Sunday, July 23, 2017

Doomsday is [not] Nigh

I read an article in NY Magazine a few days ago entitled “The Uninhabitable Earth” which basically stated that we are already screwed: “Famine, economic collapse, a sun that could cook us: What climate change could wreak – sooner than you think.” The heck with sea level rise, we could see mass calamities of biblical proportions in the next few decades.

I felt like going out and shooting myself after reading it (not really, but it sure was depressing).

Then there was Professor Stephen Hawking, the noted physicist, who stated in no uncertain terms that the Earth would turn into Venus because Trump pulled us out of the Paris Climate Accords. In case you don’t know, Venus’ atmosphere is hot enough to melt lead and is a hellish mix of CO2 and sulfuric acid.

Even Nobel-winning scientists get it wrong and Hawking is completely wrong. The makeup of the Earth’s atmosphere, Earth’s distance from the sun, and the recycling of the Earth’s crust by plate tectonics means that the atmosphere could never morph into one like Venus.
However, the Earth does not have to turn into Venus for our planetary home to get very uncomfortable for its current inhabitants.

Back to the NY Magazine article. An analysis of the science by Climate Feedback, a consortium of academics scientists who fact-checking climate change articles, rated the story’s credibility to be low because the author either misrepresented the supporting research or presented the information out of context. These kinds of comments are usually reserved for articles published by the London Daily Mail and Breitbart, or press releases from the current head of the EPA.

Dr. Michael Mann, a climatologist from Penn State said in his comments “The evidence that climate change is a serious problem that we must contend with now, is overwhelming on its own. There is no need to overstate the evidence, particularly when it feeds a paralyzing narrative of doom and hopelessness.”

Dr. Mann and others expanded on this theme in a Washington Post Op-Ed, stating that invoking “fear does not motivate, and appealing to it is often counter-productive as it tends to distance people from the problem, leading them to disengage, doubt and even dismiss it.” Worry, interest, and hope on the other hand, do motivate people to action.

As I said in a column a few weeks back, there is hope because right after Trump reneged on the Paris Accords, cities, states and corporations and almost every other country stepped up to say that they will work to meet the Accords’ goals.

There is hope in the continuing growth of renewable energy technology. According to InsideClimate News Clean Energy Wire (7/10/2017): a Texas (Texas!) company wants to build transmission lines to transport unused wind power to other parts of the U.S.; Utility-scale renewable energy production surpassed nuclear power for the first time in over 30 years; and lastly, renewable energy prices are falling so fast that, according to Morgan Stanley, by 2020, they “will be the cheapest form of new-power generation across the globe.” The analysts say that not even politicians will be able to keep the US from meeting the Paris Accord targets.

The Paris Accord targets are pretty modest though, given the scale of the problem. At current CO2 levels, glaciers are going to continue to melt, sea levels are going to continue to rise, and weather instability will continue to increase. We will need to adapt to a changing planet. The doomsday scenarios described in the NY Magazine article could come to pass in the more distant future – if we do nothing.

However, we aren’t doing nothing. We just need to do more, because predicted events keep on occurring.

For example, Professor John Mercer of Ohio State made the following prediction 39 years ago, when we knew a lot less than we do now: “One of the warning signs that a dangerous warming trend is under way in Antarctica will be the breakup of ice shelves on both coasts of the Antarctic Peninsula, starting with the northernmost and extending gradually southward.”

The long-expected calving of an iceberg the size of Delaware from the Antarctic Peninsula Larsen C ice shelf occurred two weeks ago. The collapse of adjacent Larsen A and B ice shelves further to the north started the same way.  

The validity of a scientific theory is based on its ability to make testable predictions. By that standard, Dr. Mercer nailed it.

Doomsday is not nigh, but only if we continue to act.

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