Category: Climate Change

Semantics Matter: It’s Climate Change, Not Global Warming

Global-Climate-ChangeAmong other research techniques, I have created a Google feed that brings me every day supposedly top news in the field of global climate change. This feed includes items both from the scientific community and its supporters, as well as links to what the climate change deniers are saying these days. I must admit I often find the latter disconcerting and confusing, but it’s important to know what the other side is thinking, even when they appear not to be. Thinking, that is.

For some reason, I noticed in today’s feed a significant number of headlines that use the phrase “global warming” instead of the vastly preferable “climate change” which is not only more accurate, but less arguable. In fact, four of the nine items offered by the Google feed use the words “global warming” in their headlines.

As a writer and as an observer of the human condition, I have often commented on — some would say railed against — the improper labeling of political positions in particular. Most of my friends are by now tired of hearing from me when they use the phrase “pro-life”. I maintain that I don’t know anyone who isn’t pro-life. The issue isn’t life or death, it’s choice or force. So I prefer calling those on the conservative side of that argument “anti-choice,” simply because it seems to me to be more accurate depiction of their overall philosophy. But I digress.

Not all climate change manifests as increasing temperature. Even though that is the underlying cause of climate change at the atmospheric and oceanic levels, the experience of it on earth often takes the form of extreme weather, much of which can be utterly cold. The use of the term “global warming” gives cover to those opponents — I should say disbelievers — of climate change when they want to talk about it at a time when there is a great snow storm brewing. I still have a picture in my head of United States Senator on the floor of that once-august body offering a snowball from outside the capital as evidence that global warming was a hoax.

The imprecision and even inaccuracy of the term should by itself be enough reason for professional journalists and concerned bloggers to avoid it. We are experiencing climate change, on a global scale, greatly exacerbated by the behavior of us humans as we go about our business in unsustainable ways. It does no one any good to confuse the issue with outdated terms.


How Can 80% of GOP Voters and 78% of Farmers Not Believe Climate Change is Real and Dangerous?

I know this attitude sounds elitist. I don’t intend it that way but it will be perceived that way by many who disagree with it. So be it.

How can 80% of Republicans (as found in a recent Pew Research Poll) and 78% of farmers (as found in a survey conducted by the online magazine AgWeb) declare that they do not think global climate change is important or dangerous? I just don’t understand how ignorance could be this widespread and what difference one’s political persuasion ought to make. I’m sorry; I just don’t get it.

A huge percentage (up to 97%) of scientists trained in the related fields say it is so. The subject has been covered so widely that it’s hard to attribute the disbelief to ignorance of facts. Climate is no respecter of persons, so a Republican non-believer’s grandchildren will suffer the same fate as mine, yet he or she seems unwilling even to consider the possibility that we are in the process of wiping out humanity from the planet. I just don’t get it.

climate_change_clock2Obviously, climate change is a tough issue to get people excited about. It’s not happening in any immediately visible way to most Americans and Europeans, who control most of the money and conduct most of the research. It seems like a can easily kicked down the road. And as with any future projections, there are bound to be disagreements among scientists about exactly the extent of the pending damage. But there is no disagreement that there will be damage, and that the damage will be extensive. We’re arguing about how extensive.

As I look at the political philosophies of the Republican and Democratic Parties, I can reach only one conclusion: GOP voters distrust the government so badly that they think it is lying to them about climate change. Their distrust is based, not on science or fact but on gut-level feelings about the trustworthiness of our political institutions. I see some glimmer of a sign of that in the fact that Catholics and the ‘religiously unaffiliated’ are significantly more likely than Protestants to be concerned about climate change. Given the attention Pope Francis has paid to the subject, the Catholic component of this result isn’t difficult to understand. And the unaffiliated folk tend to be more open to science as a complement to rather than a contradictor of religion and would tend naturally to see ties between human behavior and the state of Nature.

So if opposition to climate change research and policy management is going to be an ongoing barrier to accomplishing any semblance of salvation of the human race, we’d better figure out quickly how to communicate through and around those blocks to get the attention of those who willfully continue to hold a view that is contrary to every observable evidentiary fact.

Tick tock.

COP21: Carefully Shaded Disappointment

cop21Well, the Paris Agreement that grew out of the COP21 conference in France over the last couple of weeks, has been signed by the 196 participating nations. I’ve read the entire agreement and a great deal of the commentary (pro, con and in between) and while I don’t have any perspectives to offer that haven’t already seen the light of day, as a climate observer and concerned citizen, I feel like it’s my duty to outline my reaction. There may be one or two people out there who look to my writing for input and/or insight.

