The Other I

June 25, 2009

Turning cream into butter

Filed under: Environmental Issues — theotheri @ 8:38 pm

Last week I have decided to try to answer six questions in relation to climate change.  In an outburst of irrationality, I decided to start with the last question first:   How urgent is the problem of global warming?  what will happen if we do not change the way we are living?

I’m starting with this question because I think that right from the beginning we ought to face the reality that not all scientists are equally convinced of the urgency of doing something about global warming.  And nobody knows for sure how fast and how drastic climate changes might be.

There is a possibility that the majority of scientists might be wrong, and global warming might either not be happening or might not be caused principally by human activity.   So why not wait and see instead of going through the tremendous expense and upheaval of trying to reduce the emission of green house gases?  After all, the credit crunch has just shown us that the majority of scientists can be wrong.  So how do we know that scientists aren’t wrong about climate change?

Up to a point we don’t know.  But let us suppose, for a moment, that we do not have any evidence of pollution, water and food shortages, and species extinctions that do indeed seem to be related to our human activities.  Let us suppose that all we have are the threats that these things might happen.

What if the majority of scientists are wrong?  If we haven’t changed, life will continue to change incrementally just as it always has.  No great environmental catastrophe will occur.

But what if the scientists are right and we haven’t changed the way we generate and use energy?  Doing nothing is going to be catastrophic.

Myself, I think this is good enough reason to take pretty drastic action.

But for those who think that we can wait a little longer before we make up our minds, there is the problem of tipping points.

Tipping points are like the straw that breaks the camel’s back.  It looks as if nothing much is happening as small changes are made.  And then quite suddenly, the entire situation is dramatically transformed.  If you whip cream too long, it does not gradually become butter:  it happens quite suddenly.

Even worse, the processes are frequently irreversible, or reversible only with great effort.  A hard-boiled egg can’t be made soft again by taking it out of the boiling water and putting it back into the refrigerator.  In fact, it can’t be made soft again by any process that I have ever heard about.  Similarly, have you ever tried to turn butter back into cream? It is possible to approximate something like cream by mixing milk and butter, but it’s far more successful not to turn the cream into butter in the first place.

If our climate warms sufficiently to melt earth’s permanent snow and ice, it will be like that.  The snow reflects a great deal of sunlight and helps keep Earth cool.  Without it, Earth will get warmer and warmer, and we won’t be able to put the snow back.

Destroying an ecosystem is a lot easier than trying to restore it.

So all in all, I’m inclined to think that global warming is as urgent as most scientists think it is, but I realize they and I might be wrong.  But I don’t think we can take the risk of assuming that they are wrong.  Because if they aren’t, we won’t be able to get the toothpaste back in the tube when we have the conclusive proof.


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