Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Is Climate Change really an existential issue?

Oftentimes, writers, reporters, educators, and scientists refer to Climate Change as an existential problem. Here’s what they mean by that:

“In reality, the Earth is heating up, a point long beyond serious scientific dispute, but one becoming more evident as the records keep falling. Temperatures are heading toward levels that many experts believe will pose a profound threat to both the natural world and to human civilization.” (Earth Sets a Temperature Record for the Third Straight Year (January 18, 2017) New York Times 

Climate Change communicators usually don’t like to characterize the warming crisis as apocalyptic because it tends to overwhelm and paralyze their audience. And while this position may have some psychological validity to it, it doesn’t excuse climate denial. Facing the existential aspect of Climate Change by a large swath of humanity is critical because until it is framed correctly as “a profound threat to the natural world and to human civilization”, we won’t understand the urgency to address it.
Granted, trying to make the existential argument has the ‘crying wolf’ component. One would be hard pressed to find a time in human history when some faction or other didn’t think the world was going to end in their lifetime. In my own lifetime, there have been several doomsday prognostications (which obviously did not end in a complete disaster) including the Cuban Missile Crisis.  

But, as in the fable, it’s quite possible that however often the boy cries wolf, a wolf can still show up. (Note: ‘wolf’ here is a metaphor for BAD! but real wolves are not bad, they are vital components of our ecosystems.) In order for the public to sort out fable from reality, we need more expert scientists and their wonderful instruments. Their instruments are telling us that our atmosphere and oceans are warming. That our seas are rising. That increasingly extreme weather is occurring because of Climate Change.

Part of the existential nature of Climate Change and integral to properly understand the urgency is tipping points (or ‘thresholds’).  

Climate modeling is a critical tool for climate scientists and these computer models are able to factor in much of the climate data scientists are gathering, including economic models in order to anticipate how humanity will respond to various financial scenarios.  However, climate models are no panacea. They cannot predict a climate denier voted into the highest office in the most powerful nation along with a like-minded cabinet.

The more scientists learn about our ecosystems and climate the more they can predict some of the possible tipping points. But not what the results will be.

“The possible existence of thresholds implies that there may be limits to how predictable future changes to ecosystems will be and that we may be able only to identify thresholds where significant change will occur, but not what those changes will be.” (Schimel, David. Climate and Ecosystems (Princeton Primers in Climate, p. 159. Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.)

This kind of doubt about the consequences of Climate Change is only a positive thing to climate deniers. For the rest of us, Climate Change is an existential problem because things can get out of hand very quickly.  

Time passes. 

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