The headline to this post is the best summary I could come up with of my take. Overall, the Paris Agreement is disappointing but that chagrin must be tempered a bit by some overarching observations.

It’s not really a deal. Nothing in it is enforceable. It is all voluntary. My take is that if you’re a national government and you don’t really want to be held accountable for your promises, that’s probably because you have no real intention of keeping them.

It is ambitious in its goal of keeping global temperature rise below 2 degrees Centigrade and in stating (without any specifics) a “stretch goal” of staying under 1.5 degrees Centigrade. These are the goals we need to reach. I’m slightly encouraged that all 196 recognized nations on the planet agreed on those goals and their importance. It’s a sizable but not decisive step.

There is real optimism and hope that all 196 recognized nations on the planet could agree on anything of substance. Perhaps the ultimate contribution of the Paris Agreement will be to serve as a template for how to attain such consensus on other global issues.

I like the so-called “ratchet” provision that requires nations to provide in 2020 and 2025 updated reports on their progress and to revise their individual commitments, hopefully more ambitiously. While this has some of the sense of kicking the can down the road, at least the road has a limit, albeit an unenforceable one.

Clearly not one single country had the courage to “keep it in the ground,” which was the agreement that was really needed. To the extent that we continue to extract carbon-based fuels from the ground and to use other carbon-based fuels and related technologies to move them around and process them, is the extent to which this problem is never going away.

My biggest disappointment, other than the voluntary nature of all the commitments, is that investment in clean energy technology in developing nations was all but ignored. For me, that is the inflection point around which serious gains can be made. I place more faith in technological innovation than I do in government policy. But it will take government policy and investment to trigger that innovation.

Bottom line: as I frequently suggest, it’s going to take non-governmental action of a spiritual nature (in the broadest sense of that word) to stave off the worst possible effects of climate change. A tipping point of “enlightened” (again, in the broadest sense) individuals working together can bring to bear appropriate intellectual, emotional and spiritual approaches. I remain goofily optimistic that this can and will happen but I don’t think we yet own a clear understanding of how much effort will be involved.

“Leave it in the Ground” is Being Left Behind at COP21

The most dramatic single thing the world’s Powers that Be could do to have any chance of escaping most of the dire consequences of global climate change would be to leave in the ground all untapped carbon energy reserves. As one of the reporters covering the current COP21 climate talks in Paris says clearly:

80 percent of known fossil fuel reserves will have to remain unextracted if we are to stay below 2 degrees Celsius of warming, which is the stated target of the forthcoming Paris agreement.

But there is no way on God’s (slightly less) green earth that President Obama, the Big Carbon lobby or our ostrich-like Congress is likely to sign up for anything that drastic. While I am not pessimistic about the possible outcome of the talks, I’m not sufficiently Polyanna to believe that world leaders — most specially this nation’s leaders — are really serious about slowing or averting some of the more serious consequences of climate change. 

The situation is so sad, really. What will we tell our grandchildren and their children? “Sorry, we’re leaving you an  uninhabitable planet. We tried. Actually, we didn’t try very damn hard. We placed a higher value on our near-term gadgets and our instant gratification than we did on saving the place for you. Good luck finding new homes on other planets.”

Every day I want to cry for Earth, for the coming generations and what we are doing to them. But all I can ultimately do is all I can to minimize my carbon footprint, and bring as much attention to the problem as I can in my minuscule corner of the Web.

Presidential Candidates Graded on Climate Change: Only 4 Get Passing Grades, One on GOP Side

The Associated Press did an interesting fact check on the accuracy of statements made by the Presidential candidates of both parties. The result, shown in this graph, was high marks for Democrats and only one GOP candidate (Jeb Bush) getting a (barely) passing grade.

Graphic shows results of survey of scientists on candidates’ statements on climate change; 2c x 5 inches; 96.3 mm x 127 mm;

Graphic shows results of survey of scientists on candidates’ statements on climate change; 2c x 5 inches; 96.3 mm x 127 mm;

The study was done as objectively as possible. Eight climate scientists were shown candidate comments without identifying the candidates in any detectable way. Thus their findings are hardly subject to the charge that they were even incidentally partisan.

Interestingly, the top tier of GOP candidates are all near the bottom of the truth scale, with the recently trending Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas coming in at a dismal 6% accuracy. That result let one of the scientists evaluating the responses to say, “”This individual understands less about science (and climate change) than the average kindergartner. That sort of ignorance would be dangerous in a doorman, let alone a president.”

See, even scientists have a sense of humor!

