Tuesday, August 9, 2016

On Indicators: Attention Must Be Paid

If it started to get cloudy out, and I told a friend, "You might want to bring an umbrella," I might hear, "Good idea, thanks!" for saving him the discomfort of walking unprotected in the pouring rain later that night.

But if it's starting to get all climate-changey out, and I tell friends, "We don't need to drive there; let's walk," or "Maybe a coastal island isn't the best place to buy a home anymore," or "I'm not sure we should ever take a plane anywhere," it's intended to help postpone the discomfort of living with significant food, water, and land insecurity in just a few decades.

The most popular response I get (twice just this week) to any offhanded comment like that is, "Oh, I'm not into all that doom and gloom talk."

A warning to grab an umbrella isn't seen as "doom and gloom talk" largely because it's so clear that there's a cause and effect that can be avoided with a simple act. The impending rain isn't a story some people tell because they enjoy being buzzkills or they lean towards depression. We can ignore the weather report all we want, but certain indicators, like dark clouds and leaves on the trees flipping upside down in the wind, tell even the most stubborn layman that it would be wise to take some precautions before the downpour hits.

Climate is one step removed. Most people gazing at the sky can't see the indicators that point to a difficult journey ahead if we don't act preventatively. We're loath to listen to experts, and we can dismiss the weather report each day with minimal longterm effect. But this is the difference between ignoring the doctor when she says you should get a flu shot, and ignoring her when she says you need a triple bypass. Sometimes experts actually need to be heard.

There are thousands of scientists from around the world who are experts in the specific field of climate studies who have joined together under the umbrella of the IPCC to craft reports on important indicators of trouble ahead. We have no choice but to depend on them to give us the most accurate and unbiased information possible. By paying attention to indictors like the changes in the average temperature worldwide, they've made clear the evidence that we're going to be in dire straights if we don't dramatically reduce our GHG emissions immediately. Other groups looking at different indicators (like the EPA) have come to similar conclusions. And the more we learn, the worse it gets: in 2007, a one degree Celsius rise in global temperature was predicted by 2100; by 2013, a 2 degree rise has been predicted by 2017 and a 3.5 degree rise by 2035 if we don't change our energy and agriculture policies dramatically and immediately. A 3.5 degree rise could leave the planet uninhabitable. Others think we'll just cross a threshold of no return by 2036. Still...  According to NASA, last March we hit that 2 degrees rise briefly. How bad does it have to get before we brush it off as "doom and gloom" talk?

Refusing to listen because we don't like the news is akin to a child refusing the umbrella thrust at him in hopes of wrangling free of any concern for consequences in general. Eventually we grow up enough to take the bloody umbrella! Eventually we recognized that it sucks sitting in damp clothes all day more than it sucks accepting advice from experts, accepting that others might know more than we do, and accepting that we have to actually do something ourselves to ensure a better future.

The stakes are bigger now. We're staring at the triple-bypass warning. This isn't a scenario crafted to scare people; it's a highly educated prediction of what's to come. It would be wise to take some precautions. A stormy day and a stormy future can both be gloomy, but all the rationalizations and denial in the world won't help us stay dry.

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