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Putting Global Climate Change in Perspective
By Jessica Price


July 03, 2006

When discussing global climate change, it is important to put the issue in perspective. During the Pleistocene (1.8 million to 12,000 years ago), global clime exhibited Milankovitch cycles, large scale periodic fluctuations in global temperature and precipitation known as glacial (cold and dry periods also called ice ages) and interglacial (warm and wet) periods. Scientists working with the National Academy of Sciences have charted the temperature and CO2 concentrations in glacial ice in Antarctica from 350,000 years ago to the present, confirming these 100,000 year glacial and interglacial cycles as well as the close correlation between temperature and atmospheric CO2 level. Therefore, at the geologic time scale, hundreds of thousands of years, global temperature fluctuations are a normal part of Earth's cycles, and yes, Mr. Branco, the planet has survived just fine.

Here it may be important to point out that the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) is a society that was founded by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863 to serve the US government by investigating and reporting on important scientific issues. The NAS is comprised of the most brilliant scientific minds of the nation and the globe, elected for membership based on their outstanding achievements in original scientific research. Election to the academy is considered one of the highest honors that can be afforded to a scientist or engineer.

But more appropriate to the global climate change debate is the time scale of humans, more specifically, of human civilization, which anthropologists and scientists place at about 10,000 years ago with the advent of agriculture and the formation of the first large cities. During the past 10,000 years, the warm, relatively stable temperatures of an interglacial period have allowed us to thrive. However, with the onset of the Industrial Revolution and the anthropogenic (human caused) release of mass amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere, both global CO2 levels and temperatures have begun a steady rise, pushing current atmospheric CO2 levels higher than any time during the last 650,000 years. In 2001, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), appointed by the United Nations Environmental Program and the World Meteorological Association, concluded that, "There is new and stronger evidence that most of the warming observed over the last 50 years is attributable to human activities." As for Mr. Siebert's concerns about solar forcings being a significant underlying cause of global warming, according to the IPCC, the warming effect due to increased atmospheric greenhouse gases is eight times greater than the warming effect of solar irradiance.

Higher levels of CO2 have been accompanied by higher average global surface temperatures, with the current average global surface temperature being approximately one degree higher than it was 100 years ago. As some have previously expressed, a one degree increase in global surface temperature sounds relatively benign. However, one must keep in mind that this rise is an average, meaning that temperature changes all over the globe are averaged together, eliminating extremes. It is good to keep in mind that the difference in the average global temperature between present day and the last ice age is only about nine degrees Fahrenheit. In this perspective, a one degree change in the global average temperature is a much bigger deal.

As many have already pointed out, the scientific community no longer questions whether global climate change is happening or if humans are responsible. It is, and we are. Even the Bush administration, intensely skeptical at first, now acknowledges that global climate change is happening. In weighing testimony of scientists who acknowledge global warming and those that supposedly don't, make sure to question who they are working for and where their funding is coming from, as big oil companies who stand to lose profits if you become more environmentally conscious sink millions of dollars to fund those willing to spread doubt and propaganda. The major questions left as to the science of global climate change are those concerning exactly what will happen. The answer is-we don't know for sure.

Some places will experience warming to a much greater degree than others and the poles stand to warm the most. Some places will receive more rain while others will experience extreme drought, threatening the viability of crops, the availability of water, and facilitating the spread of diseases like malaria. Evidence suggests that warmer ocean surface temperatures will lead to stronger hurricanes, especially in the Atlantic. But can scientists pinpoint the exact nature any of these potential effects of global climate change? No.

As a suggestion of to how to respond to this uncertainty, I would like to offer an analogy first proposed to me by a Professor of Biology at Lake Forest College, Dr. Caleb Gordon:

"Compare the current situation of humanity (in regard to global climate change) to that of a driver on the highway at night. Imagine you're driving along, and suddenly you enter a dense fog. You slow down not because you are certain that there's going to be a 6-care pile-up 2.7 kilometers ahead, involving a gray Toyota Corolla slammed into a pink stretch Hummer that's spun out of control after swerving to avoid the vintage 1970's VW van rolled over and hit the median. You slow down because there might be an accident, or a deer, or some other looming danger shrouded in the distance. This idea is referred to as 'the precautionary principle', which, by itself, doesn't always sound that compelling, especially when our friends at Exxon argue so convincingly and relentlessly to our leaders that continued fossil fuel burning is in the public's best interest. The precautionary principle does not always sound that compelling by itself, except that if you're that driver, you slow down."

And here I would like to add to the analogy that, as you are the driver and your car is the environment, your children, their children, and everyone else you love is riding in the car with you. The effects of global climate change might be minimal, or they might be horrific. It is for this reason that out of respect for their family, their community, and the rest of the population that individuals need to take responsibility for their own environmental impacts. Some might say that the power and impact of one is minimal, but tell that to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Mother Theresa, and Gandhi, to just name a few. Entire social and political movements, like the fight to end slavery and the battle for women's suffrage, that have bettered our society and our globe have been based on personal responsibility and action. To undermine this reality is naïve and denies the capacity of individuals and societies to change and collectively elicit more responsible and positive outcomes to the challenges they face.

Jessica Price
Ketchikan, AK - USA

About: Jessica Price is a biologist with the Tongass Conservation Society and a current resident of Ketchikan, Alaska.


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