The Climes They Are A-Changin'

The Indisputable Science of Global Warming

Not to suspect that a dirty little word lies at the center of the controversy spawned by the most recent Bush administration document on climate change. In the June EPA policy paper "Climate Action Report 2002," the government admitted that climate change is not only real but getting worse, that human activities are the most likely cause, and that the negative consequences are real and dangerous, a clear and present threat. This dirty little word may have been the reason conservative leaders have privately pressed to have EPA administrator Christine Todd Whitman fired from her position—for producing a document that provides the most realistic, scientifically accurate picture of the problem available from current research. This dirty little word may be the main reason President Bush is eternally trying to distance himself from this itchy environmental problem, this foreign cause touted by Russians, Europeans, and Japanese. The word: liability.

In terms of scale, the climate change issue will make any sort of environmental liability lawsuit filed in national or international courts to date seem like tarts and gingerbread. Human pressures on the global climate—what scientists call anthropogenic forcings—represent a problem orders of magnitude larger than the impacts of even the most notorious environmental catastrophes of modern times—the Exxon Valdez oil spill, the 1986 accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power station, or even the disaster at the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India, which suffocated 10,000 people in their beds.The Netherlands faces undeniable threats from rising seas, and Bangladesh will not survive. Symptoms are already apparent in the daily headlines—islands in the South Pacific abandoned by their residents as their ground water turns salty; Connecticut-size bergs calving off the antarctic ice mass; record floods in Europe followed by more record floods. Across northern India this year, record-breaking heat storms arrived before the monsoon, raising the temperature to 123 degrees in the shade—so hot that the birds were dropping dead from the trees. Exactly as the scientists have been warning. And much earlier than most had expected, save those branded doomsayers only a few years ago. Considered in this context, the EPA document may represent the most important mea culpa of all time. The line between an "act of God" and an "action of Man" has just become significantly more blurry, with all the associated legal implications.

And then there's that sticky bit. Things are only going to get worse. Expert opinion varies widely on the time frame for the most dramatic impacts. It could be next week—certain important factors may hang on a hair trigger. Record-breaking fires, droughts, and floods have already become annual events around the nation. It could be in a decade. Agreement is nearly universal that current trends will continue to worsen. It probably will occur within the century. This fact is largely accepted as a given even under many of the more benign scenarios for a changing climate. What is abundantly clear in the science of the matter is that we as a society are at the beginning of a long journey.

illustration: Peter Scanlan

The science of climate change begins with the geological record of the paleoclimate—records of past sea-level changes, telltale signs of the cycle of glaciation and retreat, firestorm signatures carved into the skin of the earth over tens of thousands of years. Data from Greenland ice cores and sediment samples collected from bogs around the globe. Pollen records maintained over the millennia. Tree rings counting back thousand-year records of rain and drought. Geology, biology, ecology, and chemistry all working together to create a picture of the climatological history of the planet—a turbulent history marked by mass extinctions, sudden and dramatic changes in sea level, large-scale migrations of forests, storms to dwarf any of the minor maelstroms recorded in the human histories.

Today, networks of sampling buoys monitor sea surface temperatures, floating along gridworks mapping the oceans of the world. Satellite eyes peep down on cloud cover, identifying and enumerating the gases in the atmospheric column that runs from outer space to surface Earth. Global maps made to shift with time mark the changes in water resources, rivers running dry before they reach the ocean, the disappearance of the Aral Sea. In nightside snapshots, with each passing year, the ring of Amazon fires eats closer to the heart of darkness—the unconquered lands. Pollutant plumes emitted by each city on Earth stretch for tens of miles, forming confluent rivers of contaminants that flow in the winds, crossing ocean-scale distances to poison the remotest sites on anyone's map.

Over the course of the past decade, many interests have entered the melee of debate on the issue of ongoing anthropogenic climate change. Energy companies arguing that nuclear power is the only acceptable answer. Advocates of wind power, sun power, wave power, volcano power. Oil producers. Automobile manufacturers. Coal men. The stakes involved in the debate over climate change do not come any higher. The largest industries of humankind, energy and transportation, are directly implicated. Virtually every activity in the life of the global, modern-day consumer is involved. Many natural responses to the changes we cause act only to exacerbate the problem—for example, the recent thaw of northern permafrost exposed a new source of greenhouse emissions. In the media, conventional scientific thinking is denounced as extremist, while members of the smoke-'em-if-you-got-'em school of scientific inquiry are awarded the chairmanships of well-heeled think tanks and lobbying empires to quibble, to hem and haw, to delay and filibuster.

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