The Francis Effect = +10-20% on Climate Change

After Pope Francis’ recent visit to the United States following his issuance of an official Papal position on global climate change, at least one survey indicates he exerts a powerful influence on the opinions of Americans of every political persuasion. In a before-and-after poll conducted for the Center for Climate Change Communication, the Pope gave climate change an 8-point bump across the nation, from 51% who said they were very or somewhat worried to 59%. Catholic opinion was influenced even more strongly, with the worriers going from 53% to 64% while mainstream (non-Evangelical0 Protestants also shifted upward in double digits from 47% to 57%.

The only group to report a relatively small increase in concern over global climate change after the Pope’s pronouncements and his visit to the U.S. were evangelical Christians, who went from 39% worried to 43% worried, remaining the only identified religious group that doesn’t take climate change seriously.

Chart of public opinion before and after Pope Francis' comments on climate change. (Center for Climate Change Communication)

Chart of public opinion before and after Pope Francis’ comments on climate change. (Center for Climate Change Communication)

It’s Not Green Energy That’s Hitting Hard Times, It’s the Usual Corporate Greed Story

As a longtime journalist, I am aware of the power and impact of headlines on news stories and opinion pieces. More often than not when I hear or read someone commenting on a recent posting, the slightest probing reveals that they didn’t read the piece in its entirety. In fact, rarely do they read past the lead paragraph. But in far too many cases, they talk as if they were knowledgeable about a subject when all they’ve read is the headline.

Headlines are the primary means by which memes are created and spread. By their nature, they are incomplete. By design, they are intended not so much to educate readers but to entice then to read the piece.

Thus it is that when I encounter a particularly misleading headline, I tend to react strongly.

Today’s Christian Science Monitor online has an article headlined, “Has Renewable Energy Hit Hard Times?” That question might well cause you to ask whether wind and solar have somehow been found to be uneconomical or counter-productive. But the opening sentence of the article begins to reveal the real agenda behind the story. “Just last summer, renewable energy was considered a booming industry,” it tells us. Aha, so this is not about green energy, it’s about green energy companies who are disappointed in their profit margins.

Sure enough, The main focus is on SunEdison, the very epitome of Big Green. That company has pursued a relentless and highly risky policy of growth by acquisition and has a well-documented shady business plan that involves the main company building and then selling or licensing alternative energy capacity to subsidiaries it owns. It turns out the “hard times” are being encountered by SunEdison’s investors who are angry that “Stock prices have plunged in recent months as [they] have begun to question the companies’ business model.”

The CSM article concludes, “Moving forward, renewable energy needs simpler and more transparent business practices to meet the world’s growing enthusiasm for energy alternatives.” Exactly. Supplanting the exploitative practices of Big Oil and Big Coal with Big Green isn’t going to shift the ethics or priorities of the market. This is precisely why the development of wind and solar cannot be entrusted solely to private enterprise whose only motive is short-term profit and who will cut and run at the first sign that their last-century approach to business isn’t going to be rewarded in the New Global Economy.

Meanwhile, the CS Monitor would do well to retrain its editorial staff in the construction of useful and accurate headline writing. I know it’s a lost art, but it’s not rocket science.

Climate Change Tipping Points Appear to Be Accumulating

IN A PARTICULARLY SCARY SUMMARY, climate change commentator Michael Klare assembles a lineup of emerging “tipping points” that combine to produce the very real possibility of an explosive uptick in climate danger far sooner than anticipated.

Global-Climate-ChangeKlare, professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College, points out that current thinking focuses on a linear progression of climatological shift. In other words, it depends on things getting progressively but steadily worse. But there are many indications that Nature isn’t going to behave quite so mathematically predictably. Rather, there is increasing evidence that tipping points in which sudden increases in the pace of climate change occur in short periods of time are beginning to occur.

Among the more concerning:

disruption of the North Atlantic Current. Part of what Klare calls the “global conveyor belt,” this oceanic flow keeps Europe far warmer than it would naturally be. It is being disrupted by the melting Greenland ice sheet, which shows signs of accelerating. This could shut down this conveyor belt — known to climate scientists as Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation, or AMOC — resulting in huge changes in Europe and along the Eastern Seaboard of the United States. You could say this would result in the climate running amok, but that’s probably not a favorite pun in scientific circles. 😀

unexpectedly rapid warming in the Arctic. This region has experienced more warming than any other on the planet’ this raises many red flags because “the impact of climate change there is already so obvious.” One side effect of this warming is the accelerated melting of the permafrost layer, which is doubly concerning because this geologic artifact contains more than twice the carbon already present in the atmosphere. This, as Klare points out, “could prove to be more than a tipping point.  It could be a planetary catastrophe” in its own right.

