The Other I

December 2, 2012

Is global warming really happening?

Filed under: Environmental Issues — theotheri @ 4:41 pm

I’ve been surprised to discover that the controversy among scientists isn’t whether global warming is happening.  There is just about universal agreement across the board that it is.  For example, the sea level around New York, for instance, is a foot higher than it was 100 years ago, which is one of the reasons why the storm Sandy was so devastating.  And a recent report bringing together what up to now had been disparate measures of the  polar caps show that ice is melting three times faster than it was just 20 years ago.  Some scientists now think that temperatures could increase by as much as 6 degrees  Celsius instead of their 4 degrees maximum expectation last year.

The real controversy isn’t whether changes are occurring.  The controversy is the cause of this environmental change.

Is it, as some climatologists think, a natural variation around the norm that occurs in the weather over the years?  We have, after all, experienced severe droughts before.  Floods are not a new phenomenon, nor are mega-storms, or occasionally exceptionally hot summers or warm winter temperatures.  Europe even experienced a “little ice age” as recently as the 17th century.

Or is human activity responsible for the increase in greenhouse gases that are changing our weather?  Before the industrial  age began two centuries ago, greenhouse gas equaled 278 particles/million.  Since then, greenhouse gases in the atmosphere have increased by 40% to 391 particles/million.  This is the highest it’s been in more than 15 million years.

Again, no serious climatologist claims that greenhouse gases do not contribute to global warming.   But some scientists think that we do not have enough long-term data to jump to dooms-day conclusions.  They claim, quite rightly, that cutting down on greenhouse gases by using less fossil fuels and more renewable sources of energy may very well slow down the global economy, leading to increased poverty for millions and the deprivations that go with it.  Better they say, to wait and see.

Wait-and-see is a recipe for disaster for the majority of climatologists who think the data already is increasingly pointing to human activity as the cause of global warming and destructive environmental changes in Earth’s oceans and on land.  They point out that once the data is unequivocal enough to convince even the most skeptical, it will be too late.  The melting of the Arctic ice cap  is already accelerating;  in twenty years time we will not be able to slow the process even if we don’t add another particle of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.

So this is the question:  should we act now even when there is still some modicum of doubt in order to try to avert what might be environmental changes that all agree would be catastrophic for life as we know it?  Is it worth the mega-effort and expense that reducing our fossil fuel use will demand?  Or should we be careful, keep watching, and trust that should things get worse, we will be able to figure out how to handle it intelligently when it happens?

To some extent, we are in the difficult position of having to answer the question – even by the default option of doing nothing – before we have all the information.  But what we decide will have huge implications for our children and our grandchildren.  Even if we don’t know for sure what those implications are.




  1. There is no anthropogenic global warming. Oh yes, and markets are self-regulating, tax-cuts for the rich benefit everyone, Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, and the earth was created around six thousand years ago. And I’m waiting for the Easter Bunny to climb down my chimney shortly after midnight on December 25 to leave me Christmas presents.


    Comment by Francis Hunt — December 2, 2012 @ 7:54 pm | Reply

    • Like you, the more I look at the evidence, the more convinced I am that our global warming is almost entirely a result of our “modern” life styles. But the doubters (if not the “deniers”) deserve to be listened to and to have their case examined. Consequently, I’ve looked at the data and read the research more broadly and critically than the average citizen, and I have serious foreboding about the future for life on our planet. I am too old to expect to see what I fear could be worst of it. But if I live as long as some of my ancestors, I could see some terrible catastrophes nonetheless.

      I hope I’m wrong. I’m sure you do too. But right now I can’t see the political will to pull together in a way that this challenge requires. In twenty years time they will probably be trying to pump gases into the sky to provide artificial clouds to cool the planet down. Untried experiments of this kind frighten me as much as the potential of a nuclear armegeddon – a Fukushima writ large.

      I guess humans have lived on the edge since we first evolved. I think what’s different about this time is that we have a warning – we could do something to prevent it. It’s not an ice age that we can’t control. It’s not a gigantic shift of tectonic plates or huge volcanic explosions or tsunamis that we didn’t know were coming.

      I’d be interested in your thoughts on our predicament. I mean, do you see a way out? I’m by nature an optimist, but this one scares me.


      Comment by theotheri — December 2, 2012 @ 9:28 pm | Reply

      • Like you, Terri, I’m usually an optimist. And, like you too, I’ve always believed that humans never act until it’s about 30 seconds to midnight. The problem with this one is that it’s all long-term; by the time it gets to short-term – our usual time scale for tackling things – it will be too late.

        You are older than I, but even I, aged 52, can sit back and relax. The forecasts which start to show the really scary shit are talking around 2055, by then if I’m still alive, I’ll be 95, and probably beyond worrying about such issues. But my grandson was born in 2007, and I hope that my daughters will decide at some stage to gift me with a few more grandchildren.

        Living in Germany, I occasionally get sick of our self-righteousness here. Germany has seen the writing on the wall and we’re moving into renewable energy, full-tilt, as fast as we can. Very laudable. Yes. But we’re starting from a wonderful position of advantage. We’re rich, industrialised, post-industrial in many ways. We’ve gone through our dirty industry phase, we’ve climbed to the top of the pile. Now – from our position of wonderful advantage – we’re preaching to countries like Brazil, India and China about how they have to watch out for the climate, otherwise we’re going to destroy the planet. If two billion + Chinese and Indians get to the stage where they have more than one automobile for every two people, then we will definitely have overcooked the planet.

        But wait! In the developed world, that’s what we have. I live with my 21-year-old daughter. I have a car. She has a car. We’re both convinced that we need them and, given the lifestyle we both have, we do. By the end of the year I’ll have flown to Ireland four times this year to visit my (elderly) parents (low-cost flights have made things so easy, haven’t they? – just fly over to Dublin from Düsseldorf for a long weekend) and I had a week on the Turkish riviera too. Quite a carbon footprint for a year. And all that was stuff which I could justify for myself. It’s just the way we live, right? But if the whole world has a right to aspire to our living standard, then we’re going to break the planet. What right do we have to tell the rest of the world that if they can’t concretely reach our standard because the planet can’t take it?

        I’m thinking of buying a hybrid car next year. It gives me a warm, fuzzy, eco feeling and – because I will be able to afford the initial investment in all this sexy technology – I’ll even finish up saving myself money in the long term. The millions and millions of Indians and Chinese (and Africans and South Americans) who aspire to the dream of mobility won’t be able to afford this kind of thing. They’ll buy the cheapest gas-guzzler they can get, because that’s all they can afford. And will be delighted to get it. Know what happens to the fifteen-year-old bangers which don’t pass their roadworthiness tests in Europe? Scrap? Hell, no, lots of them are shipped off to Africa where people are glad to buy them for a few quid – and if they’re dangerous polluters, well, who gives a f***?

        Solving this one means all of us taking hurt – concrete hurt. It means all of us – the developed world most of all – really changing our mindset, abandoning our dreams of consumption and growth. And our world isn’t set up for that; I’m really afraid it’s almost impossible to change the paradigm without wrecking the whole thing. And revolutions usually finish up causing death and misery for millions and devouring their own children.

        I think I’d better stop before I really scare myself …


        Comment by Francis Hunt — December 2, 2012 @ 10:12 pm

      • Don’t you just hope for once that you and I are dead wrong?


        Comment by Terry Sissons — December 3, 2012 @ 2:45 pm

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