That question I get asked by dinner dates

Believe it or not, this is a global warming post of sorts. Inevitably, when someone new finds out what I do for a living, the question eventually gets asked, “So, is that global warming stuff really as bad as they say?” Never mind that I’ve always worked on water issues. But of course, I couldn’t help but have an opinion – most environmental scientists do. It’s pretty much our job to convince everyone that yes, it really is as bad as they say, possibly a lot worse. Anyone who works in the field knows this by now; the evidence is overwhelming and more is coming in all the time.

Of course, by the time you get through explaining this, people aren’t necessarily that comfortable with you anymore. And it’s not just dinner dates. I’ve had this conversation with my broker, my dentist, taxi drivers, airplane seatmates, family members, etc. They’re not uncomfortable with me because I’m unusually rabid about it. It’s more that I really know how bad it is and the certainty of that is unsettling. I can cite any number of examples of things that can go wrong, any one of which will cause major disruptions of life as we currently live it. Environmental scientists live with this stuff all the time, and its a hard time to live in because of that. It’s very difficult to have any real long-term plans (such as making plans for retirement) and there is a renewed sense of urgency about living life well now.

Environmental scientists often wonder why the public (never mind the government) doesn’t take this as seriously as it should. Psychologists are actually beginning to study this, and it has to do with something I’ve suspected for a while. People just feel overwhelmed by it. It carries the potential for life as we know it to change so drastically that many of us may not live through it. In the face of that, most people just can’t bring themselves to think about it. They feel helpless, and do nothing. Or do little things sort of generally in service to the environment, which doesn’t come close to what is actually needed. There’s a kind of denial deeply rooted in fear that just couldn’t exist if people were willing to look in an unbiased way at what we know.

I understand that it’s hard to accept that their kids may not have the opportunity to live in the world they’ve known, especially in affluent countries like the USA, where we cannot continue to consume what we do and still solve this problem. The despair of a truth like that would be untenable. In my ungracious moments, I think some others just don’t care and live high now because they know they’ll be dead before this really hits the fan. For all these reasons, I have come to doubt very much that any actions that rely on the government or the public will be effective enough to make a difference.

People in these conversations sometimes seem curious as to how I can live with this apparent truth and not be consumed by hopelessness. In my case at least, I feel very lucky to have had the life I’ve had. I live each day as best I can, try to make what contributions I can, and enjoy my life – I know all too well that it may not always be this enjoyable, whether for environmental or health reasons. I don’t see why we can’t live with our eyes open, and make each moment more precious because of it.

And if some brilliant entrepreneur saves us all from our folly, wonderful. I have no idea whether that will happen or not; it’s one of the many unpredictable factors in this whole situation. Part of me thinks it would be better if we could just learn to control ourselves, but IMO, the chances of that happening in time are slim to none. Which is NOT a good reason not to try.

And in the meantime, points to anyone who asks me that and makes it through the ensuing conversation with their comfort level intact. I’ll start with my broker, who actually got that it changed my investment strategy and went with that. Now if only my dates could do the same :)

In weather news…

Driving to a friend’s party today, I was struck by the headline news on NPR. The first four stories were all about strange weather… followed by the elections in Zimbabwe. Except for the very first item, this wasn’t the weather, it was the news news, if you know what I mean. So here they were:

– Record high temperatures in the Pacific Northwest for this date, including over 100 degrees in Shelton and other areas west of the Cascades (!) Thankfully, it only got up to 87 here. Not incidentally, it’s really much worse for it to be this hot so early in the year, because the days are SO long. Usually this kind of weather doesn’t come until August, when blessed relief in the form of evening arrives sooner :) My garden was really nice this evening, when the house was still too hot.

– President Bush declaring an emergency in California, where yet again, multiple large fires are raging due to lightning strikes – though it’s a bit early in the year, the firefighters and local community resources are already exhausted.

– In stark contrast to the first two items, a levee breaking in Missouri as constant rain continues to bring misery to towns and cities in the Midwest.

– Power outages (and flooding) across central Ohio following windstorms and tornadoes. Do you think of Ohio as a tornado state?

Routine newscasts like this one may finally give a clue to those who go around saying that global warming couldn’t really be happening because (insert dumb idea here…/it’s colder than usual this month/it’s raining a lot lately/everything seems normal today).

You go, Al!

Woohoo!! Al Gore wins the Nobel Peace Prize for doing an incredible job of publicizing the issue of climate change and having a real impact. What just adds spice to the cake is that the Nobel committee also named the UN IPCC, the group which publishes and has been publishing for many years reports on the science of global climate change. It’s not everyday that a bunch of hard-working scientists from around the world are recognized at this level. Along with Al Gore’s work, their most recent report did a lot to galvanize public and politicians alike in realizing the true dangers caused by global warming and finally putting to rest the naysayers.

Now all we can do is hope that the Nobel committee wasn’t overly optimistic in recognizing the possibility that these very real threats could help bring the world together to peacefully work on a solution. I wish I could say I see some evidence of that, but I don’t :(

In the meantime, though – congratulations, Al. This may have been an even more important contribution than becoming President, though I whole-heartedly wish you had.

