Sci­ence is telling us some­thing

The Times Herald (Norristown, PA) - - OPINION -

WASH­ING­TON — Another in­sane cold wave — not the in­fa­mous “po­lar vor­tex,” but its evil twin — is bring­ing sub-zero and sin­gle-digit tem­per­a­tures to much of the na­tion. And global warm­ing may be even more ex­treme, and po­ten­tially more cat­a­strophic, than cli­mate sci­en­tists had feared.

This is, of course, no con­tra­dic­tion. The ral­ly­ing cry of the de­nial­ists — “It’s re­ally cold out­side, so global warm­ing must be a crock!” — can only be taken se­ri­ously by those with a tod­dler’s lim­ited con­cep­tion of time and space. They for­get that it’s win­ter, and ap­par­ently they don’t quite grasp that even when it’s cold in one part of the world, it can be hot in another.

In­deed, while the United States is hav­ing an un­usu­ally frigid month, Aus­tralia has been swel­ter­ing through record-break­ing heat. Play had to be in­ter­rupted at the Aus­tralian Open ten­nis tour­na­ment when tem­per­a­tures in Mel­bourne reached 109 de­grees; one player said her plas­tic wa­ter bot­tle be­gan to melt. The ex­treme heat came as of­fi­cials re­ported that 2013 was the hottest year in Aus­tralia since record-keep­ing be­gan more than a cen­tury ago.

On the global scale, 2013 was “merely” the fourth-warm­est or sev­enth-warm­est on record, de­pend­ing whether you be­lieve the Na­tional Oceanic and At­mo­spheric Ad­min­is­tra­tion or the Na­tional Aero­nau­tics and Space Ad­min­is­tra­tion. The agen­cies take slightly dif­fer­ent ap­proaches in an­a­lyz­ing and ex­trap­o­lat­ing the avail­able data, which ac­counts for the dis­crep­ancy, but they agree on the big pic­ture: It’s get­ting hot­ter.

Nine of the 10 warm­est years on record have oc­curred since 2002. De­niers who claim there has been a 15-year “pause” in global warm­ing are cherry-pick­ing the data to fit a pre-cooked con­clu­sion: As a base­line they choose 1998, a year in which global tem­per­a­tures took a huge, anoma­lous, one-time leap. If you treat 1998 as the sta­tis­ti­cal out­lier that it ob­vi­ously is, you see a steady and un­bro­ken rise.

Why is it get­ting warmer? There’s still just one ex­pla­na­tion that fits the avail­able facts: Since the In­dus­trial Rev­o­lu­tion, the largescale burn­ing of fos­sil fu­els has in­creased the con­cen­tra­tion of heat-trap­ping carbon diox­ide in the at­mos­phere by an in­cred­i­ble 40 per­cent.

And ac­cord­ing to an im­por­tant new study, pub­lished Jan. 2 in the jour­nal Na­ture, the even­tual im­pact of hu­man-gen­er­ated carbon emis­sions could be greater than an­tic­i­pated. Be­cause of the im­pact of warm­ing on cloud cover, the re­searchers cal­cu­late, av­er­age global tem­per­a­tures could rise a full 7 de­grees by the end of the cen­tury.

This “would likely be cat­a­strophic rather than sim­ply dan­ger­ous,” the study’s lead au­thor, Steven Sher­wood of the Univer­sity of New South Wales in Aus­tralia, told The Guardian news­pa­per. He said such a tem­per­a­ture in­crease “would make life dif­fi­cult, if not im­pos­si­ble, in much of the trop­ics.” It would also guar­an­tee the melt­ing of so much po­lar ice that sea lev­els would rise dra­mat­i­cally, with dire im­pli­ca­tions for coastal cities around the world.

Is there un­cer­tainty in th­ese pre­dic­tions? Of course. But hu­man-in­duced global warm­ing is the only ex­pla­na­tion that fits the ev­i­dence. Un­til some­one comes up with a bet­ter the­ory, it is fool­ish to wa­ger that the nearunan­i­mous con­sen­sus of cli­mate sci­en­tists is to­tally wrong.

But, yes, we are fools. I’m not just talk­ing about know-noth­ings on Capi­tol Hill such as Sen. James In­hofe, R-Okla., who said that the cold spell ear­lier this month “has to make ev­ery­one ques­tion — and I am go­ing to tie this to­gether — whether global warm­ing was ever real.” I’m re­fer­ring also to of­fi­cials in the United States and around the world who ac­cept the sci­ence and un­der­stand the peril but who will not take ac­tion be­cause the eco­nomic and po­lit­i­cal costs are so high.

China, the world’s big­gest emit­ter of green­house gases, is not about to shut down its eco­nomic growth and risk po­lit­i­cal in­sta­bil­ity. In­dia is not about to aban­don its quest to catch up with China. In African na­tions such as Nige­ria and Kenya, which have bur­geon­ing pop­u­la­tions and high growth rates, the smoke­stacks are be­gin­ning to puff away. The United States, Europe and Ja­pan will do what they can, at the mar­gin, with­out sur­ren­der­ing the com­forts that in­dus­tri­al­iza­tion pro­vides.

Pres­i­dent Obama, who un­der­stands the sci­ence, should use his ex­ec­u­tive pow­ers as best he can, not just to re­duce carbon emis­sions but to pre­pare the coun­try for con­fronting the en­vi­ron­men­tal, po­lit­i­cal and mil­i­tary hazards of a warmer world.

The day will come, I pre­dict, when world lead­ers are will­ing, even des­per­ate, to curb green­house gases. But by then, I’m be­gin­ning to fear, it will prob­a­bly be too late.

COM­MEN­TARY

Eugene Robin­son’s email ad­dress is eu­gen­er­obin­son­wash­post.com.

EUGENE ROBIN­SON

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