Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Global Warming: Too Little Action, Too Much Reaction

Wednesday, January 20, 2016
12:24 pm

Charles Dudley Warner once said that "everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it." That time has come and passed, as we now have some of the most powerful supercomputers in the world running millions of lines of code and assimilating terabytes of data to make multiple forecasts each day. We have satellite imagery, radiosondes, surface stations, radars, and everything in between. By doing all of this, we have created forecasts that both help people plan their day and safeguard lives and property. We love to talk about the weather, and we love to do stuff about it too.

Alas, the same is not true for climate. We talk about climate even more than weather, and you need to look no further than the 2016 presidential campaign to notice this. I have not heard one mention of Hurricane Patricia, the 200 mph mutant cyclone that stormed into the Mexican Coast this past October, but I’ve heard plenty of talk about rising sea levels, increasing severe weather events, and linkages between climate change and the devastating civil war in Syria (which, by the way, is not a completely absurd connection). To be fair, we do a lot of research on climate, but that's not what we need to be doing. We need to be decreasing our greenhouse gas emissions. On that front, we haven't done much at all.

Credit: International Business Times

Interestingly enough, our carbon dioxide emissions have slightly decreased over the past several years, and that is because of fracking, a new method of extracting methane by fracturing shale underground and releasing methane in the process. While fracking may seem like a gift from heaven because it is a domestic energy source that produces a cleaner-burning fuel than coal, some of that methane escapes and is not captured. Methane is an even more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, and many scientists believe that because of this additional methane escape, fracking is actually a greater contributor to global warming than coal.

But back to our inaction on climate change. For all of the doomsday rhetoric from newspaper headlines, environmental groups, and uninformed politicians, we haven't gotten our act together and made any serious progress on the issue. There are several reasons why, but they all come back to one main reason.

As a whole, we would rather contribute to climate change than change our way of life.

If we really wanted to curb climate change, we'd have fewer kids. If we really wanted to curb climate change, we'd all take mass transit instead of driving hybrid cars. If we really wanted to curb climate change, climatologists, who should be setting an example for the rest of the world, would have Skype sessions instead of flying halfway around the world to climate conferences.

We'd build hydroelectric dams, and accept that some ecosystems would incur significant damages. We'd invest in wind, and we'd definitely invest in solar. We'd build nuclear power plants, and work to control nuclear waste and prevent meltdowns. Personally, I find it mind-boggling that often times, those who exaggerate global warming the most are also the most opposed to nuclear power. At this point, renewable energy sources alone do not even come close to providing the amount of energy we need to sustain our current lifestyles.

In other words, we talk the talk, but we don't walk the walk. So how do we go about fixing our apathy on fixing climate change?

First, we need to be more realistic with the American populace about the dangers of climate change. This is particularly true for people with organizations with a lot of public influence. In my opinion, climate change will be the most pressing issue for the world in the 21st century and beyond because it will affect every inhabitant of this planet to a pretty significant extent. Most climate models have the average temperature of the Earth rising anywhere from 3-12 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of this century, with variations due to different amounts of greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere. This will have tremendous consequences for many ecosystems across the planet and will force humankind to adapt to a new environment. Heat waves will become more common and more severe, and while greater uncertainty exists with precipitation, droughts and floods could become more severe as well. Tropical cyclones may become more intense. One thing is for sure: the sea level will rise, potentially inundating low-lying areas if they do not adapt. At this point, sea-level rises are expected to be 1-3 feet by 2100.

Second, and this goes hand in hand with my first proposition, we need to end our hyperbolic, alarmist climate statements and our "skepticism" and/or outright denial of a universally accepted and empirically verified scientific theory. Although the future that I just cast sounds very alarming, the amount of exaggeration and misinformation circulating throughout politics and popular culture is astounding. Moreover, much of this rhetoric is spread by sources we would think to be somewhat reliable.

Good intentions, bad science. Credit: Nick Solari

I like Bernie Sanders, and I truly feel like he is one of the few "good guys" in politics. However, I must admit, while making combating climate change a central tenet of his campaign, he has resorted to incorrect and exaggerated claims to push his agenda and is doing a disservice to the American people in the process. He also seems to claim on his website that the reason we haven't stopped global warming isn't because the vast majority of people are doing their part, it is because of billionaires who are responsible for preventing climate change legislation. We should be less focused with blaming other people and more focused on decreasing our greenhouse gas emissions, because the vast majority of people are NOT making enough of an effort to do this... myself included.  

On the other hand, most of the Republican candidates are either apathetic about global warming or deny it altogether. None of them are even remotely committed to taking drastic action, which is what needs to be done. If combating climate change is a priority for you, don't vote for any of the Republicans running in the general election.

However, it's not just our politicians. It's also the media. Take a look at some headlines I found that were published in the last 24 hours.

Credit: Irish Times

Credit: UK Independent
Credit: UK Express

Credit: The Frisky

The thing is, most of these articles cite some scientist, but the writers twist his/her words so they can write a straightforward article that will get a lot of views. Common examples include scientists citing one study that shows that there may be a connection between an increased possibility of winter storms and global warming, and then news media outlets blaming the storm solely on global warming. Other headlines use hyperbole, like the one from the UK Independent. My personal favorite here is the satirical piece about everybody's favorite groundhog, as it perfectly illustrates how the media has a tendency to blame one event on global warming.

