A lesson in climate change
I’ve heard some brilliant faculty members talk about climate change, read many articles about it in Science magazine and other peer-reviewed journals (e.g., this Nature Geoscience article) as the data have been painstakingly collected, accumulated and analyzed, and listened to and talked with many really smart people on both sides of the issue.
I’ve been convinced for some time that humans are accelerating climate changes, and that we must act to reduce carbon use. I was grateful, if surprised, when so many world leaders came together last October and committed to slowing climate change by signing the Paris Agreement. As John Oliver said last week on a segment of his show, LastWeek Tonight, “It was a victory for the planet.” He made a compelling argument for remaining part of the agreement, using real data and humor. (See graph of the carbon budget, a ceiling we could vault in a mere 20 years without action to reduce carbon emissions.)
(Some may find Oliver’s language crass and gratuitous. It can be, but I found that the overall value of his message outweighed the distasteful parts.) For example, he read part of a letter to The New York Times, signed by some of the world’s most respected corporate leaders, which argued that the Paris Agreement would create jobs, not destroy them. The mayor of Pittsburgh, a city the President said he was protecting by withdrawing from the agreement, spoke out against America’s withdrawal. Walmart, Bank of America and Philip Morris International are among the major companies that have committed to renewable energy transition.
There’s also debate about whether we’re past being able to limit our carbon use in a way that would keep us from breaching the 2-degree Celsius limit. A PBS Newshour show with experts on climate change in 2015 had this exchange:
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Most scientists believe that, even if every country followed through 100 percent on their voluntary pledges, there’s already enough CO2 in the atmosphere to warm the planet by two degrees. Scientists and world leaders in Paris hope that, even if this threshold is breached, nations will not just follow through on their pledges, but will agree to dial back emissions even more in the future.
This isn’t about me, or you, or even only about our planet. It is about all of us and our relationship with our only planet. What if we don’t believe in climate change, but we’re wrong, and we’ve kept on a path that dooms us all? Isn’t it better to act while we can when recommended actions have more potential benefits than downsides? Don’t we owe that to future generations?
The case for climate change
Thousands of scientific papers documenting changes in climate slowly but surely have made the case clearer and clearer. Review articles and meta-analyses have examined the whole picture, and one expert group after another has weighed in and reached similar overall conclusions. They may differ in their predictions about when, for example, we’d reach the tipping point, but they all say our climate is changing for the worse, and our actions are contributing.
Learn more from a special package of stories published by Science in November 2015, as nations were finalizing the Paris deal. In science, proof is much more likely when different measures produce similar conclusions, and that’s the case for climate change. (See NASA’s Global Ice Viewer for video images of the changes occurring in ice thickness in various parts of the world.)
Disclosure: I’m no climate scientist, but I am trained in the scientific method and know how to dissect scientific evidence.
From what I’ve seen – and given what some of the best climate scientists have concluded – we are in a race against time. For our country to step away when collective commitment and action are needed is foolhardy and incredibly risky. We made a serious mistake last week. The smartest thing the President can do now is to undo the damage he has caused, through whatever face-saving manipulation he must make, by recommitting – immediately and wholeheartedly – to the Paris Agreement.