Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

I'm no expert on this . . .

But as a human being, even on this chilly day in March, I have to acknowledge that some of the more alarmist positions on global climate change appear to be quite credible. Some of you may already have seen John Atcheson's jeremaiad on Commmon Dreams. Remember that while increases in atmospheric CO2, caused by human activity, are the main initial driver of global warming, methane is an even more potent greenhouse gas. Excerpt:

In August of 2005 a team of scientists from Oxford and Tomsk University in Russia announced that a massive Siberian peat bog the size of Germany and France combined was melting, releasing billions of tons of methane as it did.

The last time it got warm enough to set off this feedback loop was 55 million years ago in a period known as the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum or PETM, when increased volcanic activity released enough GHGs to trigger a series of self-reinforcing methane burps. The resulting warming caused massive die-offs and it took more than a 100,000 years for the earth to recover.

It’s looks like we’re on the verge of triggering a far worse event. At a recent meeting of the American Academy for the Advancement of Sciences in St. Louis, James Zachos, foremost expert on the PETM reported that greenhouse gasses are accumulating in the atmosphere at thirty times the speed with which they did during the PETM.

We may have just witnessed the first salvo in what could prove to be an irreversible trip to hell on earth.

Atcheson goes on to note other positive feedback mechanisms which appear to be occurring, such as the recently well-publicized loss of arctic sea ice, melting of continental glaciers, and the decline of tropical forests. The American Association for the Advancement of Science consensus right now seems to be that the most drastic effects of global warming won't be seen until late in this century, by which time I expect not to be around, along with most of you, but the effects we are talking about are horrifying indeed. They include the destruction of the tropical rain forests, much of the current coastline underwater, more powerful and frequent destructive storms, the loss of a continent worth of agricultural land, expansion of pests and disease from the tropics into what are now the temperate regions, etc.

Recently, due to a convergence of events, I have been giving myself an in-depth education about the analysis of risk, and the social perception of risk. This particular situation is unique, in many ways. For one thing, while the scientists who study global climate reached a consensus some time ago that global warming is occurring, due in substantial part to human activity, powerful political interests in the United States, including the current administration and much of the Congress, with funding and inspiration from the fossil fuel industry, enabled by a corrupt and lazy corporate mass media, have created a powerful impression that there is substantial doubt about this, or even that the whole flap is just a vast left-wing conspiracy to destroy capitalism.

But even if there is substantial uncertainty -- as indeed there is about the extent and timing of climate change, and some of the specific effects -- one would think that even a fairly low probability of planetary disaster would cause widespread concern, intense political activism, and a potent backlash against the climate change deniers who have placed us in such grave peril. That it has not may be only in part because of the smokescreen put up by the greedy, powerful interests who profit from fossil fuel.

In general, people seem to be less concerned about risks which are:

  1. Not imminent;
  2. Diffuse in time and space;
  3. Chronic, as opposed to acute (i.e., this will not be a distinct event but a presumably gradual change in the environment, at least on the human time scale);
  4. Not fatal (people don't expect global warming to directly kill them or people they know. They may be wrong, but that's likely the general perception);
  5. Perceptible to the senses (We can tell when the weather is warm, which gives us a feeling of control - and anyway, warm weather itself is experienced as desirable, rather than threatening, in temperate climates);
  6. Susceptible to individual mitigation (while individuals can't stop global warming, they probably feel they can take action to respond to whatever consequences may affect them directly);
  7. Not dread (in other words, this is a novel problem, it's not part of our instinctive or cultural heritage of terrors).

Another way of putting this is that the danger is a large-scale abstraction, one that seems remote in time and space, too big to readily grasp, and just outside of the boundaries of people's everyday concerns. Short-sightedness and profligacy, an unwillingness to pay the perceived costs, of doing anything about it, probably also play a role -- as with the people who live in flood zones and on the slopes of active volcanoes.

Anyhow, even if I don't have a whole lot that's new or interesting to say about this, I felt I should join the chorus of alarm. The disastrous Bush presidency has done damage to the United States that it will take us decades to fix, if we ever can. But this may be the very worst of their atrocities, for which our grandchildren will curse them. Our great-grandchildren may not have the chance.

No comments: