Monday, February 06, 2012

Gaming knowledge gaps in Climate Change studies


There is a lot of doubt surrounding the issue of Climate Change, just as there would be about anything remotely as complex as the rapid warming of our planet due to human activity. It means trying to anticipate the impact of unprecedentedly rapid change -- what used to take millions of years of adaption in Earth’s biology is being condensed into a few decades—with every other environmental issue we face mixed in. For some, this doubt galvanizes them to fill those knowledge gaps by investigating and monitoring the changes in our environment due to warming. Find out what’s going on, what’s causing it, and then find solutions.

For others, this particular scientific inquiry threatens their ideology. They fight back, some very successfully:

How this paper will be received remains to be seen. A spokesperson for Senator James Inhofe (R-OK), a leading Congressional climate change skeptic, is already discounting the study because of Hansen’s participation. "Hansen has lost a lot of credibility ever since he's moved to be more of an activist than a scientist," said Matt Dempsey, communications director for the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Minority office, which Inhofe leads. "The American people have rejected alarmism on global warming. Global warming has all but gone away on Capitol Hill." (January 31, 2012) Texas Heat Wave Caused by Global Warming, NASA's Hansen Says | InsideClimate News

What’s most alarming about this statement that Capitol Hill isn’t listening to Climate Change warnings is that in many ways it is true— Congress has been rendered dysfunctional on the science of Climate Change—though presumably our political leaders still believe in science when they, say, hop on an airplane. (BTW: How does a scientist become less credible when enough evidence makes it apparent that one must act? If your doctor told you, you were having a heart attack and wasn’t acting to save you, would you believe her?)

The gaps in our knowledge about Climate Change are narrowing. Most scientists around the world and most of our governmental agencies charged with protecting the public and our infrastructure are already working on adaptation strategies. This is the first paragraph in a draft released last month by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, with support by the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies. (Which, by the way, you can comment on by March 5th, 2012).

“Our climate is changing, and these changes are already impacting the nation’s valuable natural resources and the people, communities, and economies that depend on them ... The observed changes in climate, in turn, have been directly correlated to the increasing levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases (GHGs) in the atmosphere, which have set in motion a series of changes in the planet’s climate system. Far greater changes are already inevitable because CO2 stays in the atmosphere for a long time. Even if further GHG emissions were halted today, alterations already underway in the Earth’s climate will last for hundreds or thousands of years. If GHG emissions continue, as is more likely, the planet’s temperature is projected to rise by 2.0 to 11.5 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century, with accompanying major changes in extreme weather events, sea level rise, and acidification of our oceans. The pace and scale of these kinds of changes are expected to have major impacts on our natural resources and the communities and economies that depend on them.“ NFWP Climate Adaptation Strategy

Here are some of the knowledge gaps one finds in many Climate Change studies that we know about, which doesn’t even begin to cover the things we don’t even know to ask:

  • How will groundwater recharge, stream low-flows, evaporation, and flooding be affected by Climate Change?
  • How will changes in snow pack (snow depth) affect organisms in the soil as there will be shorter periods of the protective blanketing of snow and more on/off freezing? Think of those busy little critters that decompose dead material. This is not a natural service that even the best and the brightest among our species know how to reproduce.
  • What is the actual health of our major rivers (like the Genesee River that runs through Rochester, NY) without Climate Change stresses?
  • What are reliable indicators of climate change impacts on biodiversity and ecosystem functions?
  • How can we get accurate and reliable data on change in species distributions and movements?
  • How will cloud cover be affected by Climate Change, which will determine a lot about plant and animal survival? Trying to predict things like cloud cover and how much wind there will be in the future are great big gaps in these studies.
  • What plants will be most affected if the timing of their pollinators, insects and birds, is offset by warming?
  • Where will we get the money to add the necessary resiliency and redundancy in systems such as telecommunications, whose health is tenuous due to fierce free market competition? Think of the constant assault of extreme events such as high wind, flooding, and extreme heat on systems stripped to the barest everyday necessities by the marketplace.
  • What will happen to wildlife and plants that cannot move to livable temperatures quickly enough in a warming climate?
  • How will we create adaptive strategies across city, county, state, and other countries’ boundaries?
  • Can we assess the health of our environment through climate change using an ad hoc, business-oriented approach?
  • We don’t seem to know how to even begin to examine systems holistically as they undergo assaults from numerous directions simultaneously. Think of how telecom, transportation, and public health systems all failed at once under the onslaught of Hurricane Katrina.

Our ancestors did not evolve by benefiting from knowledge gaps, quite the reverse. A lion stalking an early human did not disappear merely because the lion darted behind a bush—suddenly it became more dangerous because of the knowledge gap. We survived evolution by quickly filing in knowledge gaps, not dismissing them. In that light, there are hopeful signs that we are trying to fill those gaps:

NEON “The National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON) will collect data across the United States on the impacts of climate change, land use change and invasive species on natural resources and biodiversity. NEON is a project of the U.S. National Science Foundation, with many other U.S. agencies and NGOs cooperating. NEON will be the first observatory network of its kind designed to detect and enable forecasting of ecological change at continental scales over multiple decades. The data NEON collects will be freely and openly available to all users.”

But are we acting quickly enough to answer the questions we need to know about Climate Change? And, how are we going to counteract those who are intentionally thwarting our efforts to make our environment sustainable in a warming climate?

Dr. James Hansen, our country’s foremost climate scientist, says:

“Public doubt about the science is not an accident. People profiting from business-as-usual fossil fuel use are waging a campaign to discredit the science. Their campaign is effective because the profiteers have learned how to manipulate democracies for their advantage. The scientific method requires objective analysis of all data, stating evidence pro and con, before reaching conclusions. This works well, indeed is necessary, for achieving success in science. But science is now pitted in public debate against the talk-show method, which consists of selective citation of anecdotal bits that support a predetermined position.” (January 27, 2012) Cowards in Our Democracies: (Part 1, page 1.)

Have we come to the point in our evolution that we can no longer adapt to change? And, of course, the biggest question of all is this knowledge gap: “What event or series of events would be enough to convince a majority of the public, who have been sucker-punched by the deniers, that Climate Change is a dire threat to our existence?”

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