We’ve had a very cold winter in most areas of the nation, with persistent below-freezing temperatures accompanied by weekly snows. This is true even in Kentucky. Daily I see newspaper reports of cities and towns already exceeding their budgets for snow removal and salting roads. With the cold, what’s all this business about global warming? I had been shopping at the local Kroger, eager to reap the 10% discount for senior citizens the first Wednesday of each month when an elderly gentleman asked me this very question in the parking lot as we both headed to our car trunks, a thrashing wind gust encouraging our rapid steps. I was briefly startled, wishing to reciprocate his well-meaning pleasantry early in the morning of truly a not very nice day. The best I could manage was, “It’s complicated.” The poor chap looked bewildered, and I can’t say that I blame him. The truth is that all this cold and recent snow may very well relate to what we call ”global warming.”
The facts are worrisome, like finding out at the doctor’s that you’ve got inoperable cancer. Best make your plans. All the praying and fussing won’t help. Global warming is here and we’re vulnerable. As Tony Blair tells us, “Climate change is perhaps the most challenging collective action problem the world has faced.” Can you fathom that statement? Bubonic plague, the flu epidemic of 1918, two world wars, nuclear proliferation, terrorism, AIDS–all pale before this present menace. Though we cannot halt it, whether a cyclic change or a catastrophe human induced, we can modify its impact. Unfortunately, few are listening, even as the hands ot the clock near midnight.
What makes things so difficult are the seeds of doubt some have sown, disparaging the notion of global warming as a hyperbolic conflation of temporal cyclic change with something approaching the eschatological, or Armageddon, of fatal consequences, with humanity their primary catalyst. Where does the truth lie?
Until 1975, we weren’t sure whether the earth was cooling or warming. In that year, however, we developed computer models indicating that a doubling of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would raise global temperatures five degrees. By 1988, scientists became so concerned that they established a panel to report every decade on global warming. Their last report, in 2001, gave alarm.
For 10,000 years the world’s”thermostat” has hovered around 57 degrees. Carbon dioxide is pivotal to the Earth’s temperature. Undetectable by color or smell, it’s vital to maintaining the balance necessary to sustain life. Planets such as Mars and Venus have atmospheres dominated by carbon dioxide. Thus these planets cannot support life. On earth, in our modern age, every time we cook, drive, or even turn on a light, we send carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, where it remains for a hundred years. In doing so, we increase Earth’s temperature. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, meaning it has the capacity to entrap heat near the earth’s surface and produce global warming.
Automobiles contribute significantly to carbon dioxide emission; even more so, power plants that use coal to generate electricity. Black coal is minimally 92% carbon. Additionally, power plants are often inefficient.
20,000 to 10,000 years ago the Earth experienced the fastest increase in surface temperatures in its history, or a nine degree increase. However, that increase happened at a rate of two degrees every millennium. In our time, we are doing so thirty times faster. Just since the advent of the Industrial Revolution, the Earth’s temperature has risen 1.13 degrees. Nine of the ten warmest years have been since 1990. 2010 was the warmest of all.
Some argue that our turbulent weather patterns can be explained by the phenomenon known as El Nino, which when severe, can produce sustained droughts, heavy moisture, and blizzards. New evidence indicates global warming can unleash semi-permanent El Ninos.
The consequences of global warming aren’t hard to see. Antarctica is turning green; the polar caps are melting; island settlements are being evacuated; species are rapidly disappearing or are threatened; then there is this exponential increase in violent weather. Of all countries, the United States faces the greatest threat with its susceptibility to the most variable weather. Katrina was a bellwether of our possible future.
There are many things each of us can do at the private level to help control the consequences of global warming. Both in the private and public sectors we must give priority to transitioning to non-fossil fuel sources. No matter what we do, global temperatures will rise. We can, however, mitigate against a maximum rise that would imperil all life by taking action now.
Unfortunately, we face two formidable barriers: complacency and cynicism; the former because the threat isn’t perceived as immediate or personal; the latter, because of those who discredit the threat and its proponents. As I write, Fox News (imagine my surprise) is soliciting sources to dispute Al Gore’s statement that global warming can, indeed, cause cooling in some instances (the guy in the parking lot syndrome again). See HuffingtonPost