- Climate Change:Scientific Evidence and the Industry of Denial
Environmental issues entered the public discourse in a conspicuous way back in the 1970s with the media blitz on the dioxin contamination at Love Canal in 1978 and the Three Mile Island nuclear accident in 1979. More than nuclear, it was toxics that soon became the central environmental issue, with hundreds of hazardous waste sites dotting the country. Think of the Times Beach, Missouri, disaster in 1983. Not that nuclear power hasn't been a significant concern—consider the notoriously contaminated Hanford Site and the thirty-year battle to site a nuclear waste facility at Yucca Mountain, Nevada. How do you safely store nuclear waste for one million years?
Yet today it's not toxic waste or nuclear waste that gets the biggest billing—it's global warming. After all, if the grim predictions of climate change experts prove to be true, the Earth may not be fit for human habitation in the next century and beyond. Will climate change bring about the sixth extinction? [End Page 187]
A sobering question, but meanwhile the human species, globally speaking, relies heavily on fossil fuels for power plants, for residential and commercial buildings, and for transportation, releasing carbon stored for millions of years. Since the Industrial Revolution, the levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere have risen from 280 parts per million (ppm) to about 400 ppm today. Increased carbon concentration has led to unprecedented warming. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, since 1880, the Earth has warmed slightly over 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit. If the planet continues its so-called business-as-usual use of carbon, the carbon concentration could reach much higher, perhaps as much as 1,000 ppm by the end of the century, causing extremely dangerous warming.
What are the environmental effects of global warming? Serious melting, for one. The Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets are melting, which contributes to sea-level rise. If seas rise too much, coastal inhabitants will have to move to the interior, and what geopolitical issues will arise from such mass migration on a planetary scale? Not only are coastal cities vulnerable but islands are also increasingly threatened. One of the most critical effects of global warming is melting permafrost, which could potentially release huge amounts of carbon dioxide as well as methane—a much worse greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. From these releases, the planet will be further warmed, illustrative of what is called an amplifying feedback, or a global warming vicious cycle.
Extreme weather events are a second result. By now Katrina is a household word on a par with Love Canal, and Hurricane Sandy, which hit the New Jersey coast in late October 2012, is already something of an iconic weather event. The category 5 tornado that hit Joplin, Missouri, in May 2011 killed 157, garnering much national attention. Climate change–wise, if it's not violent storms, it's heat waves and serious droughts.
Is it too late? Has a tipping point arrived? The consensus of scientific opinion is that significant changes must be made immediately, globally, to reverse the warming trend. Reducing emissions alone will only stabilize the carbon concentration. As a useful analogy goes, the Earth is a bathtub filled to a particular level. The faucet is on. Turning off the spigot won't drain the bathtub. That takes a working drain, a carbon sink, and carbon sinks, like the permafrost, are becoming sources of carbon dioxide, not storage places for it. The business-as-usual path is mined with great risks as 2050 and especially 2100 approach. [End Page 188]
Is climate science reliable? There is absolutely no question on the part of the legitimate scientific community...