the coming disappearance of coral reefs. These colorful reefs are absolutely essential parts of the ecosystem of marine life. Worldwide, upwards of 25% of all marine species depend directly on the coral reefs, creating a widespread ripple effect on affected other species. Coral has always been known to be highly sensitive to shifts in temperature and acidity of its environment, both of which are undergoing significant change as a result of ice melting and current shifting. Already, scientists estimate that more than half of the world’s coral has died just in the last 30 years. This news ought to strike terror into the hearts of all homo sapiens.

drying out of the Amazon. Already devastated by greed in the form of deforestation, the attendant results of climate change have produced severe drought in this ordinarily very wet region of the world, resulting in more and more deaths of trees. When the Amazon forest disappears and the biodeversity it supports along with it, the canopy of leaves that crown it will no longer be an effective absorbent of carbon dioxide.

Taken together — and these are but a few snapshots of similar kinds of “singularities” that appear to be beginning all over the planet — these “tipping points” suggest that the need for action is even more urgent than thought. Here’s how Klare summarizes the situation:

[These trends]  are sufficiently advanced to tell us that we need to look at climate change in a new way: not as a slow, linear process to which we can adapt over time, but as a non-linear set of events involving dramatic and irreversible changes to the global ecosphere.

The difference is critical: linear change gives us the luxury of time to devise and implement curbs on greenhouse gas emissions, and to construct protective measures such as sea walls.  Non-linear change puts a crimp on time and confronts us with the possibility of relatively sudden, devastating climate shifts against which no defensive measures can protect us.

As I’ve often written, it is no longer a question of averting or avoiding the effects of climate change; they are part of the everyday reality of nearly everyone on the planet even if they are not yet always detectable by our senses. But if we are to avoid the most serious consequences — up to and including the extinction of our species on this planet — we must act now, we must act boldly and decisively, and we must set aside all other concerns and issues to come together as a planet in our common humanity.

Nothing — nothing at all — is more important.

Hillary Finally Comes Around on Keystone

Democratic Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton today finally announced that she is opposed to the construction of the terribly bad-for-the-climate Keystone XL Pipeline. This moves her one tiny step closer to being an acceptable candidate for President among those of us whose sole focus is on global climate change as the overriding political issue of the 2016 election.

She’s still a long way away from acceptable. For one thing, given her reputation for, shall we say politely, political expediency, there’s no guarantee she’ll retain this position for the remainder of the campaign, let alone should she succeed in becoming the next President of the United States (a distinct possibility). For another, when she was President Obama’s Secretary of State, she tacitly if not actively backed the pipeline as part of her official stance. So this new position can be seen as a bit of a flip-flop.

But more importantly, HRC has not shown any real desire to be a visible leader in the global climate change movement, as a Senator, as Secretary of State, as a chief leader of a major world charitable foundation or as a candidate for President. This is a subject about which it seems essential to develop some serious personal passion in order to be willing to have a significant impact on the future of humanity.

So for me, I’m cautiously grateful to Secretary Clinton for taking this stance, but I’m going to stay with my current political stance pending much greater movement on her part on the only existential issue of the political scene: global climate change.

What the New Earth Will Be Like After Climate Change Transformation

From the beginning, I have been among those citizen-scientists concerned about global warming not for what it might do to the planet but rather for its serious potential impact on humanity.

Planet Earth will survive global climate change, just as it has survived earlier climatological upheavals, meteor strikes and other natural disasters. A new article on Grist by way of Wired outlines what will happen to tropical forests as the temperature on the planet skyrockets. And, guess what? The news is not only not all bad, it’s actually fairly bright.

Scientists constructed three Geodesic domes and controlled the climate in each of them differently. One was maintained at present-day Earth conditions, one at the level of temperature change that is at this point all but inevitable in coming decades and the final one at excessively high temperatures. Only two species died out in the hotter domes. Of those that survived, many thrived, growing larger and stronger, faster than their equivalent seedlings planted in the more moderate domes.

In other words, Earth will be transformed by global climate change in ways we cannot predict with any accuracy. Whether humanity survives the transformation is an open question. What we can say for sure is that the longer we postpone meaningful — and by that I mean drastic — action on the climate front, the less chance there is of humanity surviving in its present form. Perhaps humanity, too, will evolve and adapt and some small portion will survive the near-extinction.

When Gaia shrugs, humanity may be shaken off her surface. If that happens, we will have nobody else to blame. But of course we won’t be around to blame anyone, so….

(If you’re interested in a more explicitly spiritual take on this subject, check out today’s companion post on my spiritual blog.)