The Climate of Perception

By Will Stahl

Lately––once again––climate research has been the news. New facts have emerged about what is going on beneath the ice fringing Greenland and Antarctica. The notices about West Antarctica were particularly grim; its glaciers are set on a course leading to inevitable collapse. Meaning apparently, all remaining ice, water, slush, whatever would begin to slide more or less quickly into the sea. That by itself could raise sea levels by as much as seventy feet, but maybe not so much, and anyway it might take a thousand years for this event to unwind. But it might not.

The climate-change deniers, represented to me by their trolls on Yahoo and Huffington Post, detonated.

Who cares what could or might happen in a thousand years? How do they know? Since we are still emerging from the Ice Age, those glaciers would have melted anyway. Nonsense, the Antarctic ice is expanding. It’s just a guess––think of what science didn’t know a hundred years ago. And so on.

Deniers speak as if environmentalists are a collective boy-who-cried-wolf. None of the other doomsday scenarios have come to pass, so why believe we must do something about greenhouse gas emissions? Besides, it would be expensive.

Of course some of the doomsday scenarios did not occur because people took steps to head them off. The Clean Air and Clean Water Acts initiated the removal of many of the most acute toxins from atmosphere and waterways. When it was found that fluorocarbons were threatening the ozone layer that protects us from harmful solar radiation, they were banned in many countries and the damage limited. When sulfur dioxide emissions from coal plants were turning the water of northeastern lakes to a weak acid, scrubbers were mandated to keep that substance out of the air and the rain.

Climate change is another magnitude greater problem. It can’t be solved by changing the propellant in aerosol cans, attaching a device to a generating plant chimney or even preventing the discharge of toxins into rivers or taking the lead out of gasoline.

Any effort that has any chance of mitigating the greenhouse gas problem will mean burning less fossil fuel. And fossil fuel has been the food of the American way of life.

Proposals to limit greenhouse gases elicit visceral responses. Some realize the impact of their own actions and try to minimize it or feel shame for not acting.

Others feel the underpinnings of their lives threatened. Face it––it is impossible to imagine America taking its current form without fossil fuels and the automobile. That’s the horse we rode in on.

Some of you may feel you can imagine our nation organized on another economic/energy basis, in the future, but what it is grew and is nurtured by fossil fuels. Many cannot imagine or trust that a life they’d recognize could be made without the car and cheap electricity. Or they will not.

An important part of our freedom as Americans is the ability to get in one’s car and drive whenever and wherever. What would replace it? Waiting for a bus? Really?

This feeling is understandable––I have it myself sometimes. Severely reducing our use of fossil fuels would change life in many ways, some unanticipated. No doubt about it. No use trying to deny it.

And people are deeply attached to their ways of living: where they live, what they eat, what their beliefs move them to engage in. What they drive and why they drive it is on that list somewhere.

The deniers listen to the public figures that tell them what they want to hear. It’s not your fault; these people are using this global warming hysteria to take control of the economy and your lives; the climate’s been changing for millions of years (not sure how that last plays out with the young Earth creationists). This winter here was cold as hell (true, but Alaska’s winter was mild and Australia had a record hot summer).

When you hear a denier say, “Cutting carbon emissions will wreck the economy,” I think you hear the subtext that it will wreck his way of life. The two, of course, are not really separate.

Those who would fight the rearguard action against climate change must acknowledge this deep and understandable fear. The garden-variety denier, who has no great portfolio of petrochemical stocks, is listening to and reading people who throw every kind of mud at the climate science.

Deniers want to believe the mud because they know adhering to the science would mean having to learn new ways to do most everything life requires: eat, heat, light, travel.

All coming with extra costs and paperwork. Maybe not reliable.

These are the people whose familiar lives, to paraphrase Upton Sinclair, depend on not understanding something, so they will not understand it.

Probably few will ever take a direct look at the science they are denying. Their talking heads emit a smokescreen of supposed discrepancies and disingenuous misinterpretations, convincing deniers they need look no further. Man-caused climate change is junk science.

