Thinking of Global Warming

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Amazingly enough, we (my family) are going to have to work very hard this year, as we did over the last two years, to get in even one or two good days of cross country skiing. And we live in the middle of Minnesota. This is partly because a good bit of the precip that falls on us these days is actually rain and not snow.

But this is of course a very selfish concern, to the extent that this change is related to human-induced global warming (which I’m betting on). And this reminds me of how often I get the question from students and others, “why worry about global warming … what’s wrong with a little warm weather anyway.”

For one thing I think it is safe to say that the “controversy” is over. No one is seriously questioning that there has been warming, that we are in a warming trend, and that this trend is caused primarily by human release of otherwise trapped (mainly fossil) carbon into the atmosphere. Nice to know that the Yahoos are pretty much silenced by the facts on that one…

Still, the question arises, “why is this important” … even in places where you might not expect it, like this discussion on the geology of the grand canyon: Another Timeline

There are a lot of resources available on this issue, but here is a short version of my two cents:

Why is global warming bad:

Climate variation over the last 2 million years has been greater than that related directly to global warming, so why should a little global warming matter? There are several reasons.

First, we are currently at one end of the extremes across which our climate normally fluctuates, and global warming is pushing us in that extreme direction farther than before. That could be bad.

Second, global warming is bad because it is climate change, and climate change is change, and all change is bad. In ecology, the words “change” and “perturbation” and “disturbance” are virtually synonyms. We hear a lot of people warning about the effects of future climate change, and that annoys me a great deal. The same energy should be put into describing the effects that have already happened.

A couple of thousand people have died of unprecedented heat waves in North America. Almost certainly, hundreds of these individuals more died than would have otherwise died in heat. That’s close to home.

Less close to home are the millions who have suffered and died because of increased aridity and failure of rainfall which is mostly linked to global warming.

Another issue with global warming is moralistic. Everybody dies, right? The person crossing the street in front you you while you are in your car on your way to work is going to die eventually, right? So why not run that person over. You get to work faster and that person was going to die anyway…. This is sort of obvious yet many people seem to not realize it. There is a moral difference between a hurricane hitting land somewhere and people causing a hurricane to hit land somewhere.

Global warming is caused by the release of fossil carbon into the atmosphere. This means a fundamental change in climate, not just part of a normal shift back and forth. This means that global warming is a qualitative change, not just a numerical change. This carbon in the atmosphere will bring the earth’s climate to a state that it has not experienced for a hundred million years or more. Life on this earth is adapted to life on this earth under present conditions, not conditions a hundred million years ago. The implications of this are unclear but potentially large.

Finally, global warming represents this shift in carbon into the atmosphere, and every several hundred million tons of carbon is some huge amount of fossil fuel that we no longer have access to. In other words, for all of it’s negative effects, global warming is actually the PSSSST sound of air being let out of some huge tire representing a basic resource. In and of itself global warming is bad, but it is also an indicator of a larger set of problems running from human stoopidity to human frailty.

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