Posts Tagged ‘climate’

Bubbles Through the Ice

The other day I attended a screening of “Chasing Ice“, a documentary covering National Geographic photographer James Balog and his Extreme Ice Survey project, chronicling the decline of the earth’s glaciers. This is a stunning film with some fantastic imagery (still, time-lapse, and video). It also makes you feel like you’re waiting bedside at a hospice, except in this case the terminally ill patient is the Earth itself, or at least the Earth as we know her.

Balog’s photography proves two indisputable facts: First, the earth is indeed warming; and second, this is causing change with unprecedented rapidity. His photography, as well as the research performed on archival photographs over the past century, proves that glaciers, thousands of years old and seemingly unchanging, are now disappearing at incredible rates. The glaciers he monitored receded more in the past 10 years than in the prior 100; and other studies show extensive swaths of glaciers are now gone entirely. There is no denying one’s eyes, physical observations on the ground, and the wealth of data by NASA and others proving temperatures across the planet are increasing. This is all very depressing, and by focusing on ice the film zooms right in on the crux of the problem and why this is such a catastrophe. It’s all about the water.

Water is the most fascinating substance in existence. It’s an amazing thing! At temperatures below 32F it’s a solid, still somewhat fluid but hard enough to crush in your skull. It expands when frozen, an action that can fracture mountains. And when enough of it piles up, it molds & scours the very surface of the earth. A few scant degrees later, it is a liquid, flowing wherever gravity takes it. In that state, it is capable of sustaining life, eroding valleys, washing away soil, and moving with enough force to wipe out everything along a coastline. Then it can evaporate, heading into the air as a vapor, depriving farmlands of its life-sustaining properties, where it affects air temperatures and wind currents until it again condenses and forms a gentle rain or a raging hurricane capable of wiping out a city.

But here’s the point people tend to miss: in all of recorded human history, water has been a relative constant. The quantity of water stored as glacial ice has only slowly reduced since the last Ice Age, the weather patterns have been generally the same (with occasional, yet still disastrous outliers), and the coastlines relatively stable, enabling the formation of great civilizations. We’ve evolved in the circumstances we exist in today, with a certain quantity of water in oceans, in the ice, and as fresh water. We’re used to our farmlands existing where they are, with predictable levels of rain, growing the crops they are capable of growing. We’re used to a certain type and quantity of life brewing in our oceans, lakes, rivers & streams, life capable of existing in certain levels of acidity, salinity, and oxygenation.  Yet this “stable state” of water is now changing drastically. That’s what scares me most: our very lifeblood, the very thing we all depend on to survive, is undergoing a state of change we are not used to seeing. How will we adjust?

There are a lot of uncertainties here. Will added freshwater in the oceans cause weather-impacting shifts in ocean currents? Will it upset the life balance of the oceans, harming the greater food chain? Will there be more rain? Less? More heavy storms? Less? Even the absence of storms can be problematic (midwest farms, for instance, rely on heavy snowpack in the Rockies for irrigation). Even with this uncertainty, it can be easily deduced that it can’t be good. We’ve grown & lived with a certain level and placement of water (and, therefore, weather) predictability for 10,000 years, shaking all that up is going to be disastrous! Sure, life can survive on a wetter world or a drier, hotter world, but can WE survive it? We are a pretty fragile species, and our societies are even more fragile.

:Sniff Sniff: Smells Like Oil

So the Earth is warming, of that there can be no doubt. But are we responsible? Is it due to a greenhouse effect caused by the massive release of CO2 brought on by 150 yrs of fossil fuel use? Or something else entirely?

After the film, the theater hosted a panel discussion with Dr. Laurence I. (“Larry”) Gould and Dr. Tad Pfeffer. Dr. Pfeffer works with the Extreme Ice Team, he’s very clear in his position that this global warming phenomenon is anthropogenic (human-caused). Dr. Gould is not necessarily a climate change denier, but he is skeptical and questions some of the popular conclusions on the causes of global warming. He makes some good points, but (like many anthropogenic climate deniers) he misses the biggest one: there is no other credible cause that can explain the Earth’s warming pattern.

Sure, there have been some questionable conclusions made by the human-cause crowd. Some of their models have been successfully challenged. There have been scandals regarding pre-drawn conclusions and data manipulation. Yet although these incidents have been isolated, the “alternative hypothesis” crowd does have cause to question. But, to date, nothing has been proposed that even comes close to explaining what is going on, including “the sun is doing it”. Here we have unprecedented, rapid warming happening now that hasn’t happened for at least 10,000 years. It would take something that hasn’t occurred in that length of time, it would take something that would be incredibly obvious and observable, not something subtle. If it’s not the sun (whose output we can, and do, easily measure), then what is it?

