serving NASA climatologist James Hansen defied federal attempts to gag him and told reporters that new calculations about, among other things, the instability of Greenland’s ice shelf showed ‘we can’t let it go on another ten years like this.’ If we did? Over time, the buildup of carbon dioxide emissions would ‘imply changes that constitute practically a different planet.’ Less than ten years to reverse course. Not in our kids’ lifetimes, or our grandkids’. Ours.”

So, that pretty much sums up the information on the subject. This seems to be one of those historical moments in which we need to remove our heads from the (quickly increasing) sand. Are the worst doomsday scenarios correct? I don’t think so, and not because I seriously doubt the science, but because they make the same mistake as Malthusianism and assume that humans will do nothing to preserve their own lives: that we cannot adapt and save ourselves. But, we haven’t experienced the serious famines that Malthus predicted, and I think it’s because people simply control their populations when resources start becoming scarce. In other words, they do adapt.

Besides, McKibben’s article isn’t a doom-n-gloom nightmare scenario either. He thinks that we can handle this, if we roll up our sleeves and get to it. And one of the things that I love most about Americans is that they can get the job done, if they’re looked straight in the eye and told what they have to do. Europeans sometimes get the job done, and sometimes they smoke cigarettes and drink wine and bitch instead. But, Americans pride ourselves on our ingenuity. Besides, we’d secretly love to save the world and hold it over everyone else’s head for the rest of time and eternity.

So, here then are reasons to be optimistic about the struggle ahead:
1) Americans could stand to have a ‘mission’ that doesn’t involve fighting off endless sneak attacks by fanatical terrorists. It’s strange to imagine, considering that we’ve been such a fat-assed obstacle to fixing this problem, but if there’s any country that can put solutions into effect quickly and optimistically, it’s this one.

2) Environmentalism is already America’s legacy to the world. From Thoreau to Rachael Carson, we were the ones that figured out that the planet was worth preserving, and more importantly, that the industrial revolutions were putting it in jeopardy. If there’s anything we should be proud of, it’s this. We still live on the frontier of nature in many cases, and there are none of us, aside from Woody Allen, who actually hate the great outdoors.

3) As McKibben points out, if we can mobilize our churches, we have a huge force for change, and they’re starting to come around. For one thing, Christians are already accustomed to thinking of the bigger picture, and already shun narcissism and materialism (well, at least in theory they do). For another thing, if this is God’s creation, what right to we have to trash it? If suicide is a sin for this reason, then surely global suicide would be a sin, right? McKibben is optimistic about the churches that recently broke with Pat Robertson’s environmental nihilism, and I am too. Just as most Muslims are not as violent as the ones that make the news, not many Christians are as dumb as Pat Robertson.

4) The left needs to get over its defeatism and stop chastising America whenever it gets the chance. They need to drop the childish attitude that global devastation is going to ‘teach America a lesson’ about its consumption. Besides, they’re right on this issue in a way that the conservative establishment is not. How often does a political party get to be right? Why not think the best of Americans for once? Why not admit that many of them do need to grow up, but if you expect the best of them, they can still deliver? And why should the left back down on this? There are serious questions as to if they’re right about the economy, the war, the culture, or much else. But, here, they’re on the side of right.

5) Besides, what sort of conservative really wants to embrace nihilism? Back in the days when we arguing about whether or not global warming was a real issue (‘we’ being everyone who understood the issue vs. the oil industry), maybe the conservatives had a conservative stance to stick to. But, now that the argument has become a joke, many conservatives are turning to bizarre arguments like ‘Well, the planet killed off all life a million years ago. There’s nothing we can do.’ Does any political party want to be remembered as the one that embraced the message: ‘Screw it! We’re all going to die! Let’s get rich while we still can! I don't like our kids anyway!' Of course not. I think people underestimate the ability of conservatives outside of the political establishment to break from the party line. And quite a few of them already are. They’re going to be remembered as the visionaries, and as their numbers increase, they’re going to do the incredible.

6) Besides, even the oil companies see it- two more years and everything’s going to change. Their executives have widely acknowledged that it doesn’t matter if a Democrat or a Republican gets elected, because either way they’re very likely to take a different approach to this issue. And they’re going to have to.


The Pagan Temple said...

I remember hearing not too many years ago that one day the world will end up flipping, with the North Pole becomming the South Pole and vice versa. Maybe that's a part of what's going on now. Who knows, that flip might take no telling how long, and somewhere in between earth could end up on it's side like Uranus. Now ain't that a cheery thought?

Rufus said...

I think the poles have flipped before. Geologists say that there's a point in the fossil records where the magnetized rocks just flip. I don't think it was catastrophic. Also, the continents are constantly moving anyway. One day, California will be frozen.

Anonymous said...

Interesting article and we do need to keep abreast of things. The real problem will be Asia and the Third World. They are spewing pollutants at a rate that makes it impossible for fully developed countries to counter with cleaner fuel and emissions.

Contrary to this article, hurricane intensity is NOT the result of warming but the opposite. We had some cooling in the last decade that actually intensified hurricanes. Warmer atmospheric conditions actually cause milder hurricanes. I have no doubt that increased pollutants are causing problems. But it should be stated in the article that solar activity is the prime cause of weather changes. Does pollution effect the environment? You bet! Can it intensify already naturally occurring changes? You bet again!

We have much cleaner air than we did in the 1970's. Current emissions standards has vehicles emitting exhaust that is cleaner than the surrounding environment. All of this doesn't matter. Why? Because we have increased pollution coming from Mexico and points south. China is a pollution nightmare and reminds many of what it must have been like in the Rust Belt at the height of the Industrial Revolution. India and other parts of Asia do nothing to curb pollution. Ditto for Africa and yes, the Middle East as well.