The Imperative Science and The Inconvenient Truth
(August 18, 2012) In an October, 2007 Op-ed, columnist George Will essentially stated that global warming is no big deal, talking about the “gradual” difficulty it poses for some species, but also a greater opportunity for others. I immediately thought of polar bears and cockroaches, respectively.
He also quoted a United Nations estimate for the rise in sea level by the end of the century to be a mere 12 inches and added, “as much as they have risen since 1860.”
The actual United Nations sea rise estimate at the time was 1-2 feet (28-58 cm). Two feet happens to be 100% greater that one foot! And a 100% change in anything is consider by all, significant. I always thought of Mr. Will as a level-headed and accurate journalist from the conservative side of the political spectrum. I felt it was out of character for him to low-ball the real figure to serve his argument that global warming will be a bit of an inconvenience, at worst.
And, on the same UN website, just a paragraph below that estimate, it further states: “Larger sea-level increases of up to 1 meter by 2100 cannot be ruled out if ice sheets continue to melt as temperature rises. There is now evidence that the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets are indeed slowly losing mass and contributing to sea level rise.”
The newest figures released in June by the research arm of the National Academy of Sciences, based in Washington DC, state that sea levels could rise as much as 4 ½ feet from present levels before the end of the century. This would be a little more than an inconvenience.
Furthermore, the biggest -and by far most complex factor, that scientists are trying to get a handle on is the “tipping point” issue, a term first popularized in Vice President Al Gore’s 2006 documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth”.
Most scientist agree that there is a “point of no return” for global warming, but none can give absolutes as to when and why.
What they do know is that there are vast areas on the planet like the Siberian tundra and the Arctic permafrost that at normal temperatures store countless tons of methane gas. They also know that the thawing of these areas will cause its release. As a greenhouse gas, methane is four times more potent that car exhaust.
A 2010 study, published in the journal “Science”, shows that methane emissions from the Arctic increased by 31% from 2003-07.
Paul Palmer, a scientist at Edinburgh University who worked on the new study, said: “High latitude wetlands are currently only a small source of methane but for these emissions to increase by a third in just five years is very significant.”
Global warming is occurring twice as fast in the Arctic than anywhere else on Earth. Some regions have already warmed by 2.5C, and temperatures there are projected to increase by more than 10C by 2100 if carbon emissions continue to rise at current rates.
Palmer added: “This study does not show the Arctic has passed a tipping point, but it should open people’s eyes. It shows there is a positive feedback and that higher temperatures bring higher emissions and faster warming.”
Personally, I like to believe (as ecologist Carl Safina does), that “Life will find a way,” a quote from the 1993 movie classic, Jurassic Park. Specifically, I like to think that life is not that easy to extinguish, but the idea of our planet reaching this theoretical turning point is no less serious that the killer-asteroid scenarios played out in movies like Deep Impact and Armageddon.
And what is more worrisome in the immediate future is the political atmosphere – especially in the United States, where the decisions of the electorate are often guided by “trusted” columnists like George Will. If global warming really is “no big deal,” it may sound reasonable, especially during tough economic times, to cut scientific funding for climate change research. This is a very real possibility… but someday, we may look back and wish we hadn’t.
Methane release in Arctic (Youtube)