A Melting Iceberg in Antarctica.
Recently, there has been a great amount of fuss and debate over global warming and climate change. I often wonder how scientists can better communicate their knowledge about Earth’s climate to the general public and, more importantly, to politicians.
I do not always agree with climate change alarmists. However, I know enough to know that I (and you, too!) should be thinking about climate change and about how to lessen my impact on the planet. Does this mean I worry when I throw away a plastic food wrapper or a styrofoam cup? No. I do try to recycle an reuse when possible, but I try not to worry excessively about little American wastes. Does this mean that I support nuclear power and will buy a fuel efficient car a year or two from now? Yes. These are bigger issues I’m willing to take a stand on.
Back to climate change, though… one of the biggest problems with the way people think about climate change is that they try to relate climate change to their daily lives. To a certain extent, one can look at the weather outside one’s window and try to understand this weather in the context of the Earth’s larger climate. To a large extent, however, one cannot do this. One really has to think about overall Earth cycles and about the larger scheme of climate and how climate changes. These cycles range from regional to planet scale on timescales ranging from hours to thousands of years. Humans are programmed to think on middle scales and on small (relative to Earth history) timescales. Humans have little trouble thinking about, say, the weather in Boston on a given Thursday afternoon. However, thinking on the scale of a hundred years is a stretch for the human mind, in many ways. Personally, I have trouble worrying about what is going to happen to Earth in a hundred years. I certainly don’t care what the weather on Februrary 22nd 2107 is going to be. Likely, I’ll be dead, and even if by some miracle I’m still alive, I can just check the weather report that morning. A thousand years into the future is even farther beyond my grasp, even with my mind trained to think on geological timescales.
This winter has been a strange, mostly warm winter. Snowstorms in places such as Colorado and Southern California aside, this winter is one of the warmest on record. This past January was the warmest January on record since detailed climate records were first kept the 1880s.
Understanding and appreciating climate change is far from easy. Although this January was fairly warm, this February has been much colder. It’s been bitterly cold and snowy here in Boston, at times. Global warming alarmists point to warm temperatures in places such as New England while those who criticize global warming point to places such as Colorado where the weather has been unusually cold and snowy.
One has to be careful, though, relating a warm winter to climate change. Yes, overall average Earth temperatures seem to be on the rise. However, temperatures may not necessarily rise steadily from year-to-year and some places may actually end up becoming colder as a result of climate change. Just because it isn’t getting warmer everywhere, though, doesn’t mean that global warming and climate change aren’t happening.
One way that I think about climate change is in terms of extremes. Humans are stressing the planet. We’re stressing the atmosphere, the oceans, and various ecosystems. Scientists are still learning much about climate change and natural climate fluctuations, but personally I believe that the anthropogenic affect on climate is simply creating more extremes. We’re speeding up natural processes and making natural processes more severe. For instance, we’re making hurricanes stronger and more frequent. We’re making the weather extremely warm in some places and extremely cold in others. And so on… none of what’s happening on Earth is abnormal, per say. The Earth has been much warmer and much cooler in its past history.
There is danger in these extremes. Humans and ecosystems in general are able to adapt fairly easily to slow, steady changes. Fast changes and extreme fluctuations are more difficult to manage and overcome.