Democracy Square: "Climate change: How will it impact me? What can I do?"

The event: Friday, April 24 @ 12pm – 1pm, in NKU SU108

Three related articles from the New York Times:

  1. The first article addresses the naive question "If the world is really warming up, how come it is so darned cold?"
  2. The second suggests ways in which "Animal and plant species around the world may be threatened by warmer global temperatures".
  3. The final article declares that "Restored Forests Breathe Life Into Efforts Against Climate Change".

Three questions related to the articles:

  1. Some people doubt that the climate is changing (although this attitude is getting rarer); others believe that the climate is changing, but doubt that humans are contributing (more common). What evidence exists to suggest that humans are indeed behind the rapidly changing climate? What confuses humans about human-caused global warming?
  2. Given that human-caused climate change is happening, what secondary (rather than direct) effects must we worry about? [For example, if climate change impacts bee populations, agriculture may suffer for lack of pollinators.]
  3. Given that human-caused climate change is happening, what should we be doing? One option is to just sit back and see what happens. Is that a good or bad idea?

Comments:

  • Some people doubt that the climate is changing (although this attitude is getting rarer); others believe that the climate is changing, but doubt that humans are contributing (more common). What evidence exists to suggest that humans are indeed behind the rapidly changing climate? What confuses humans about human-caused global warming?
    • "If the world is really warming up, how come it is so darned cold?"
      • "Scientists studying human perception have found that our immediate, visceral experience of the world can influence our judgments on tangentially related questions. For example, the research shows that on a day perceived as hotter than normal, people are more likely to say on a survey that global warming is real, and vice versa."
      • "It gets wackier: People surveyed in a hot room are more likely to say global warming is real, compared with folks in a cold room. Our rational minds may know the temperature is being controlled by a thermostat, but the logic somehow breaks down before we answer the survey questions."
    • Key: Local perspective versus Global perspective:
      • It is global warming, after all. It's hard to think beyond our borders or walls, but this problem demands it. We have to look up and out and everywhere.
      • The famous Inhofe snowball should give us all pause: InhofeSnowball.jpg. Sen. Inhofe is evidently confused by the very existence of snow and ice in Washington, D.C. (and didn't think to check out the rest of the US).
      • Atmospheric temperatures: medium.jpg If one looks back over this record, one finds intervals during which temperatures even appear to drop, rather than simply "pause". The trend, however, is clear.
      • Ocean temperatures: medium.jpg There's not really much to argue with in terms of ocean temperature; it's been gaining heat remarkably, and it appears that it is likely to release some of that heat to the atmosphere soon….
      • One more remark: one needn't — one shouldn't — rely solely on humans measuring temperature in this debate:
        • ask the arctic ice;
        • ask the glaciers;
        • ask the longer springs and shorter winters;
        • ask all the plants and animals moving toward the poles or up the mountain-sides world-wide in response to changing climatic conditions. These are better thermometers than humans make….
      • The debate, insofar as there was any real debate (rather than simply obstructionism) is over. The Earth is warming, and the global climate is changing along with it.
      • In terms of evidence that the changing climate is human-driven, we resort to science: scientists have been predicting (since 1861!) that the build-up of carbon gasses would lead to warming. Their predictions have been borne out — and continue to be borne out. Unfortunately, their predictions for our future are bleak, at best: Scientists say temperatures could rise by 6C by 2100 and call for action ahead of UN meeting in Paris


Notice that my next two questions assume human-caused climate change. I no longer spend any time debating whether this is happening — it is. The only controversy left is political, and economic. What we see is not at all surprising — the ones who are unconvinced are those who own (or are otherwise indebted to) fossil fuels.

So Kentuckians (or West Virginians, or Wyominites), whose state is rich in coal, seem reluctant to believe in climate change, especially climate change caused by emission of carbon due to the burning of coal. But those who have no financial (or nostalgia-driven) bonds to coal (oil, natural gas, etc.) are convinced.

As Upton Sinclair said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”


  • Given that human-caused climate change is happening, what secondary (rather than direct) effects must we worry about?
    • For example, if climate change impacts bee populations, agriculture may suffer for lack of pollinators.
    • These are often called feedbacks. They're like those immense speakers at concerts that occasionally shriek at us, when the microphone gets too close to them. In what ways will the Earth "shriek back?"
    • One way that we might consider approaching this question is by asking what systems and species are at risk, and then thinking about what their loss would mean. This information is provided by the reading "Animal and plant species around the world may be threatened by warmer global temperatures"
      • For example, on a terribly selfish note, tea and coffee are threatened by changing temperature and precipitation patterns. Similarly olives are threatened — how will we make martinis? On a more ominous food note, wheat, rice, and corn are at risk.
      • Shellfish are threatened by ocean acidification. This is a threat that has only recently been brought to widespread attention. Ocean acidification has sometimes been called "global warming's evil twin"
        pteropodpics1_med.jpg
      • Malaria is mentioned. An additional rise in global average temperature of one degree C is projected to result in three million more cases in Ethiopia alone.
  • Given that human-caused climate change is happening, what should we be doing?
    • One option is to just sit back and see what happens. Is that a good or bad idea? It's important to decide this question, because a lot of people are doing just that.
    • Suppose that one should get active. What are the best options? Here are a few important ones that I like to promote:
      • Work for forests: "In the battle to limit the risks of climate change, it has been clear for decades that focusing on the world’s immense tropical forests — saving the ones that are left, and perhaps letting new ones grow — is the single most promising near-term strategy." "Restored Forests Breathe Life Into Efforts Against Climate Change"
      • Promote alternative energy. Alternative energy has made unexpected gains against fossil fuels, due in part to rapidly improving technologies and dramatically lower costs.
      • Encourage divestment of funds from carbon companies. Divest personally. Stop the destruction of habitats, for all kinds of reasons. If today's New York Times can't sway you with their article U.S. Maps Pinpoint Earthquakes Linked to Quest for Oil and Gas, then hopefully this picture of mountaintop removal may:
        MTR.jpg
      • Change your eating habits — eat more local food, and less meat.
      • Make other changes to bring your life into "sustainability-compliance":
        • if a drought comes, are you ready?
        • If there's a food shortage, are you ready?
        • Can you combine trips in the car?
        • Can you skip the car entirely?
        • Can you afford a more fuel-efficient car?
        • Can you share a car? Etc.
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