Sunday, June 25, 2006

Climate Crisis: Seeing Is Believing

"Our children, grandchildren, and many more generations will bear the consequences of choices that we make in the next few years."
-- Dr. James E. Hansen, Goddard Space Institute
Jim Hansen, Columbia University professor and Director of NASA's Goddard Space Institute, has written a compellingly personal article in the current on-line version of the New York Review of Books.

He begins his review of two new books and the film, An Inconvenient Truth, by using easy-to-understand examples from what ordinary people see every day to explain why, when it comes to the climate crisis, "Our children, grandchildren, and many more generations will bear the consequences of choices that we make in the next few years."

Below is just a small taste. The full article is worth the read if you happen to be living on planet Earth.
Animals and plants are adapted to specific climate zones, and they can survive only when they are in those zones. Indeed, scientists often define climate zones by the vegetation and animal life that they support. Gardeners and bird watchers are well aware of this, and their handbooks contain maps of the zones in which a tree or flower can survive and the range of each bird species.

Those maps will have to be redrawn.

* * *
Recently after appearing on television to discuss climate change, I received an e-mail from a man in northeast Arkansas: "I enjoyed your report on Sixty Minutes and commend your strength. I would like to tell you of an observation I have made. It is the armadillo. I had not seen one of these animals my entire life, until the last ten years. I drive the same forty-mile trip on the same road every day and have slowly watched these critters advance further north every year and they are not stopping. Every year they move several miles."

* * *
Studies of more than one thousand species of plants, animals, and insects, including butterfly ranges charted by members of the public, found an average migration rate toward the North and South Poles of about four miles per decade in the second half of the twentieth century. That is not fast enough. During the past thirty years the lines marking the regions in which a given average temperature prevails ("isotherms") have been moving poleward at a rate of about thirty-five miles per decade. That is the size of a county in Iowa. Each decade the range of a given species is moving one row of counties northward.

* * * But now the movement is inexorably toward the poles and totals more than a hundred miles over the past several decades. If emissions of greenhouse gases continue to increase at the current rate—"business as usual"—then the rate of isotherm movement will double in this century to at least seventy miles per decade. If we continue on this path, a large fraction of the species on Earth, as many as 50 percent or more, may become extinct.
There's much more to Dr. Hansen's article than a persuasive description of the crisis we face and the dire consequences if we keep ignoring it. As Digby points out, Hansen is one of the scientists the Bush administration has been trying to muzzle. In the case of NASA, the administration appointed a callow, right-wing whacko college dropout to censor public papers and statements, including those of Dr. Hansen.

That whacko is gone now, but not the administration's blatant bowdlerizing of science. So it should be no surprise that in introducing Dr. Hansen's article the New York Review felt compelled to carry the article over the byline of "Jim Hansen" rather than the more formal, and correct, "Dr. James E. Hansen." And, it adds an author's note which to our recollection is unprecedented for this most worthy of forums for the discussion of serious ideas:
"His opinions are expressed here, he writes, 'as personal views under the protection of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.'"
One of those "personal views" in the latter half of Hansen's article happens to be about the scandalous failure of American journalists to cover the climate crisis with intellectual honesty. Again, the lesson is 'seeing is believing.'

About climate change, he writes --
The public is understandably confused or uninterested.

I used to spread the blame uniformly until, when I was about to appear on public television, the producer informed me that the program "must" also include a "contrarian" who would take issue with claims of global warming. Presenting such a view, he told me, was a common practice in commercial television as well as radio and newspapers.

Supporters of public TV or advertisers, with their own special interests, require "balance" as a price for their continued financial support. * * * As a result, even when the scientific evidence is clear, technical nit-picking by contrarians leaves the public with the false impression that there is still great scientific uncertainty about the reality and causes of climate change.
In Hansen's view the integrity (or lack of it) in press coverage, like elections, does have consequences. Speaking of his own despair over whether we have the capacity to elect "politicians with the courage to explain to the public what is needed," he recites his own long, and at times wary, relationship with Al Gore going back nearly two decades.

The short of it, Hansen confesses, is that he was a doubter and Gore turned out to "prescient" about the climate crisis. "For decades he has maintained that the Earth was teetering in the balance, even when doing so subjected him to ridicule from other politicians and cost him votes."

With hindsight, Hansen now realizes, "the man that I met in the 1980s at scientific roundtable discussions [is] passionate and knowledgeable, true to the message he has delivered for years."

He shares this insight as much to indict the media for its part in perpetuating untruths as to give Gore a clap on the back. In the professer's words --
It makes one wonder whether the American public has not been deceived by the distorted images of him that have been presented by the press and television. Perhaps the country came close to having the leadership it needed to deal with a grave threat to the planet, but did not realize it.
That's a discouraging thought. But, as with the climate crisis itself, we may yet forge for ourselves a second chance -- and this time get it right.

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