Wa, Wa, Warming
Climate crybabies need their mommies
Wa, Wa, Warming
by Rikki Hall
Glaciers advance and retreat and have for millions of years without our help or hindrance. For most of human history there have not been enough of us to change the climate if we tried. Even now, approaching six billion and proliferating electrical and petroleum-fueled devices, our impact on the climate is hard to discern.
What is not hard to discern is air pollution. As a boy growing up in Southern California, I walked to school through a park on a hill overlooking Los Angeles. It was easy to see that people below were breathing some odd funk and not much of a stretch to recognize that I was too. Though the air around me looked clean, it was the same stuff I could see in the valley.
With asthma and respiratory ailments on the rise, acid rain showing clear effects on sensitive forests, ozone alerts and all the other plain signs of air pollution, climate change is just one more worry. We already know we need to reduce emissions. We know it is wiser to conserve resources than to burn through them like gluttons. There should be no controversy over trying to keep our air clean.
Unfortunately, pollution is profitable. The costs, primarily health care expenses, are not paid by the polluters, so they forge ahead at full speed and use their wealth to influence politicians who ought to be looking out for the rest of us. Instead, politicians underfund regulatory agencies, open loopholes and dismiss ideas for making things better. For those who profit from dirty air, the debate over global warming is a favorite distraction.
Climate science is inherently predictive and therefore inherently uncertain. It is an easy target for naysayers, just like the weatherman is an easy target for abuse. The weatherman’s job is not to prognosticate Saturday’s football score; it is to help us decide whether to bring a raincoat to the game. Likewise, climate researchers assess whether sea levels might rise or arable lands might dry up so we can prepare and respond sensibly. Naysayers have the easy job. They get to make the jokes. It’s fun until someone loses a lung.
The notion that living things can alter the climate is no joke. In fact, we owe our very existence to plants, mainly algae and other primitive forms, that spent billions of years churning out oxygen. The modern atmosphere—79 percent nitrogen, 20 percent oxygen and one percent everything else—is drastically different from what it once was. Scientists now believe nearly all our water came from outer space, our initial allotment having boiled off before a stable crust formed. Our oceans are pools of melted comets that took a billion years to accumulate.
As oceans filled and lakes and rivers formed, primitive plants were busy generating the oxygen that allowed more complex creatures to evolve. It is impossible to guess what weather might have been like so long ago, but observation of other planets suggests wild temperature fluctuations between day and night and violent storms are normal. Our breathable air and mild weather are the work of algae and bacteria.
Geological history shows repeating cycles of warming and cooling punctuated by disruptive events like volcanic eruptions and meteor impacts. The brief nature of recorded history gives us little hint at how often floods, droughts and other weather catastrophes happen. Ice core data and other long-term climate measures show temperature fluctuations much broader than the warming trend in recent decades, but they also show that current carbon dioxide concentrations exceed any naturally occurring level in 600,000 years.
We know we are capable of producing unhealthy amounts of air pollution. We banned chlorofluorocarbons decades ago to protect the ozone layer. We monitor and limit emissions of all sorts of pollutants from power plants, factories and vehicles. With six billion people living in an industrial society, our impact on the atmosphere is no longer negligible.
It is easy to polarize scientific debate, to convert a rational discussion about relative contributions of human and natural causes to climate change into an all-or-none shouting match. It’s easy to makes jokes about predictions that did not come to pass, but if we let the shouting and laughter distract us from the coughing and wheezing, we are buffoons.
You don’t grab your umbrella only when it is already raining. Certainty is not the point of climate studies. Risk is the point. What are the dangers, and how can we prepare? When we argue about specific storms and predictions, we miss the point. Air pollution is already making us sick, but it also makes a tidy profit for powerful industries and investors. They want us distracted, and climate crybabies play right into their hands.