So what is real science? That brings us back to the climate news of the week, the recent findings about the glaciers of Greenland and Antarctica. In both cases, the news was ominous.

Sea level rise is arguably the most dramatic expected long-term effect of global climate change/warming. Earlier projections were for a modest rise of three feet by the end of this century. That meant trouble for southern Florida and coastal Louisiana, but most of the big coastal urban areas would be able to adapt.

The new data comes from probing beneath coastal glaciers at both ends of the Earth. In Greenland researchers found that much more of the glaciers’ length was below sea level than previously known.

This matters because the main cause of rapid glacial melting is contact with the ocean water. In recent years the currents of the western North Atlantic have warmed and migrated northward.

As these above-freezing waters slip under the part of the glacier that has fanned out over the sea, they cause melting and the calving of icebergs. Scientists had believed, however, that when the ice sheets receded to exactly sea level, that kind of melting would stop.

Now they have found that the coastal glaciers have cut their beds far below sea level, and so the ocean water will be able to undermine a glacier much farther up its length than assumed earlier and so the accelerated melting could be yet faster. The same process must have occurred at the end of the Ice Age when the coastal glaciers of Norway, Canada and New Zealand melted, leaving fjords.

Sea levels could go up ten feet in decades, a much different proposition from a meter in a century. But that can’t be stated with certainty.

The situation in Antarctica is similar but still more complex. That’s why the scientists, from the data they have, cannot predict with accuracy when the great glacial collapse might occur.

The deterioration of the ice is occurring. How fast? Not enough information. Field researchers are looking for more.

That’s the way science works. Skeptics would have you believe that the current climate science consensus is based on a few scattered random data.

In fact researchers have dense layers of data about so many factors: air temperatures and water surface temperatures from all over the world. The melt-rate of mountain and continental glaciers. Widespread drought. Diminishing polar sea ice. Diminishing ice- fishing seasons in Wisconsin. Slow rise of sea level. Permafrost retreating northward. Movement of creatures whose habitat requires a certain temperature range. Glacier- extracted climate and atmospheric-composition data going back over a million years.

None of this is speculation or hypothesis. Scientists have mountains of data, but they are studying systems of near infinite complexity, so though they see the trends, they hesitate to make exact predictions. The Earth is accumulating heat energy, mostly in the oceans, and the oceans rule the weather. No one can say for certain how that energy will eventually manifest in the currents of water and air, and so scientists are cautious about speculation.

If you look just a little, you can find speculation about various feedback loops, and some of those are very plausible and very alarming. Any one or a combination of them could multiply the extrapolated effects of warming. The warmer it got, the faster the feedback would happen, and the warmer it would get. Human beings are messing with powers we do not understand. We can talk about those another time.

Powerful people benefit mightily from the current system. They pay for the spread of confusion and anger because they are economic dinosaurs that might be able to adapt to a changing world, but they’d rather not. Things are fine as they are, thank you.

To those who hold with things as they are, let me say, I understand. Change is hard and scary. Electronic technology has already altered our lives in unforeseen and occasionally uncomfortable ways. Most of us have made some kind of peace with that, learning enough to function in our digitized environment. We have come to take its advantages for granted.

The needed transition to clean energy will be similar, strange and bumpy at times, but ultimately just another change. People will figure out their means as the ends arise, just as they did when their cars became too complicated to work on at home or when the telephone became a thing carried in the pocket.

If we get started on this project to reduce carbon emissions, the changes, whatever they are––electric vehicles, plug-in hybrids, geothermal heat, LED lighting, rooftop solar panels, high-speed trains for long-distance travel––will not be delivered on your doorstep in a dump truck load. They will slip in little by little, day-by-day, as change has arrived through our whole lives, no matter what age we are.

The climate is changing, and we can choose to be ready or not. Ready might be difficult. Not could be chaos.

Leave a Reply

Scroll To Top