Watts Up With That

Fortunately, there aren't too many scientists who take part in the hyperbole/skepticism of global warming. Unfortunately, the ones that do gain a lot of media attention. Watts Up With That, a site that claims to be the world's most viewed on global warming and climate change, is dedicated to selecting and twisting scientific information in an attempt to disprove the theory of global warming. And let's not forget about Dick Lindzen, the MIT atmospheric scientist who did groundbreaking work in atmospheric dynamics but still denies global warming (and the fact that smoking causes cancer). The majority of scientists believe that the effects of climate change are subtle at this point, but that the Earth's climate will be very different 100 years from now.

Credit: IPCC 5th Assessment Report

And then there are those environmentalists who really exaggerate the facts to push their agenda. Much of the science section of is bogus. For example, they say scientists warn that sea levels could rise as much as several meters this century, when the scientific consensus as well as the most recent and sophisticated climate models with the most aggressive carbon emission scenario (RCP 8.5) have it rising a meter at most. Greenpeace and The Sierra Club are a little better.

I apologize for being so inflammatory, but the way some politicians, the media, environmentalists, and even scientists approach climate change is unacceptable. The basic science is settled, and with a situation as serious as global warming, people deserve to know the truth.


So, now that I've finished ranting, what actions should we take to mitigate global warming?

There are many, many ways we can reduce our carbon footprint. Let's start with some basic ones. This is just a partial list.

Conserve: This is fairly straightforward. Turn down the thermostat and wear a giant coat. Take "sailor showers," and if you have the money, invest in insulating your home. Sometimes, it's just as simple as turning off a light you aren't using, or replacing your incandescent bulbs with fluorescent or LED ones. Stop watching TV and go play outside (but still read my blog). In all cases, our climate and your wallet will thank you. I do all of these things pretty regularly, but I tend to listen to music through a power-hungry speaker system.

Don't Drive Everywhere: Again, fairly straightforward. Unfortunately, Seattle's public transportation system leaves a lot to be desired, but our light rail system is becoming more expansive. Seattle is relatively bike-friendly compared to other major cities as well, although a lot more work could be done on that front as well. If I were mayor, I would make public transportation free so that people would be more encouraged to use it. I'd add that air travel also produces tons (literally) of carbon dioxide per passenger, so if you want to reduce your footprint, skipping that trip to Bali is a good place to start.

Buy Used: Manufacturing takes resources - you have to mine the minerals used in the manufacturing process, synthesize them into usable compounds for the appropriate manufacturing facility, make the product, advertise the product, ship the product, etc. If you buy something used on Craigslist or at your local thrift store, you save money and limit waste products.

Get Involved: Write your legislator to tell them that you want them to take action on climate change in some specific way, and if they don't do it, you'll tell all your friends to not vote for them for reelection. It works, trust me. Educate people on the science of climate change without resorting to alarmist claims... it's scary enough as-is. Call out people and organizations that hype, are skeptical of, or deny climate change altogether. Start organizations, make petitions, go the whole nine yards. Just don't be a hypocrite when you do it.

In my opinion, these sacrifices are worth it. They require relatively little effort, don't affect your life in any major way, and keep money in the bank. Here are some more that are even more effective, but that many people might not be willing to do.

Don't Have Kids: Or at least don't have very many. This is a big one. If we had one billion people on this planet, we wouldn't be talking about global warming - at least not the type of warming we are seeing right now. The best way to reduce a carbon footprint is to not have a footprint in the first place. Achieving zero or negative population growth in industrialized would be very effective for reducing carbon emissions. I do not know what the social and economic repercussions of this would be, but they would probably be significant. This would be an interesting research topic and is definitely something that should be studied more.

Become A Vegetarian: This may be hard for some people. I was a pescetarian (seafood-eater) for a while, but after a year, I broke down and went on a meat binge. Still, I may resume being a pescetarian. It is cheaper, much more environmentally friendly, and more humane. The fewer animals you kill, the better.

Additionally, there are things that politicians, the media, and people with a little more authority can do.

Stop The Alarmism/Denial: Global warming is a serious issue, and it is imperative that those who act on behalf of the public and/or disseminate information to the public do so in an accurate manner. I'm not saying that the government shouldn't censor free speech. However, I am saying that there is a moral obligation of those in power to put the health of our planet and people over their profits.

End Subsides for Fossil Fuels: We need to invest heavily in clean, renewable energy and nuclear power if we wish to reduce our carbon footprint without changing our lifestyles. Clean energy, not coal and oil, should be subsidized by the government.

Create a Revenue-Neutral Carbon Tax: We have failed on combating climate change because of the “tragedy of the commons;” one person’s contributions to global warming are negligible and don't affect them personally, so why would they want to change their lifestyle? Of course, when everybody thinks like this, problems arise. The best way to discourage people from contributing to global warming is to have it affect them personally, and the best way to do that is to institute a carbon tax. Nobody likes taxes, so in exchange for this added tax, we could lower other taxes (ex: sales tax). Depressingly enough, a petition for just, I-732, that got hundreds of thousands of signatures, but has been opposed by both Republicans and Democrats. Remember what I said about contacting your legislator? This would be a great time to do it. You can learn more about it/contact your legislator here and also read Cliff Mass' excellent blog post on the issue.

I could blog until the proverbial cows came home about this issue. We talk too much, and do too little, and our efforts tend to be halfhearted at best. In the words of Yoda...

Thanks for reading!

1 comment:

  1. Brilliant article. I do recycle, ride my mountain bike, catch the bus to Uni & buy clothes from a thrift shop..yet perhaps still have a long way to go. Fortunately I do love storms & hectic weather!! so climate change is right up my sweet spot. bring on the great flood (again).. so long & thanks for all the fish ;)