Monday, September 06, 2010

as good as it gets

-- climate happenings are at the data bank --

Surfing the data wave can sweep one into troubled waters. Contradictory swirls abound these days. One the one hand there's The Vanishing Face of Gaia (2009), the best yet of J. Lovelock's Gaia-series, a persuasive argument for why we are at the brink. Lovelock's views are shared by the likes of E. O. Wilson, J. Hansen, or the late S. Schneider. Numerous recent and well-researched books evoke a dark future. Some of them are Houghton's Global Warming (2004), Flannery's Weathermakers (2005), Wilson's Creation (2006), Ward's Under a Green Sky (2007), Pearce's With Speed and Violence (2007), and Hansen's Storms of my Grandchildren (2009). Every year, more peer-reviewed articles with worrisome findings appear. S. Rahmstorf (Science '07) showed how the IPCC underestimates global warming; the speed of events, such as that of sea level rise, is outpacing the AR projections. J. Polovina (Geophys Res Let '08) showed a feedback loop between heat and algae; algae cool oceans down, but as sea water temps creep higher, the algae die. It's like brakes melting off a runaway train. N. Shakova (Geophys Res Abstr 2008) observed methane outgassing in the tundra; another loop: rising GHG concentrations thaw the tundra, which releases CH4, raises GHG concentrations, and thaws the tundra more. E. Shur (Nature 2009) found another nasty loop: the more outgassing takes place, the less carbon plants can take up. This is yet another brakeshoe melting off the runaway train. Each single positive feedback loop alone, the speed, the algae, the methane, the carbon uptake, is already disturbing. But all of them together? And I haven't even mentioned the extra heating that will start up in the Arctic basin once the floating polar ice will be gone. Eighty percent sunlight will then be absorbed in the North Polar sea, instead of the twenty percent now. Then we'll all feel the heat. We're looking at a lengthening queue of extremely scary harbingers.

On the other hand, a paper appeared by C. Raudsepp-Hearne (Bioscience 2010), which reminds us that despite the environmental decline human wellbeing is getting ever better. D. Biello at the Scientific American blog rightly asks, if the world is going to hell, why are humans doing so well?

So what is it now? Are we going down? Or is it just that nature as our grandparents had known it is vanishing, while we're actually doing fine? Has technology decoupled our wellbeing from that of the biosphere, as the Bioscience authors seem to suggest?

Does this mean we can finally relax? Or is this global situation now similar to the Florida housing bubble right before it burst, when everybody was happily maxing out their credit cards?

In the midst of such contradictory eddies and whirls it is refreshing to read an account of the new reality at the science news site of New York Times. At the topics site dedicated to climate news, there's a recently updated summary of global warming, which is as good as it gets:

Global warming has become perhaps the most complicated issue facing world leaders. On the one hand, warnings from the scientific community are becoming louder, as an increasing body of science points to rising dangers from the ongoing buildup of human-related greenhouse gases--produced mainly by the burning of fossil fuels and forests. On the other, the technological, economic, and political issues that have to be resolved before a concerted worldwide effort to reduce emissions can begin have gotten no simpler, particularly in the face of a global economic slowdown.

World leaders gathered in Copenhagen in Dec 2009 for a session that had been years in the making but that fell short of even the lowered expectations with which it opened. The 192 nations in attendance at the end merely agreed to try to reach a binding accord before a follow-up meeting in Cancun, Mexico, in Dec 2010. By the summer, Ban-Ki moon, the UN Secretary General, was saying that no sweeping accord was likely, and recommending that a better approach might consist of small steps in separate fields that built toward wider consensus.

At the heart of the international debate is a momentous tussle between rich and poor countries over who steps up first and who pays most for changed energy menus.

In the US, Democratic leaders in the Senate in July 2010 gave up on reaching even a scaled-down climate bill, in the face of opposition from Republicans and some energy-state Democrats. The House had passed a broad cap-and-trade bill in 2009.

In the meantime, recent fluctuations in temperature have intensified the public debate over how urgently to respond. A string of large snowstorms in the Washington area and freezing weather in Florida in the winter of 2009-2010 were seized on by climate change skeptics. but the combination of flooding, heat waves and droughts in the summer were taken by most researchers trained in climate analysis as evidence to show that weather extremes are getting worse.

The long-term warming trend over the last century has been well-established, and scientists immersed in studying the climate are projecting substantial disruption in water supplies, agriculture, ecosystems and coastal communities. Passionate activists at both ends of the discourse are pushing ever harder for or against rapid action, while polls show the public locked durably in three camps--with roughly a fifth of American voters eager for action, a similar proportion aggressively rejecting projections of catastrophe and most people tuned out or confused. (read more)

There are some qualifiers, to be sure, but more about them next time.

Seventy-five months left.

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