Soundings: Deceptive winter

Author: Kerry Temple ’74

Kerry Temple

It’s been a tough winter, one of the coldest and snowiest on record.

So a talk radio commentator was ranting the other day about the global warming “hoax.” He said this winter was evidence that the planet isn’t getting any hotter and that climate change talk is mere propaganda.

It’s hard to imagine a profession less likely to participate in a global conspiracy than the scientific community. Scientists are trained skeptics who value independent thinking and objectivity. They apply rigorous testing to any theory and seek quantifiable, empirical evidence to assess the facts of hypotheses, conventional wisdom and self-serving agendas.

Yet, based on well-established data-gathering, some 97 percent of the Earth’s scientists and about 200 scientific organizations world-wide agree that the planet is warming and that human activity is a significant cause. They also agree staying the course will result in dire circumstances for the human race, although how dire, how calamitous and how soon is subject for disagreement and debate.

However, an international association of experts, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, issued this week a 32-volume, 2,610-page document that says things are worse than predicted in 2007 when this group last issued such a report.

In addition to affecting the oceans and coastlines, the Arctic ice cap and animal life around the globe, the report says climate change will exacerbate societal problems such as poverty, sickness, violence and refugee populations while simultaneously damaging economic growth and crop production.

In the United States, it isn’t liberals or environmentalists, the federal government or activists who are perpetrating this argument. It is also the American Chemical Society, the American Geophysical Union, the American Meteorological Society, the Geological Society of America, the American Medical Association, the National Academy of Sciences and many other professional organizations.

Their role — the role of science — is not to rally public opinion, to form political action coalitions or to set policies by which people and businesses are governed. Typically, scientists do the research to provide the data so decisions are well-informed and movements rest upon solid foundations.

In fact, there has been some internal wrestling over the role scientists should play as the climate-change evidence has mounted and the planet’s future becomes more imperiled. Objectivity may have its costs.

So I found it significant that about the same March day I heard the “plot” spiel on talk radio that the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) was embarking upon a campaign to educate the American public about the reality and risks of climate change.

When announcing the launch of the new initiative, Alan Leshner, CEO of the AAAS, explained, “We’re the largest general scientific society in the world and therefore we believe we have an obligation to inform the public and policymakers about what science is showing about any issue in modern life, and climate is a particularly pressing one.” He added, “We need to share what we know and bring policymakers to the table to discuss how to deal with the issue.”

According to the AAAS report, entitled “What We Know” and issued when the communications initiative was announced, “The evidence is overwhelming: Levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are rising. Temperatures are going up. Springs are arriving earlier. Ice sheets are melting. Sea level is rising. The patterns of rainfall and drought are changing. Heat waves are getting worse, as is extreme precipitation. The oceans are acidifying.”

The report, the work of a 13-member AAAS Climate Science Panel and written for lay understanding, outlines the current evidence and scientific thinking and examines a range of possible scenarios going forward.

“As scientists,” the report explains, “it is not our role to tell people what they should do or must believe about the rising threat of climate change. But we consider it to be our responsibility as professionals to ensure, to the best of our ability, that people understand what we know: Human-caused climate change is happening, we face risks of abrupt, unpredictable and potentially irreversible changes, and responding now will lower the risk and cost of taking action.”

In addition to the report, the AAAS is planning a communications effort “to clarify and contextualize the science so the public and decision-makers can be more adequately informed about those risks and possible ways to manage them.” And perhaps a more urgent and widespread message — from unbiased experts — will cut through the public confusion and disinformation campaigns.

The report offers this key paragraph: “The science linking human activities to climate change is analogous to the science linking smoking to lung cancer and cardiovascular disease. Physicians, cardiovascular scientists, public health experts and others all agree smoking causes cancer. And this consensus among the health community has convinced most Americans that the health risks from smoking are real. A similar consensus now exists among climate scientists, a consensus that maintains climate change is happening and human activity is the cause.”

The scientific community is now engaged in reducing future risks on two fronts. One is mitigation, the effort to combat the causes of global warming, to minimize the stuff pouring out of smokestacks and tailpipes. The second is adaptation, the various strategies that need to be implemented to help ease the full impact of climate change.

A local footnote to such strategies is the Notre Dame Global Adaptation Index (ND-GAIN), which keeps tabs and extensive data on 177 countries and their readiness for tomorrow’s world and facilitates investments to make them less vulnerable and more resilient.

Given the severity and longevity of this winter, I, too, was one of those joking that the shivery siege was probably an omen of a coming Ice Age. But I find the science too persuasive for that.

I also recall a speaker at Notre Dame last year who said it’s like a guy walking his dog. The owner travels along his course while the dog at the end of the leash may go this way and that, taking little side-trips, but essentially stays on the overriding track.

The dog is the weather; the dog-walker is what we know as climate. Weather is quite variable. The Earth’s climate is leading us into dangerous territory.

Kerry Temple is editor of this magazine.