Thursday, June 27, 2013

Climate Change - the Fierce Urgency of Now

Up to now I haven't plunged into the politicized hot-potato that is the climate change debate.  Yes, I'm a climate scientist, and yes, I'm one of the 97% of them who believe humans are changing Earth's climate to a degree that is bound to have serious impact--making it warmer but also injecting other pollutants that have significant effects, such as destruction of the ozone layer.

I thought this would be a good time to put in my two cents because our president has just issued a new policy statement on the subject.  You can read it, and the reaction of bloggers here.  Now, when President Obama was running for his first term, one of the stirring moments in the stump speech that catapulted him into the lead in the polls was this quote, in which he, in turn, quotes Martin Luther King, Jr.:

'I am running in this race because of of what Dr. King called "the fierce urgency of now." Because I believe that there’s such a thing as being too late, and that hour is almost upon us.'

Well, I don't believe the president's stand on climate change quite lives up to this rhetoric.  The policies as laid out run the risk of being 'too little too late.'  And the hour is upon us:  climate change is happening today at a rate hundreds of times more swift than any past natural rate of change (except for cases of sudden natural disasters like the explosion of a super-volcano or the impact of a meteor).  Yes, human impact on climate is currently the equivalent of a major natural disaster.  Climate scientists are largely united on this, yet the general public remains complacent.  Whereas 97% of climate researchers consider the problem 'serious', only 33% of the public at large in the US describes it that way in the latest Pew Research Poll.

Imagine if you were developing a slight fever, just one or two degrees more than your normal 98.6, and you don't feel that sick - yet - kind of like the climate, having warmed just one or two degrees - so far.  You decide to go see a doctor, just to be safe.  In fact you go to see 100 doctors (because you don't want to trust just one - you want to get a solid consensus).  The result: 97 of those doctors give you the same diagnosis and offer the same prescription to cure you.  What would you do?

Well a certain Mr. John Doe wasn't satisfied.  He didn't think he was sick.  He decided to head out to the street and describe his symptoms to passers-by, and ask the first 100 of them what he should do?  And of course only 33 of the people he asked told him to do what the doctors prescribed.  "Whew!" John said to the last of the 100, visibly relaxing.  "I knew it.  I'm really not that sick after all.  Stupid doctors."

So how can we narrow this perception gap between the general public and those who have devoted their lives to studying the subject?  My friend American Meteorological Society president Dr. Marshall Shepherd gave a TEDx talk that addresses this.  Marshall's talk is entertaining, down-to-earth, accessible to the average John Doe, and full of good insights.  I urge you to take eighteen minutes to watch this:

TEDx Atlanta, GA, May 7, 2013

Marshall starts out by showing a photo of his two children, and states that the reason he's so passionate about this problem is them--the generation who are likely to live to see the day when nobody in their right mind will have any remaining doubt that we've messed with mother nature.

I frame the lives of Marshall's kids (and mine) in this negative context because I am not optimistic that the greedy status-quo will change sufficiently or in time.  I believe we will confront that moment when we say:  "we are too late."

President Obama might do well to continue quoting Rev. King.  Here's the rest of that quote from April 1967 at Manhattan's Riverside Church:

'Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked, and dejected with a lost opportunity. The tide in the affairs of men does not remain at flood -- it ebbs. We may cry out desperately for time to pause in her passage, but time is adamant to every plea and rushes on. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residues of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words, "Too late." There is an invisible book of life that faithfully records our vigilance or our neglect. Omar Khayyam is right: "The moving finger writes, and having writ moves on."'

Exactly what will be the moment when John Doe finally accepts that he's sick?  What will be the watershed event that wakes everybody up?  How catastrophic must it be; and what options will we have left when it comes?  I have some speculations which make their way into the back-story of my novel 'Eden's Womb'.

The discussion continues here, as I propose a simple two question 'Final Exam' for mankind.

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