Saturday, January 4, 2014

Here's For The Cheap Seats

Weighing In On Matters of Importance

The peanut gallery is alive and well. Every day I hear them hollering about how this snowfall or that cold weather front disproves global warming. Even as Australia has recognized 2013 as the hottest year they've ever had, and northern latitudes continue to see unprecedented changes in the climate, the peanut gallery remain unmoved in their belief that "there's no such thing" as (anthropogenic, or man-made) global warming, that it's a hoax, or a non-sensical and faulty scientific conclusion, or a conspiracy by an amorphous and occult socialist cabal, or natural variation, or whatever.

One cannot even sensibly respond to the peanut gallery these days. Any attempt to explain where they are mistaken leads to the flamethrowers of vitriol being deployed. Snark grenades get tossed into the laps of innocent bystanders. Snipers shoot dumdum bullets at the heads of those trying to reason with the unruly mob of vociferous climate change deniers. Propaganda leaflets rain down on everyone, bought and paid for by the Koch Brothers and their ilk in the fossil fuel industry.

This ongoing cock-up, this slow motion disaster, this tragedy in the making, is given the appearance of a politically charged farce made for the media to parse and parcel out for the world's entertainment. This has been so effectively done, that many people have no idea what the whole truth is anymore, or to whom they should be listening, or why it really even matters. Nor has the media been responsible in its reporting of the facts. In its ostensible effort to promote "fair and balanced" news, the media have—in terms of journalistic integrity—thrown the baby out with the bathwater, and every time we bring the baby back in, they throw it out again.

Thus, the greatest gift to the deniers is the inevitable confusion or misunderstanding of the general public. As major media outlets flail about ineffectually, shooting themselves in the foot like the New York Times or kowtowing to their monied political backers like Forbes, the peanut gallery aims its scurrilous missives at the general public via the comments sections of science blogs and the like, Op-Eds in major newspapers, and articles in predominantly right-wing media. Where climate change deniers cannot undermine the actual science, they seek to undermine the public's perception of the scientists. Where they cannot undermine, they generally seek to obfuscate, to confuse, to deceive. Fear, uncertainty, and doubt are the order of the day. The fossil fuel industry's pals in right-wing think tanks are expert FUD producers, and the media, hamstrung by the belief that facts and opinions are created equal, are their preferred conduit.

So, what's the solution? The answer, as ever, is better education. This requires people who know what they are talking about to counter those who don't, and especially those who are purposefully attempting to derail educational and informative discussions of the matter. Those who have a firm grasp of the topic need to appeal to those who do not. By being a calm, rational, reasonable, intelligent voice, even as the deniers harangue, harass, and shout aggressively, more people will come to understand that the subject of anthropogenic global warming is not a political football. AGW is simply the most important topic of the era, with consequences to which the term "real world" applies absolutely.

The good news, if it may be called that, is that the science is firmly on the side of there being significant and escalating anthropogenic global warming. The consensus is established among climate scientists, and the IPCC has reported on the findings. While nay-sayers may flout the understanding of climate scientists, one may in turn dismiss their pronouncements as ill-informed or, in certain cases, as disingenuous. For example, the events that lead to very cold weather here or there do not in any way counter the fact that the globe is warming. This is demonstrable science; observation and data support the conclusion. This also applies to the spreading of ice in the antarctic, where, although the surface area of sea ice is seen to be growing, it's warming water in the Southern Ocean, coupled with wind around the Antarctic continent, that is causing it. As Skeptical Science puts it, "Antarctic sea ice is complex and counter-intuitive. Despite warming waters, complicated factors unique to the Antarctic region have combined to increase sea ice production. The simplistic interpretation that it's caused by cooling is false." (Source:

It is also good news that so many organizations—from reinsurance companies like Munich Re, to the Pentagon, to mega-corporations like Siemens—recognize the importance of climate change and are actively pursuing strategies to address it. While some may feebly argue that all these organizations are simply seeing a profit to be made, it is not in the nature of any of them to commit so much money and so many resources to what climate deniers think a hoax or untenable hypothesis. It is their business to be prepared, to be savvy, to be aware, and their actions speak louder than words. This is not mere greenwashing we are witnessing; these organizations mean business. The general public would do well to understand this.

