December 2012

A reluctant believer

By Gail Binkly

Some say the world will end in fire. . .

I think it was in December a year ago that I finally became a believer.

I was at my kitchen table watching the weather. The day was soggy and sullen, and a warm rain was falling. There was something so eerie about that – rain instead of snow, deep in the coldest part of the year – that I found myself thinking: What if it’s really happening, right now?

I reminded myself that rain in December is odd, yes, but not unheard of. And I’ve told other people a hundred times, “You can’t draw conclusions about global warming by looking out your own window.” But at that moment I truly accepted the fact that climate change is occurring – right now – not some day in the distant future.

I was never in the “utter denial” camp about human-caused global warming, but I made myself stay skeptical for a long time. Because, yes, scientists have been wrong in the past. The earth’s weather has gone through many cycles over the ages that had nothing to do with man. It’s difficult for humans to evaluate planet-wide, gradually occurring weather trends when our own lives are so short. And environmentalists (I count myself as one of them) have a tendency to cry, “The sky is falling!” a bit too often.

But the evidence supporting climate change seems overwhelming.

My friend Peter Miesler, a longtime advocate of the reality of what is called “anthropogenic global warming,” is fond of saying, “What if the scientists are wrong in the other direction? What if, instead of being too alarmist, they aren’t being alarmist enough, and climate change is happening faster than they thought?”

Recent reports seem to bear him out.

• Worldwide emissions of carbon dioxide were at a record high in 2011 and are likely to increase in 2012, researchers with the Global Carbon Project announced in December. The New York Times said the researchers believe a prior goal established by an international panel just three years ago of limiting global warming to 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit is now likely unattainable.

• Ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica are melting three times faster than they were in the 1990s, according to a recently released report in the journal Science. While ice mass is actually increasing in eastern Antarctica, ice sheets everywhere else – west Antarctica, the Antarctic peninsula, and Greenland – are all melting. This melt is contributing to a rise in global sea levels that exacerbated the severity of Hurricane Sandy’s effect on the East Coast. Ironically, the melting is providing new access to oil and gas resources in Greenland, Canada, Alaska, and Norway, making it even easier to obtain fuel that will help warm the planet even more.

• A recent analysis of climate models by the National Center for Atmospheric Research found that the models that gave the most-accurate predictions for atmospheric humidity in the tropics and subtropics were those that also predict the greatest amount of global warming.

• The National Research Council, in a recently-released study commissioned by intelligence agencies including the CIA, said climate change is speeding up, creating greater extremes that will cause major disruptions to the lives of citizens around the globe. Heat waves, floods, fires and other catastrophic events will create crises that might promote internal instability in some countries and require humanitarian or military response from the United States and other nations, the report said.

Of course, many people still fiercely reject the idea of global warming. They seem to take one of three positions:

• “It isn’t happening – the world is not getting warmer and the climate isn’t changing beyond normal cyclical fluctuations.”

This position of ultimate denial was represented in a recent Denver Post column by Amy Ridenour, chair of a conservative think tank, who proclaimed, “[G]lobal warming isn’t happening. The world isn’t getting warmer.” Such folks selectively cite data to show there has been no significant rise in global temperatures from one particular year, such as 1998, to another. The problem is, 1998 was a very hot year, so to say that the temperature hasn’t risen much since then doesn’t mean a lot. Graphs show clearly that, while temperatures for individual years fluctuate greatly, the overall trend has been steadily upward. According to a 2010 report by scientists with NASA and other organizations, 20 of the warmest years since recordkeeping began have occurred in the past 25 years, including 2009, 2007, 2006, 2005, 2003, 2002, and 1998.

• “It might be happening, but it’s not because of human activity.”

It’s true that the earth and sun do a lot of things all on their own, without our influence, but the rate of recent climate change indicates humans are playing a part.

As a child I loved learning about our solar system. I was fascinated by the planet Venus, with its suffocating carbon-dioxide clouds, which trap the sun’s heat and make the planet an inferno. That, on a much, much smaller scale, is what scientists believe humans are doing to the earth by releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere at an unprecedented rate.

It may be difficult to believe that human beings could bring about change on a global scale, yet for good or ill we have effected such changes already: exterminated whole species (think of the passenger pigeon, once so numerous it could take a day for a single flock to fly overhead), eradicated diseases such as smallpox, and caused environmental crises such as the Dust Bowl.

• “Maybe it’s happening and maybe we’re causing it, but so what? Warm weather is good.”

Unlike me, most people relish warm weather, even in the winter. And they may not care a heck of a lot about polar bears and other species going extinct because of climate change.

But there is a down side to global warming. If predictions are accurate, the Four Corners region will grow warmer and drier. Additional warmth could mean a longer growing season, true, but less moisture is bad news for farmers, as well as river rafters and native fish. Moreover, if we really warm up, we might see invasions by insect species that could not survive here in the past because of our cold winters. Africanized bees, fire ants, new kinds of mosquitoes? It’s possible. Our region’s forests are expected to decline because of the multiple whammy of drought, warmer temperatures, wildfires and bark beetles, according to a report in Nature Climate Change by a team of scientists from Los Alamos National Laboratory, the U.S. Geological Survey, and other organizations.

Our wildfire seasons will be longer (the Durango Area Interagency Dispatch Center was issuing fire alerts clear into November this year!) and the fires more severe. And even if we don’t experience the hurricanes, floods and tornadoes that will be more frequent in other regions of the country, we’ll share in the costs of dealing with those catastrophes, whether through taxes that fund government relief, or higher insurance rates. Think reducing carbon emissions would be hard on the economy? Consider the cost of relocating millions of people living in coastal areas, fighting to save ocean ecosystems threatened by dying coral reefs, mitigating the effects of droughts and water shortages, and finding ways to get air-conditioning to vulnerable people during ever hotter summers.

I’ve often said that the strongest driver of human behavior is not the need for food, shelter or sex, it’s the desire to be proven right in an argument. But in this case, I do hope I’m wrong and all the scientists are wrong and the earth isn’t getting warmer and none of this will come to pass.

But I fear it will. Gradually, it will become so obvious the climate is warming that the voices of denial will grow silent.

Climate change is a global phenomenon, but perhaps we can only understand it on a small, personal scale. For me, it means missing the big winters of my Colorado childhood: the glitter of sun on ice, the hush that descends with a heavy snowstorm, “the sweep of easy wind and downy flake” that Robert Frost once described.

Gail Binkly is editor of the Four Corners Free Press. She lives in Cortez, Colo.