Tuesday, April 22, 2008

A day (or 365) for the Earth

Happy Earth Day!

In anticipation of the holiday and in recognition of just how gorgeous it was outside yesterday, I dusted off the ol' Surly and went for a ride around the lake. Though a little out of shape from the winter, I was pleased to discover that I haven't completely lost all of the gains I made last year. But enough about me:

38 years ago, former Wisconsin governor Gaylord Nelson started Earth Day as a grassroots environmental teach-in effort. These days, its celebration has expanded to the point of qualifying as an Earth Week or even Month. That's definitely progress, but we'd also do well to apply its lessons and principles year-round.

I already posted a list of some of the Earth Day related events around town. Interestingly enough, that simple post elicited a rather impassioned response from commenter William, who apparently isn't convinced that global climate change is actually happening, or that humans are responsible for it. He, like a small but vocal group of people, believes that the media is one-sided in its coverage of the issue. I countered by arguing that, in an effort to appear objective, the media gives too much air-time to the deniers. Simply because a view point exists on an issue does not mean it should automatically be given the same credence as another take on the issue that has far more in the way of evidence to back it up (take Holocaust deniers, for example).

Climate change deniers overwhelmingly rely, perhaps unwittingly, on disproved, biased and/or highly flawed research. If a news report wants to include the voice of someone whose opinion is that it's not happening, fine, but to include false "science" on the subject is not good journalism. It's lazy at best, destructive at worst.

This, of course, resulted in me being called "close-minded" and "self-absorbed," among other things. I can take the name calling. What I have a hard time dealing with are people who, for whatever reason, still stubbornly refuse to see what's right in front of their faces. This is too important an issue to play politics or personal pride with.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA):
Human activity has been increasing the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere (mostly carbon dioxide from combustion of coal, oil, and gas; plus a few other trace gases). There is no scientific debate on this point.
Emphasis mine, of course. There's a lot of good reading at that site, and I highly recommend taking a look.

The trick with a lot of this data is that it's incredibly complicated, and parts of it can appear, to the layperson (myself included), to contradict other data sets. For instance, while the trend in most parts of the world is toward warmer average temperatures, there are sections ("parts of the southeastern U.S. and parts of the North Atlantic") where the average is actually cooling. Do these seeming inconsistencies negate the entire debate? I wish.

Global climate change involves several large-scale changes, but it also manifests in many, more localized and varied forms. For example, we'll see longer, more harsh droughts in certain areas, while in other places we'll see greater flooding and more severe storms.

Point is, it's happening and humans have a pretty large hand in causing it. There is debate, however, as to the exact manifestations, consequences and time-line. Getting that right is important, and as such we should be fostering constructive debate and research on the matter. But we first need to move beyond questioning whether it's happening at all. It is.
A United Nations report ...by the world's top climate scientists said global warning was "very likely" man-made and would bring higher temperatures and a steady rise in sea levels for centuries to come regardless of how much the world slows or reduces its greenhouse gas emissions.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which is made up of scientists from 113 countries, was created by the U.N. in 1988 and releases its assessments every five or six years.

"Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, as is now evident from observations of increases in global average air and ocean temperatures, widspread melting of snow and ice, and rising global mean sea level," said the IPCC report.

As for the assertion that "hundreds of scientists have signed petitions that state climate change isn't a problem" (made by the commenter and in several other forums), I offer the following Royal Society paper debunking that and many other misleading arguments:

There are some differences of opinion among scientists about some of the details of climate change and the contribution of human activities, such as the burning of fossil fuels. Researchers continue to collect more data about climate change and to investigate different explanations for the evidence. However, the overwhelming majority of scientists who work on climate change agree on the main points, even if there is still some uncertainty about particular aspects, such as how the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere will change in the future.

In the journal Science in 2004, Oreskes published the results of a survey of 928 papers on climate change published in peer-reviewed journals between 1993 and 2003. She found that three-quarters of the papers either explicitly or implicitly accepted the view expressed in the IPCC 2001 report that human activities have had a major impact on climate change in the last 50 years, and none rejected it. There are some individuals and organisations, some of which are funded by the US oil industry, that seek to undermine the science of climate change and the work of the IPCC. They appear motivated in their arguments by opposition to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Kyoto Protocol, which seek urgent action to tackle climate change through a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.
We've also been observing a far greater increase in arctic sea ice melting than previously predicted. According to a new study, only 13% of the new layer of ice formed last year survived the annual melt.

Research has linked the thinning of Arctic ice to warmer average temperatures caused by rising levels of greenhouse gases from human activities. Readings from U.S. submarines indicate a widespread reduction in sea ice thickness of 40 per cent since 1960.

The melting is also increased because the darker surface of open water absorbs the sun's rays as heat rather than reflecting them back into space like ice and snow.

Those people who live close to and rely on arctic ice already know this is happening. Inuit hunters are facing increasingly dangerous routes across thinning ice. Homes and other structures face instability as permafrost disappears. People in far northern climes are on the front lines and there's no doubt that something is drastically changing.

