Per Capita Davis: Words matter when describing this crisis
From page A8 | March 01, 2017
I was watching a news show the other day and a reporter asked an elected representative in Congress if he believed in climate change. The somewhat smart-alecky response was, “Sure I do, the climate changes every day. Next question.”
If this kind of smug dismissiveness makes us want to pull the hair out of our heads, which it does me, there is soon going to be a rapid increase in the number of bald men in our country.
The answer was a dodge to the question, but it did make me think a bit about the term “climate change” and what it means for us here in Yolo County.
Inadvertent climate modification
Before we get to that, there has been a long-running discussion about whether this term is sufficient to describe the problem.
While there’s plenty of talk as to how and when the term came into popular use, it’s generally accepted that prior to 1975 scientists who studied the effect humans have on climate used the term “inadvertent climate modification.” Not quite a catchy term, but science isn’t usually interested in catchy terms. The bland description reflected an uncertainty in the scientific community about whether those effects would be positive or negative.
That uncertainty disappeared in 1979. According to the NASA website, “The first decisive National Academy of Science study of carbon dioxide’s impact on climate, published in 1979, abandoned the moniker ‘inadvertent climate modification.’
The scientific term is “climate change”
“In its place they used “climate change” to indicate their finding that ‘if carbon dioxide continues to increase, we find no reason to doubt that climate changes will result and no reason to believe that these changes will be negligible.’ ”
Scientists began using the term “global warming “ to describe increased temperature at the surface of the Earth, while defining “climate change as the whole panoply of changes, such as melting glaciers, sea-level rise and more frequent extreme weather events, that result from adding more and more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.”
So there we have it, scientists came up with the words we now use, relying on definitions derived from observation and measurement.
Even so, “climate change” is fairly neutral and susceptible to flippant remarks at a press conference. A change could be positive or negative. “Global warming” sounds soft, like a fuzzy blanket.
How different would today’s discussion be if scientists had decades ago instead used stronger labels, such “climate crisis” and “global heat wave”?
But scientists aren’t like that; they describe issues and frame them in descriptive terms, and don’t think in terms of spin. This has historically been just fine, but recently there has been what I see as a concerted effort to undermine science and scientists, just as there have been efforts to undermine faith and confidence in government and the media.
But I digress. The point I’m trying to make is that the current terminology (“climate change” and “global warming”) discourages attachment of a sense of urgency to the problem.
Secondarily, and maybe this is just me, but the discussion around climate change and global warming seems to most times lack at least one important focus. Adverse impacts are appropriately identified, as noted above, as issues of a global scale, such as melting glaciers, sea-level rise and extreme weather. These will definitely affect us. Sea-level rise, economic dislocation and immigration, conflicts over resources and changes in weather patterns will take a toll.
Local impacts of the climate crisis
This is a somewhat long way around to getting to what sparked this column — thinking about the term “climate change” and what it means for us locally. How will our climate change and what will this mean for our daily lives?
Scientists are busy trying to figure out what adverse circumstances will develop locally. It’s just that this is harder to quantify. And we don’t hear about it as much in part because global news is the bigger story.
Models predicting future conditions continue to get better and better. There is still a relatively high degree of uncertainty about localized effects, but there are a few things that seem to be agreed upon.
Estimates are that the “climate” in Yolo County will “change” significantly. It may be more like the climate in Phoenix, Ariz., is today. Average annual temperatures may increase as much as 8 degrees by 2100, leading to a corresponding increase in the number of 100-plus-degree days.
Hotter days, and more of them, would result in drier conditions and increased likelihood of wildfires. Longer heat waves would have a negative effect on elderly and other vulnerable populations.
Water supply and agriculture will suffer too
Some estimates also indicate that the snowpack, if there is one, will melt earlier and quicker, raising the possibility of flooding. Less water in the reservoirs means less hydro-generated electricity to power our air conditioners.
Decreased comfort is one thing; these changes also would have a dramatic impact on agriculture. There may be less water available, but plants will want more of it, and some that thrive in the current climate won’t survive hotter days and warmer nights.
In short, change is coming. The new climate probably won’t appear all at once. More likely, it will sneak up on us.
— John Mott-Smith is a resident of Davis; his column is published on the first and third Wednesdays of the month. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org
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