A tiny ray of hope

Those of you who read this blog know that I often post on issues related to global warming and the environment. In general, I think most environmental scientists have a pretty pessimistic view of the state of things to come and the challenges we’re going to be facing over the next 50 years, largely due to the magnitude and variety of impacts related to global warming, along with many unrelated issues.

One of the scary things that hasn’t really gotten into the public consciousness yet is the acidification of the oceans. The CO2 we’re adding into the atmosphere is counterbalanced somewhat by the ocean, which acts as a giant reservoir into which some of the CO2 can dissolve. Unfortunately, when it does so, the oceans become more acidic. The amount of CO2 that has been added to the oceans has already started to tip the balance, and there are measurable changes in pH. This process also reduces carbonate in seawater, which makes up coral reefs and the exoskeletons of small organisms important at the base of the oceanic food chain.

I know you’re still waiting for the ray of hope, so here it is. There’s a fascinating short article in Science (Mar 30 2007) which describes an experiment in which a variety of corals were exposed to more acidic ocean water, to see what would happen. The fossil record suggests that corals have survived periods of global warming in past geologic history, but no-one was quite sure how. It turns out that in fact the corals do lose their skeletons, and the little critters inside have their soft bodies exposed.

Astonishingly, they can live that way. They seem to grow and thrive perfectly well, as long as they are attached to a hard rock that doesn’t dissolve. We would still lose the coral reefs and all the structural diversity they provide, but the living beings in the coral would survive. And the research showed that once things get back to normal again – the critters build their little exoskeletons and the coral rebuilds itself. !!

I for one found this pretty amazing. Of course there are still 900 other things that can and will go wrong, but it’s just such a relentless tide of bad news that it’s wonderful to see one little part of the ecosystem that can adapt.

Update on Inconvenient Truths

Recently I reported that a neighboring city had decided that Al Gore’s movie An Inconvenient Truth could not be shown in local high schools without presenting a contrasting viewpoint (to which, local science teachers to their credit replied that there existed no such credible viewpoint that could be presented in a science classroom).

World events, of course, have made the Federal Way school district appear rather like those who espouse creationism in schools. No sooner had they decreed this than 2500 scientists from over 130 countries issued a report unanimously agreeing that global warming was now unequivocally happening and at least 90 percent likely to be caused by human activity, and outlining the likely effects of global warming over the next century. This is a group that’s known to be conservative in their predictions.

And now… England’s Environment Secretary intends to provide every secondary school in the UK with a copy of An Inconvenient Truth as part of a study packet on climate change, and Scotland intends to do the same. Why is it that USA school boards have their heads so firmly up their… ahem, in the sand? According to the IPCC report, the USA is responsible for 25% of carbon emissions (though China’s catching up fast). If anyone needs to teach their children about this, it’s us. Maybe they could have some influence on their gas-guzzling parents.

News I never thought I’d see…

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In yesterday’s Tacoma News Tribune:

CEOs ask Congress for emissions limits. ~blink~ Check out these words of wisdom:

“mandatory reductions of heat-trapping emissions can be imposed without economic harm”
“we do not believe that voluntary efforts will suffice”
“The science of global warming is clear. We know enough to act now. We must act now.”
“We are asking Congress to not wait for a new administration and not to wait for the presidential debates.”

And just who are these forward-thinkers? Alcoa, BP America, DuPont, Caterpillar, General Electric, Duke Energy Corp, and several leading environmental groups. ~double blink~

Some part of me is thinking there has to be a catch. Either that or they’re finally listening to their insurance companies, who’ve been getting increasingly concerned about the impacts of global warming on their bottom line. And of course some of their solutions are intended to stave off what they see as worse choices, such as the command-and-control approaches of the past, by implementing market-based emissions caps trading systems. Nevertheless, it’s nice to see some big energy companies admit that global warming is real, and that something needs to be done.

Meanwhile, in the State/Local section of the paper…

State should respond to climate changes now, not later

This article describes the recent study which was done for the Washington State Legislature on the likely fiscal impacts of global warming. This is no news to Swiss tourism and ski resorts, who have recently learned they’re likely to lose all the glaciers in the Alps by 2030-2050. Here in Washington, we’re also losing our glaciers and our snowpack, which not only serve the ski resorts but provide much of the water for Western Washington, not to mention water for salmon streams, low-cost renewable electricity, and agriculture.

An estimated 2-foot rise in sea level by 2050 is expected to have significant costs associated with it, including loss of property, damage to waterfront infrastructure and ports, and storm sewer backups. A projected rise in forest fires will continue to strain our already over-burdened fire-fighters, who can no longer rely on the National Guard to help out. Wildfires also burn valuable timber, damage habitat and reduce recreational opportunities. Finally, there is the issue of extreme weather, which already appears to be impacting the state.

All this, and the article on glacier loss in the Swiss Alps, in a SINGLE issue of a daily newspaper. Significantly, these were not articles in the science section, but in world, national, and state news.

Meanwhile… the local school district in the next town over has decided that Al Gore’s movie An Inconvenient Truth cannot be shown in high schools without a contrasting viewpoint. High school science teachers have reported that they don’t feel they can show the movie because they can’t think of what such a contrasting viewpoint would be. Meanwhile, parents and teachers are organizing local showings of the movie to offset the … shall we say … ostrich-like behavior of the school board.