Monday, April 12, 2010

Climate Change

A recent The Economist (March 20-26, 2010) has good articles on climate change. In 1989 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was established “to get scientists to work out what was happening to the climate, and to get governments to sign off on the scientists’ conclusions” (p. 13). Although the scientific investigations have proceeded well, the predicated outcomes vary substantially, from a 1.1° C increase by 2100 to a “hellish” 6.4° C increase.

If you know scientific inquiry, you know that the difference between projections does not mean bad science! It simply means that the predictions are based on a number of variables, in this case uncertainties like rates of economic and population growth. Unfortunately, “Politics, like journalism, tends to simplify and exaggerate,” and so the message of climate change and its potential dangers have been sometimes been muddled and thus open to skepticism. For instance, the British government ran ads about climate change that were subsequently criticized for being sensationalistic. Plus, scientists have sometimes seemed to exaggerate findings, as when a recent IPCC report erroneously reported that Himalayan glaciers would disappear by 2035 rather than 2350 but did not quickly correct the error. These kinds of things give evidence to skeptics that climate change is really a false crisis.

The Economist authors write, “Plenty of uncertainty remains; but that argues for, not against, action. If it were known that global warming would be limited to 2° C, the world might decide to live with that. But the range of possible outcomes is huge, with catastrophe one possibility, and the costs of averting climate change are comparatively small” (all these quotations are from page. 13).

This makes sense to me, as does the conclusion of the longer article which describes the science and the situation (pp. 83-86): “The doubters are right that uncertainties are rife in climate science. They are wrong when they present that as a reason for inaction” (p. 86).

All that being said: what should people be doing about all this? What kinds of actions should we be taking, just in case? Environmentalists recommend contacting our national leaders as well as making personal changes. I don't know about you, but I haven’t been very conscientious lately about doing environmentally sensitive things. I found a good list online, however, with recommendations worth working on.


  1. Certainly a lot to think about! The list you linked to is very helpful and most of us can certainly improve in one or more areas. I'm feeling so motivated lately by the growing "locavore" food movement. I seriously cannot believe the bounty right here around me in central Indiana! In the rare cases when I do need to visit my chain supermarket anymore, I find myself looking at origin labels and asking myself if I really need to buy (insert product here) from (insert country or far away state here) when I can get something fresher from my local farmer or farmers' market. It's a win for me, for the farmer, and for the environment. But especially for me. :-)

  2. I hadn't heard the term "locavore" yet, but that's a good word for it! I need to check out the farmer's market here; my dad and I used to stock up there.

  3. New policies are being formed around the world to help create a low-carbon economy, focused on reducing carbon emissions. The challenge however is how to redefine our production of energy and reduce the demand for power, without hindering business developement. The transition will not be easy, but it is essential if we are to tackle the problem of climate change