The Climes They Are A-Changin'

The Indisputable Science of Global Warming

However, as the Bush administration discovered, scientific theories have a way of proving themselves, regardless of whether policy makers and corporate heads believe them or not. And the daily news is beginning to heap ample evidence that the unequaled hubris at the core of this ever expanding, all-consuming 21st-century technotopia has stirred forces that are well beyond any sort of normal climatic fluctuation or temporary readjustment of weather patterns. One cannot wish away elementary thermodynamics, basic geophysics, fundamental biology, or essential fluid dynamics.

Already we have seen the unfolding of many of the events described by some of the climate change "extremists"—massive wind storms that pummel Europe, leading to hundreds of deaths, and the destruction of millions of acres of established forest. Unusual winter tornados ripping through the U.S. Latin America struck by storms that killed tens of thousands and destroyed decades of infrastructure over the course of a few days. Entire nations sinking into famine as unprecedented droughts choke crops in the fields. Record-breaking floods becoming annual events in mainland China. The permafrost under northern Europe beginning to melt from under vast regions that have not known a real thaw for tens of thousands of years. These are the milestones many experts consider symptoms of problems that can only grow worse as the Leviathan Climate gains more thermal momentum, growing more turbulent, more unpredictable as established climatic patterns change and shift.

Even some of the largest energy corporations on Earth have begun to accept the science of climate change, quietly withdrawing their support for rabidly anti-climate-change PR campaigns and beginning to trumpet their investment in renewable fuels. The response from the international insurance industry has been as mercenary as would be expected. Many large insurers have begun advising industrial clients with facilities in low-lying coastal regions to begin armoring their plants with systems of protective dikes and coastal constructions. The need for action is no longer questioned by the wise investor.

illustration: Peter Scanlan

The uncertainties and confusion over climate change bear comparison to a series of scientific discoveries and theories that culminated in one of the highlights of the end of the 19th century: the discovery of radiation. The scientists who first worked with radioactive materials knew they were onto something, but they were working in the dark—manipulating and adjusting their notions to suit anecdotal evidence. When a researcher suffered burns to his leg from a vial of radium carried in his trouser pocket, scientists discovered that there was some danger involved in handling these new types of materials. Rapid commercialization of the technology led to the development of fluoroscopes, which allowed customers in shoe stores to examine the bones of their feet with live-action viewing devices—subjecting even passersby to massive doses of radiation. Health drinks were concocted that contained uranium, the new wonder of wonders and miracle cure-all. In beauty shops, women with excess facial hair could have their faces bathed in X rays until the hair fell out. Only years later, as the cancers began twisting the jaws of women around the country, did the public become aware of how dangerous radiation could be—and that was years too late for anyone to wish away their troubles.

And despite the occasional media attention to climate change, real responses and actions remain fairly hard to come by even among countries that support the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, aimed at limiting human emissions of greenhouse gases. Most national governments face significant economic obstacles to the implementation of the guidelines, with no nation currently on track to achieve compliance. Continuous growth of national economies is absolutely mandatory for survival in the highly competitive markets evolving under current trends toward globalization. Economic growth is linked directly to energy consumption and higher emissions of greenhouse gases. Emission limits for individual nations under Kyoto are set at 5 percent below those of 1990, but in virtually every country on Earth, economic growth has raised emissions to well above those ancient figures. Compliance with Kyoto would entail substantial shifts in the largest national economies, with the U.S. taking the biggest hit of all as the biggest polluter of all.

As a result, most national governments have failed to establish the aggressive regulations needed to achieve the greenhouse emissions reductions required for real progress. Even in nations that have attempted to take the lead on climate change, enforcement of lofty policy initiatives has proved a nearly impossible task. In the single remaining superpower on Earth and the confirmed largest emitter of greenhouse gases, the sitting administration blindly refuses to have anything to do with climate change. Its recommendation? Pretend the problem does not exist. Act as though the science is not valid. We'll all adapt. You know . . . somehow.

In the long term, the symptoms of the disease will become pronounced enough to convince even the most reluctant Americans that climate change is not some sort of flim-flam invented by a bunch of grant-greedy eco-kooks. Perhaps some sort of limit should be established for the level of destruction we will allow before action is taken on climate change. The destruction of agriculture in California, say, or the permanent loss of New Orleans, Miami, and a few other coastal cities by the year 2050. Of course, by the time these limits have been reached, the time to do anything about the climate problem will have long passed. The Leviathan Climate will have awakened then, and there will be no apologizing to the grandchildren or turning back. No amount of money will prove sufficient. No amount of spin doctoring will be able to stem the mounting losses. Issues of liability will become moot as the planetwide catastrophe gathers steam.

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