Sunday, November 25, 2007

This was published by the News and Observer on October 15, 2007, although the title was different in the paper.
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Two of my neighbors share Rick Martinez's skeptical view of global warming, as they were happy to point out to me even before Martinez' recent column (Warming isn't our No.1 woe, 10/10/07). I wonder if the Nobel Prize awarded to Al Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has caused them or Mr. Martinez to reconsider.

Skeptics will always be around, and that is good. Every scientist casts a critical eye on the findings uncovered by another. But in a matter involving important decisions, we must figure out what most scientists think about it, which in this case means especially the ones doing climate research.

A strong and growing consensus comes from professional climate research organizations and thousands of climate scientists, many of whom participate on the IPCC.

As any of these groups and scientists would admit, the consensus is neither complete nor perfect. Finding chinks in our knowledge of something as complex as climate change is expected. What is surprising in such a difficult field is that large groups of scientists would be able to agree on something. Yet the consensus exists, and it is growing. That is scary.

I have three very good reasons for hoping the consensus is wrong and that the minority of skeptics are right. Those three good reasons are named Kateri, Michaela, and Lizabeth, and although the youngest of them went off to college this year, I still worry about their futures. While I may hope the skeptics are correct, at some point common sense tells me we need to do something in case the majority opinion unfortunately wins out.

Consider the magnitude of the problem -- this is the entire planet! We are all part of an unplanned experiment that we and our descendents will live with for a very long time. And if we wait much longer to convince ourselves something needs to be done, it may be too late to change the outcome.

When it comes to making decisions on matters with any degree of uncertainty, a rational course is to use something called risk analysis. You estimate the likelihood of something bad happening, and the seriousness of the consequences if it does happen.

If the problem is very unlikely to occur, and the consequences even if it does occur are not too bad, you may safely decide to do nothing about it. If on the other hand the consequences are likely to be serious and damaging, you might consider taking action even if the likelihood of the problem happening is slim.

Finally, if the likelihood is not so slim and the consequences are dire, then indeed, immediate action would be wise.

The growing consensus among scientists makes me think global warming has at least a decent chance of happening, and the effects being talked about surely sound serious. You be the judge.

But factor into your judgment some of the actions we might take if we decide to limit carbon dioxide emissions into our atmosphere.

Reducing carbon emissions requires us to either burn less fossil fuel by increasing our energy efficiency (eg., driving smaller cars with higher gas mileage), or by using alternative energy sources such as solar, wind, tidal, geothermal, hydropower, even nuclear power instead of fossil fuels. In either case, burning less fossil fuels has two additional positive outcomes:

  • It reduces air pollutants such as nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, mercury, hydrocarbons, and the products of these pollutants, ozone and acid rain.
  • It reduces our dependence on oil at a time when oil supplies may soon begin to dwindle, and foreign suppliers may become increasingly expensive and dangerous trading partners.

Sound like a bargain? The bargain gets better when you factor in the "external" costs of finding and using fossil fuels - mountaintop removal and strip mining, water pollution, crop and forest damage, and health effects such as asthma, emphysema, lung cancer, and heart disease - all linked to the air pollution from burning fossil fuels.

Skeptics will always be with us. But I am afraid, truly afraid, they are wrong and even misleading us about this one. The scientists doing the research do not doubt that this is serious and that we can do something about it.

It is time to weigh the evidence and decide. The outcome of this debate has real winners and losers. Our daughters' and sons' and grandchildren's future quality of life will depend upon what we do in the next decade.