The fact is, there is no mitigating evidence against anthropogenic global warming. While there is yet a lot to learn, the basic understanding is on solid ground. Arguments in the science community center around details—for instance, how mitigating is the albedo of clouds vs the greenhouse properties of H2O? But the science community is not arguing about the reality of AGW, and they are certainly not arguing over the properties of CO2, or methane, or water vapor.

The understanding of greenhouse gasses stretches back a long way, and so does the concern over our role in climate change. "In 1938, G.S. Callendar argued that the level of carbon dioxide was climbing and raising global temperature, but most scientists found his arguments implausible. It was almost by chance that a few researchers in the 1950s discovered that global warming truly was possible. In the early 1960s, C.D. Keeling measured the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere: it was rising fast. Researchers began to take an interest, struggling to understand how the level of carbon dioxide had changed in the past, and how the level was influenced by chemical and biological forces. They found that the gas plays a crucial role in climate change, so that the rising level could gravely affect our future." (Source: That so-called climate skeptics do not typically reference the robust historical record of this understanding should be telling. The fact of the matter is that we have known for a long while that something is happening, and that we, humanity, especially those of us in the developed world, are playing a role in its development. Climate scientists have been working for a long time to bring that role into focus, and to understand what CO2 emissions are doing to the climate. It has not been an easy course to follow. The climate is, as you may well imagine, a very complex thing. Teasing out the signal of AGW from the noise of natural climate variability has been difficult. Yet—we have accomplished that feat, and we do understand what's happening. What we see is not the result of the sun, not the result of a natural cycle, not the result of planets in or out of alignment, not the result of volcanoes, not the result of deforestation, not the result of changes in the sea, nor is it the result of any of these in combination or taken all together. What we see is the result of human beings putting tons and tons and tons of CO2 into the atmosphere. Period. We are doing this.

We are beginning to make changes for the better, despite the peanut gallery's shrill remonstrations. This is happening in part because we are coming to understand, outside of any discussion of climate change, that we have an impact on life on earth. We are beginning to see that we cannot treat the planet as an infinite resource, a bottomless trashcan, a disposable commodity. This is, of course, a very good thing for us to understand. But simultaneously, we are continuing to pump massive amounts of greenhouse gasses into the air. This pollution is systemically inherent, kept in place by our habituation, by the infrastructures of our societies. And this is precisely where we need to press for changes in behavior. If we are to have any hope in overcoming AGW—and understanding that we are, even now, ominously locked in to a certain amount of climate change—then we must strive to implement systemic changes that drastically reduce our collective greenhouse output. We are called upon to actively petition our governments as well as our neighbors, to promote the changes that will reduce our carbon footprint and reduce methane emissions, on the one side, while increasing those practices that help reduce the greenhouse gasses now in the atmosphere, such as planting trees and and recycling paper products (thus saving the forests we already have), on the other side.

We also need to vote more intelligently. We cannot abide a government bogged down in partisan warfare. Our legislators must, absolutely must, represent our interests as members of a species interested in preserving its life. For the stakes are that high. The cost of not acting responsibly with regard to pollution and global warming is one we would never want our children to see, yet they are the ones who will live to see the real consequences of our actions now.

We insure our cars, our homes, our lives. We do so because bad things do happen. We don't drive our cars like maniacs, on sidewalks, through barricades. We know better than to risk our lives or to put others' lives in danger. So why would we gamble against the future our children will inherit? Why would we turn a deaf ear to the warning bells? Why would we ignore the fire alarm, and go about watching late night TV as the kids sleep upstairs?

You wouldn't. Would you?

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