And the data, stories and research goes on and on.

Point is, we can't afford to debate if change is happening. It's far too late for that. What we must do is talk about and implement ways to counteract these negative changes--ways that don't themselves have negative consequences (take the current skyrocketing prices of corn and rice, for example).

Thankfully, not all is doom and gloom. While it is essential that we take this problem as being deadly serious, we can also take heart in the fact that many people have been working on creative and productive solutions for years now. The scale and scope is breathtaking. Everything from simple in-home green solutions to massive renewable resource projects have been and continue to be tackled. There are several great resources for keeping up on these developments, too:
  • TreeHugger - a blog with frequent entries about various green technologies, toys, businesses and communities, etc.
  • InHabitat - a blog that covers green building, technology and architectural developments.
  • Haute Nature - ecologically based creative ideas, art and green products for your children, home and lifestyle.
  • Ideal Bite - daily and easy-to-implement tips and tricks for making your life more environmentally friendly.
  • Grist - environmental news that's "fiercely independent" and not boring.
  • WorldChanging - "a solutions-based online magazine that works from a simple premise: that the tools, models and ideas for building a better future lie all around us."
And the list goes on.

This shouldn't be a partisan issue. This is something that, in one way or another, impacts all 6 billion of us. Changing our ways to better the planet we live on doesn't have to mean crazy high prices, poor economies or massively restricted civil liberties. In fact, I'd argue that intelligently implementing positive changes to help save the world, as it were, would help us avoid all of those things. Green technology is, more and more, the money-saving choice. Improving conditions means fewer droughts and floods so that food sources aren't wiped out. It means less chance of massive epidemics. It means, if we keep at it, cheaper/renewable sources of energy. The crunch at gas pumps isn't going to get any better.

So go out and celebrate Earth Day, but be sure to take it and run with it. After all, the phrase may be a cliche, but it's still absolutely spot-on: make every day Earth Day.

UPDATE TO ADD: A great, comprehensive site on "How to Talk to a Climate Skeptic" - covers things far more comprehensively than I can.


william said...

Nice post. I see that you are good at rehashing the same things. The group of skeptics is not small and revised information is being found all of the time. In fact the hottest year on record was not 1998 as Al Gore claimed but I believe 1936. The Heritage club put out a presentation discussing global warming, maybe you should take the time to review it. Oh, but that is an evil conservative organization, controlled by the oil companies. You can point to the IPCC report all you want. Have you actually read the report? There are many assumptions in their models, and do not take into account different variables like sun activity. Did you know that the oceans temp, based on revised data by the NOAA actually shows a cooling trend? And that the GW scientists are trying to determine how this can be? Try going to a site like www.junkscience.com.

I do think that global warming exists to a degree, but I am highly skeptical of the man-made theory. Have you seen the reports on what it is going to cost us to implement a cap and trade program? What the increase to the price of cars and trucks will be? All of this to do something that is unattainable. Canada has already stated that it will not meet its emission goals under the Kyoto treaty, the EU, is not meeting them either.

On a last note, please post a link that debunks the claims that the global warming skeptics are saying. All you say that they use flawed science, why is it flawed? It is easy to say that or to say its flawed science? Please back it up.

Your comment equating GW skeptics to holocaust deniers is really telling about you.

Emily said...

I post all of those links, to all of those reports and data sets and research, and you still don't think I've posted a link "that debunks the claims that global warming skeptics are saying"?

That statement is really telling about you. You have no intention of hearing me, or more importantly, the thousands of scientists and researchers worldwide, out on this. You've made up your mind, and frankly, it makes me sad.

You're wrong about the warmest years on record. But don't take my word for it, listen to NOAA: "The 2006 average annual temperature for the contiguous U.S. was the warmest on record and nearly identical to the record set in 1998..."

In the end, though, I get the impression that your main reason for refusing to believe that humans have a hand in any of this is your perception of how much it will cost to fix it. Two things: costs will come down the more research we do into renewable energy sources and greener technologies--they already are. We don't have to tank our economies to make things better. Click some of the links I provided in the original post for a few ideas about how this is possible.

Secondly, is the continued safety and sustainability of your own home not worth some serious investment? Because I think it is, and I know a lot of other people do, too.

Those of us in developed countries currently have the luxury of debating this topic, but step into a poorer community--those currently being devastated by extreme weather, skyrocketing food and fuel prices, and general instability, and you'll see first-hand what our past policies and refusal to deal with the problems has wrought. The first shocks are already at our own doorsteps.

William said...


Maybe you can take a few minutes out from your soap box and read this:


George H. said...

Eventually, science-doubters become mortal. Pity, in their last breaths, they can't be denied when they reach for the results of the knowledge that will save their lives.

Emily said...

Here are some answers and suggestions. Enjoy.

The Lost Albatross