The Hot Zone

Whose climate?

Posted by Alison Hawkes on April 9, 2010
Category : The Politics of Climate Change

Sometimes I wonder why global warming has played out so differently on the political landscape than the ozone hole. Both are problems related to human induced disruptions of the Earth’s atmosphere.

Yet, back in 1987 the world responded to the growing danger of the ozone hole with an exceptional act of international cooperation by enacting the Montreal Protocol, which phased out ozone depleting chemicals. To be fair, the treaty was preceded by more than 10 years of published research and a formidable fight by the areosol and halocarbon industry, led by Dupont, whose chairman called the ozone hole theory “a science fiction tale.” Nevertheless within two years of the first conclusive study showing an ozone hole above the Antarctic, the world responded as it needed to. Today, the ozone hole is on the mend.

In the case of global warming, anti-science political interests have fomented a daily backlash against the scientific evidence that has for some time now effectively stymied governments from taking needed action to curb greenhouse gas emissions. This list breaking down organizations that believe in the science of climate change versus those that call it all a fraud lays bare the political divide, at least from a special interest standpoint. But it doesn’t answer the question of where the public’s head is on this matter.

Dr. James Hansen, director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, addresses this issue in a conversation about his new book, Storms of my Grandchildren.

“The public does not understand that we have an emergency,” Hansen says.  “And it’s not surprising because global warming is only a couple of degrees Fahrenheit, which is very small compared to day-to- day weather fluctuations which are 10-20 degrees.”

In other words, the crisis situation explained by scientists doesn’t seem all that bad. I mean, unless you’re living in Phoenix, who wouldn’t want the weather to be a bit warmer? By empirical evidence, we all experience more drastic temperature changes from morning into afternoon. Here’s where better science education helps:

“But scientifically we can see what’s happening with the mountain glaciers receding, with the Arctic sea ice melting, with the subtropics expanding,” says Hansen. “And we can see what’s on the horizon within a few decades, the effects it’s going to have on ice sheets and sea level and species extinction. So we have to try and make this clear to the public and it’s not easy. That’s what we’re struggling with because there are other forces. The fossil fuel industry which is trying so hard to keep the public uninformed and they have a lot of resources, so it’s hard.”

So is climate change research really in battle against special interests, with the public unwittingly caught in between? As a non-scientist myself, albeit with a passing grade ability to read scientific papers, I’ve long thought of the debate over climate change as a combination of trust and evidence. Who do I trust on this one more? Independent researchers or the fossil fuel industry? And are the scientific predictions bearing out?

Sure I get jolts once in a while. Just recently, NASA released a study based on better measurement tools showing the Atlantic conveyor belt is not slowing, and may even be speeding up. Good-bye Day After Tomorrow — that Hollywood film is now certifiably ridiculous.

But that, of course, doesn’t negate all of climate change science. It’s also good to remember that the changes needed to stabilize the climate are good in so many other ways. Acting on climate change creates a better world, says Hansen, “because those steps will also result in a cleaner atmosphere, a healthier environment, and preserve the remarkable planet that we were fortunate enough to get from our parents.”

– Alison Hawkes

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