Street Corner Soapbox: Climate Change

Categories:  Street Corner Soapbox    News & Politics    Opinion
Wednesday, July 25th, 2012 at 9:00 AM
Street Corner Soapbox: Climate Change by Jay Stevens
A. Conaway

Here’s a fact. The Earth is warming. The global temperature has risen about 1.3°F in the last 150 years, and two-thirds of that increase has occurred since the 1980s. No one disputes this, not even the team of scientists hired to discredit that claim by the notoriously conservative multi-billionaire Koch brothers. “Global warming is real,” said team leader Richard Muller, a physicist at the University of California at Berkeley, after re-examining climate scientists’ temperature data and methodology.

Here’s another fact. There are no other plausible theories competing with the idea that human activity has caused global warming. Neither sun spots, volcanoes, nor elaborate government-run conspiracies explain rising temperatures.

The best contrary theory to explain global warming is that it’s the result of natural temperature cycles. The Earth has gone through cold and warm cycles before. The ice ages, remember? But that theory fails to explain how the sudden and dramatic increase of carbon dioxide -- CO2 -- in the atmosphere over the past 150 years would not cause global warming. CO2 is a greenhouse gas. It absorbs thermal radiation and re-emits it, essentially trapping solar heat in the lower levels of the atmosphere. (Another fact, incidentally.) And CO2 is found at levels in the atmosphere today that it has never before reached in measurable history, which goes backs tens of thousand of years, thanks to Antarctic ice core drilling. That increase of CO2 in our atmosphere aligns neatly with the spike in our use of fossil fuels and the advent of factory farming, both immense contributors to CO2 emissions.

In the past, increases and decreases of temperatures at current levels took not tens of years, as it is now, but tens of thousands of years.

Yet another fact is that global warming has already had large and adverse impacts to our economy. In The U.S. West, for example, higher temperatures have stretched the boundaries of wildfire season a few weeks on either end. The result has been wildfires that have quadrupled in duration and doubled in cost to manage, savaging taxpayers an extra $1 billion a year in the 2000s, according to a recent Government Accountability Office report. Climate change also causes the spread of non-native species of plants, animals, and insects -- such as Lake Erie’s infamous zebra mussels -- which threaten domestic crops, fisheries, and public health.

And another fact: you won’t hear climate change mentioned in the 2012 presidential election.

Why? Because faced with the difficult reality of climate change and the effort it would take to mitigate it, many Americans instead embrace the fantasy that it doesn’t exist. It’s easier that way. There’s no need to give up that habit of driving everywhere. There’s no need to pay more for fossil fuels or to pay to invest in alternative energy.

To be fair to the American people that fantasy alternative was packaged for them by Big Energy and their political allies. Fifteen-year-old internal memos from Exxon show that the corporation -- and, likely, other energy companies -- planned to sow uncertainty of climate science and make that uncertainty part of conventional wisdom. Fifteen years later, that manufactured uncertainty reigns, so much so that the North Carolina legislature recently passed a law that forbids the state from even considering data from a scientific panel that sea levels will rise 1 meter by the year 2100 because of climate change. Instead, state agencies are mandated to consider only historical sea level change.

This irrational denial of climate change will have profound impacts to the country. For starters, it ensures no action on climate change for the foreseeable future, ensuring the already palpable changes will only accelerate. For another, it ensures that the United States will not be a leader in the research and manufacturing of alternative energy, which would require enormous investment from the state. (Maybe not as much as fighting a war in Iraq, but still.) For now, we have abandoned that field to China, which is investing heavily in alternative energy and has already become a leader in the production of wind turbines, for one.
It seems our history is already written, and bleak. But no doubt that fantasy of American dominance is more alluring.

Jay Stevens can be reached at Jay@erieReader.com

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