November 24, 2009


Filed under: Climate change — Erin @ 12:11 am

Forget the brouhaha about the ideologically motivated hackers who combed through megabytes of e-mails in order to find some indicating that, horrors, scientists are humans too and some of them will jazz up their data to make a point. It means nothing in terms of the credibility of anthropogenic climate change. All that the climate deniers have proven is that their “position” is utterly bankrupt. In the language of the Internet, the hacking stunt was a fail. Hoping to find proof of a grand conspiracy to falsify data in favor of global climate change, their hackers simply uncovered a few e-mails in which a few scientists spoke about manipulating the presentation of the data that they had found. No secret coverups, no collective lying about what is contained in the data, no forged results, just a mere matter of data presentation. The data themselves are what’s really the issue. Considering how lackadaisical that the politicians of the world have been on this subject, and considering what their stalling seems to have done, I can’t say I’m against jazzing up the data to scare people.

A scientific study group led by British scientists has run the climate models again, and the group has found that we are on target for a global rise in temperature of 6°C by the year 2100. This is the worst-case scenario of the 2007 United Nations report on climate change, which even then was widely seen as being far too conservative. The odds are very strong that I wouldn’t live to see it, since I’d be 117 if I did, but the children and definitely grandchildren of my generation would see it.

This is not quite a repeat of the carbon- and methane-caused temperature spike that caused the massive Permian extinction and resulted in the loss of 95% of all species on Earth. It’s not quite the catastrophic mass extinction scenario of the Pixar movie WALL-E. (Yes, the real environmental damage portrayed in that film was caused by global warming, not just garbage.) But it’s close, and it isn’t an isolated result. For several years now, scientific studies of climate have been finding that the observed conditions are on the upper end of the range of predicted results for that period of time, or even exceed all estimates outright. Those people who have paid attention to global warming news probably saw this British result coming.

Life on Earth at +6°C would not be a pleasant affair, even if the description of it in The Independent is a bit sensationalized. The Gulf Stream Current of the Atlantic would have shut down, plunging Europe into coldness (and probably also much of the Atlantic coast) and cutting off the outward flow of hot water from the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico. Without a source of outflow for this tropical heat, hurricanes like Katrina could be brewed up in the Gulf every month in every hurricane season, theoretically. Tropical diseases and invasive species would have an easier time of spreading past their appropriate ranges. The Arctic ice would long ago have melted—indeed, the summer ice is very close to disappearing now, and mainstream scientific consensus is that it is too late to prevent this particular loss—and the resulting changes in air masses would have a profound impact on Northern Hemisphere climates. At 6°C, the Antarctic Ice Shelf likely would have melted as well, along with Greenland, resulting in the submerging of areas like the Florida peninsula and the marshes of Louisiana.

But even so, what the West will face in this brave new nightmare world is mild in comparison with what is coming Africa and Asia’s way. Africa, already suffering from critical food and disease problems, would see both exacerbated. The melting of glaciers and the sea-level-driven flooding would be climatic bombs dropped on east Asia. Imagine a scenario in which the ice of the Himalaya mountains—a source of fresh water for India, China, and Pakistan—melted away. Then add to that the seawater flooding of the Ganges, Yangtze, and other river basins in Asia that have port cities housing millions of people. Those people have to go somewhere, but resources would already be strained because of the decrease in usable fresh water. China, India, and Pakistan are all nuclear powers. (It suddenly makes “Global Zero,” a full nuclear disarmament movement, sound not at all hippie-idealistic, but critical.) Even the Bush-era Pentagon produced a report about the geopolitical effects of catastrophic global climate change, and its conclusions were chilling. It predicted a global resource war.

What scientist in his or her right mind would want to fabricate data to support such a horrific situation? The only people who enjoy dreaming of things like this are people like the scriptwriters for 2012. People who actually do deal in fantasy. Of course the stupid hackers did not find anything real. It is indicative of the level of media discourse in America that, to the extent that either news story is being discussed at all, their failed stunt garnered more attention than the scientific study of the Global Carbon Project. But the Global Carbon Project’s results are far more important.

I’ve said it before and I will reiterate it in the face of this ugly report. I do not believe that energy efficiency and conservation will be enough to forestall this. I am absolutely in favor of moving in that direction, if for no other reason than because it is cheaper in the long run and it is not advisable to power a world economy on fuels that will someday run out. However, I am utterly convinced that we will need to develop geoengineering techniques that can remove the greenhouse gases that we have already put into the atmosphere. Technology created this problem, yes, but it is a fallacy to extrapolate from this that technology must be avoided in finding a solution. In fact, I think that the judicious use of technology to clean up the atmosphere is the real solution.

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