Yelling 'Fire' on a Hot Planet
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Yelling 'Fire' on a Hot Planet
Source: Copyright 2006, New York Times
Date: April 23, 2006
Byline: ANDREW C. REVKIN
GLOBAL warming has the feel of breaking news these days.
Polar bears are drowning; an American city is underwater; ice sheets
are crumbling. Time magazine proclaimed that readers should be
worried. Very worried. There are new hot-selling books and a batch
documentaries, including one starring former Vice President Al Gore
and his climate-evangelist slide show that is touted as "the most
terrifying movie you will ever see."
Are humans like frogs in a simmering pot, unaware that temperatures
have reached the boiling point? Or has global warming been spun into
an "alarmist gale," as Richard S. Lindzen, a climatologist at M.I.T.
wrote in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed article?
There is enough static in the air to simultaneously confuse, alarm
and paralyze the public. Is global warming now a reality? What do
scientists know for sure and when are they just guessing?
And what can truly be accomplished by changing behavior? After all,
there are still the traditional calls to limit heat-trapped
greenhouse-gas emissions, but a growing number of experts are also
saying what was once unthinkable: humans may have to adapt to a
Here, an attempt to shed a little light in all the heat.
What We Know
Between the poles of real-time catastrophe and nonevent lies the
prevailing scientific view: without big changes in emissions rates,
global warming from the buildup of greenhouse gases is likely to
to substantial, and largely irreversible, transformations of
ecosystems and coastlines later this century.
The Earth's average surface temperature rose about 1 degree over the
20th century, to around 59 degrees, but the rate of warming from the
1970's until now has been three times the average rate of warming
since 1900. Seas have risen about six to eight inches globally over
the last century and the rate of rise has increased in the last
In 2001, a large team of scientists issued the latest assessment of
climate change and concluded that more than half of the recent
warming was likely to have been caused by people, primarily because
we're adding tens of billions of tons of carbon dioxide and other
long-lived greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, mainly by burning
There is no serious debate any more about one thing: more of these
gases will cause more warming. Dr. Lindzen, who contends any human
climate influence is negligible and has long criticized those
global warming a catastrophe, agreed on this basic fact in his
At the same time, few scientists agree with the idea that the recent
spate of potent hurricanes, European heat waves, African drought and
other weather extremes are, in essence, our fault. There is more
enough natural variability in nature to mask a direct connection,
Even recent sightings of drowned polar bears cannot be firmly
ascribed to human influence on climate given the big cyclical
fluctuations of sea ice around the Arctic.
What Is Debated
The unresolved questions concern the pace and extent of future
warming and the impact on wildlife, agriculture, disease, local
weather and the height of the world's oceans in other words, all
the things that matter to people.
The latest estimates, including a study published last week in the
journal Nature, foresee a probable warming of somewhere around 5
degrees should the concentration of carbon dioxide reach twice the
280-parts-per-million figure that had been the norm on earth for at
least 400,000 years. This is far lower than some of the apocalyptic
projections in recent years, but also far higher than mild warming
rates focused on by skeptics and industry lobbyists.
As a result, by 2100 or so, sea levels could be several feet higher
than they are now, and the new normal on the planet for centuries
thereafter could be retreating shorelines as Antarctic and Greenland
ice sheets relentlessly erode.
Rivers fed by mountain glaciers, including those nourishing much of
south Asia, could shrivel. Grand plans to restore New Orleans and
Everglades would be rendered meaningless as seawater advances.
Manhattan would become New Orleans a semi-submerged city
by levees. In summers, polar bears would be stuck on the few
remaining ice-clotted shores around the largely blue Arctic Ocean.
Projections of how patterns of drought, deluges, heat and cold might
change are among the most difficult, and will remain laden with huge
uncertainties for a long time to come, said M. Granger Morgan, a
physicist and policy expert at Carnegie Mellon University in
For example, while computer simulations of the climate consistently
show that the centers of big continents are likely to grow drier,
winters and nights generally warmer, they cannot reliably predict
conditions in Chicago or Shanghai.
By the clock of geology, this climate shift is unfolding at a
dizzying, perhaps unprecedented pace, but by time scales relevant to
people, it's happening in slow motion. If the bad stuff doesn't
happen for 100 years or so, it's hard to persuade governments or
voters to take action.
And there is the rub. Many scientists say that to avoid a doubling
carbon dioxide concentrations, energy efficiency must be increased
drastically, and soon. And by midcentury, they add, there must be a
complete transformation of energy technology. That may be why some
environmentalists try to link today's weather to tomorrow's problem.
While scientists say they lack firm evidence to connect recent
weather to the human influence on climate, environmental campaigners
still push the notion.
"The issue clearly has an urgency problem," said Billy Parish, a
founder of Energy Action, a coalition of student groups. "Maybe I'm
just a paranoid that sees global warming everywhere, but the here-
now effects do seem to be mounting, and I think we need to connect
the dots for people."
A Gallup survey last month shows that people are still not worried
about climate change. When participants were asked to rank 10
environmental problems, global warming was near the bottom, far
water pollution and toxic waste (both now largely controlled).
Without a connection to current disasters, global warming is the
of problem people, and democratic institutions, have proved
singularly terrible at solving: a long-term threat that can only be
limited by acting promptly, before the harm is clear.
Problems that get attention are "soon, salient and certain," said
Helen Ingram, a professor of planning, policy and design at the
University of California, Irvine.
Stressing the problem's urgency could well be counterproductive,
according to "Americans and Climate Change," a new book by the Yale
School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.
The book notes that urgency does not appear to be something that can
be imposed on people. Moreover, it says, "Urgency is especially
to being discounted as unreasoned alarmism or even passion."
Among its recommendations, the Yale book suggests something radical:
drop the reluctance to accept adaptation as a strategy. Adaptation
climate extremes has long been derided by many environmentalists as
defeatism. But, the book says, adaptation may help people focus on
the reality of what is coming and that may motivate them to cut
emissions to limit chances of bigger changes to come.
Actions could range from developing drought-resistant crops to
eliminating federal insurance and other subsidies that have long
encouraged coastal development.
Could stressing adaptation work? The Yale group calls global
warming "the perfect problem" meaning that a confluence of
characteristics make it hard, if not impossible, to solve. Its
remains clouded with scientific uncertainty, its effects will be
over generations, and it is being amplified by everything from
microwaving a frozen dinner to bringing electricity to an Indian
"I wish I were more optimistic of our ability to get a broad slice
the public to understand this and be motivated to act," said David
Hawkins, who directs the climate program at the Natural Resources
Defense Council, a private group.
In an e-mail message, he wrote: "We are sensory organisms; we
understand diesel soot because we can smell it and see it. Getting
global warming is too much of an intellectual process. Perhaps
pictures of drowning polar bears (which we are trying to find) will
move people but even there, people will need to believe that those
drownings are due to our failure to build cleaner power plants and
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