This is where “gullibility” comes in. The anti-warming, anti-human-cause crowd loudly proclaims how gullible us “environmentalist whackos” are for buying all this “global warming crap”, but then they toss out theories or outright denials that are just patently ridiculous! Isn’t buying theories like “there are more clouds trapping heat” or “there’s more soot in the air” or other illogical nonsense gullible in its own right? Whether or not all the details regarding fossil fuel use, increased CO2, and the resulting greenhouse effect are perfect and unchallengeable is besides the point: it is the only credible theorem out there. In the absence of other credible theories, it has to be, if not the right specific answer, then at least on the right track.

It even passes the “sniff test”, it’s a remarkably easy chain of logic to follow:

  • For three billion years, plants have absorbed CO2 through photosynthesis, releasing O2 and keeping the carbon.
  • For three billion years, some of this carbon was deposited at the bottom of swamps & shallow seas. This really accelerated during the Carboniferous Period, some 100-400 million years ago (when the bulk of our fossil fuel resources were initially deposited)
  • These carbon deposits were then concentrated and compressed through various geological processes. This resulted in  coal, oil and natural gas deposits.
  • Flash-forward to 300 years ago. Coal enters into widespread use. Flash forward another 150 years. Oil is discovered and enters widespread use. Now flash-forward to today. Can you even fathom how much oil & coal has been burned in these last couple of centuries? Even in the last 50 years? I don’t think any of us can.
  • So here’s the rub: it took nearly 3 billion years of plants removing carbon from the atmosphere to develop these vast stores of fossil fuels, and we’ve burnt how much in just 300 years?
  • What we are seeing is essentially an explosion — a very rapid release of stored energy — in the super-slow motion scale of geologic time.

Believing in anthropogenic global warming is not gullibility. Believing that our burning of fossil fuels would not have an adverse effect on our planet is the height of gullibility!

The Root of Gullibility

There’s only one root cause for gullibility, and (surprisingly) it’s not ignorance. Sure, ignorance is part of it, but gullibility, at its essence, is all about really, really wanting something to be true. You can think you can win the lottery or you can fall for a cash-for-gold scam not because you’re ignorant on how those things really work but because you really want to have a buttload of money. I know some highly educated people who fell for scams involving psychics and others who got ripped off by home remodeling contractors and others who bought obvious lemons and paid the price. The cause wasn’t ignorance, even though they should have known better. The cause was a strong desire to have that amazing car, or have that brand-new kitchen at 1/2 the price, or have full control over their future. If they didn’t really want it to the extreme of reason, they wouldn’t have fallen for it. And so it goes with the climate-change deniers.

These folks really, really want to keep their lifestyle exactly the way it is. They want to have the McMansion, they want to have the oversized Dodge Ram Penile-Compensation pickup truck, they want to go jetsetting around the world and eat their peaches in the middle of winter and keep their thermostats set at 78 degrees so they can sleep naked. They like those things, and they don’t want to change, either through force of legislation or (even worse) their own guilt. So instead of looking at the facts, making a reasonable conclusion, and adjusting their behavior accordingly, they deny deny deny and buy into bullshit like “we can burn as much fossil fuel as we want and it doesn’t matter”.

The other element of gullibility — besides desire (the cause) and ignorance — is irresponsibility. The guy who fell for the psychic wanted to avoid the responsibility for running his own life; the guy who fell for the bad contractor didn’t do his research; the guy who bought the lemon didn’t bother taking it to a mechanic. And so goes it with the climate deniers: they simply don’t want to take responsibility for their actions and how they impact others and the world. That’s the real gist here: they are just avoiding the fact that their actions have ramifications. Now I don’t want to cast moral aspersions on these people, because they may be great folks. But in this one area, they just don’t get the fact that we are all one people, living in one ecosystem, and we all impact each others’ existence.

Now I’m not one for advocating a lot of government regulation into our lives to handle climate change. We have far too much as it is, and government is far too prone to make regulations that actually make matters worse. But if we’d just take responsibility for our own lives and try to live in greener ways, we can solve this problem ourselves without bringing government into it. In order to do that, we’ve got to accept the basic truth that we just can’t keep on burning through the earth’s fossil fuel reserves, and instead try to live all our lives a little greener.


Additional Links:

Skeptical Science — my favorite climate blog

NOAA PMEL Carbon Program — CO2’s effect on the oceans

EPA’s Global Emissions — analysis of types & sources of greenhouse gases

Union of Concerned Scientists 10 Personal Solutions — things you can do

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