Per Capita Davis: Evidence pushes us toward urgency
The Dec. 5 “Per Capita” reported on recent studies by the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the U.S. National Climate Assessment and was basically bad news, with calls for urgent action to avoid catastrophic effects of the Climate Crisis. The Dec. 19 column, guest-written by Paul Brady, professor emeritus in the UC Davis physics department, argued that while we do have a climate “problem,” it is not a “crisis” and there’s plenty of time to respond before the adverse effects become significant.
I appreciate Professor Brady offering his view, but while I’m drawn to his analysis because it offers a more hopeful perspective on the future of the planet, I can’t embrace it. Here’s why.
Professor Brady argues that the models upon which dire predictions are based are flawed, inaccurate. I am not enough of a scientist to speak or write knowledgeably about how climate models are constructed and how that construction influences the predicted results. But I can say that I trust climate scientists the world round are not intellectually dishonest.
On the contrary, they, and the peer review process that judges their work, are rigorous and very darn nearly unanimous in acceptance of the models used by the authors of the IPCC and NCA reports. To accept Professor Brady’s assertion is to support the conspiratorial thesis that the climate crisis is a hoax and that somehow the huge majority of climate scientists are colluding in the most massive deception ever perpetrated on the human population.
And why would the scientists seek to deceive? Professor Brady would have us believe it’s because saying global heating is a crisis is the way to obtain research dollars. I know many climate scientists and I am insulted on their behalf. These are people motivated by a search for the facts, mostly working on behalf of taxpayers and without a political ax to grind, and they are warning us that we ignore the science at our peril. If anything, it would seem that special-interest money from the fossil fuel industry would be a more appropriate place to locate skepticism over motivation.
Professor Brady also argues that “Scientific debate on campus, along with free speech, has been muffled by the left, and climate science politicized.” My best recollection is that the climate crisis, as well as climate science, was once upon a time, like 30 years ago, more of a consensus issue in the public arena, with both Republicans and Democrats in agreement.
Then the attacks began, following the model of the tobacco industry and others to create uncertainty in the public mind over both the integrity and motivation of scientists and their science. This is not to say that the “left” isn’t loudly bashing those who deny that global heating is an urgent problem. But it’s not just the “left.” Criticism of those who disagree with the overwhelming consensus crosses political boundaries, as it should. The climate crisis affects everyone.
That one political party in our country has become captive to those industries that profit from the crisis is a tragedy. More, as we are seeing by the dismantling of U.S. efforts to respond responsibly to global heating there is reason to raise one’s voice and to be impatient with efforts to confuse and delay.
It should not escape notice that the uncertainty that has been created in the U.S. around the climate crisis is not shared by the rest of the world. Though their actions are slow and not enough, virtually all the nations of the world accept the science as well as the urgency of responding to it, and are continuing on, albeit too slowly, as evidenced by the recently concluded meeting in Poland to build on the Paris Agreement.
Professor Brady rightly points to actions being taken in the European Union, China and elsewhere that give us hope that the world can transition from fossil fuels to renewables. We agree that this transition needs to take place. We disagree on the urgency. Professor Brady argues that the red line scientists have warned us not to cross, keeping the global temperature from increasing more than 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit above pre-industrial levels, is “arbitrary.”
I can’t argue that. All I can say is that it’s the consensus of the scientists, and one of the aggravating things about the climate crisis is that no one knows exactly where the “tipping points” are. At what temperature does the permafrost begin an irreversible discharge of methane into the atmosphere?
The real bottom line is if Professor Brady is wrong and we take our foot off the accelerator now and find ourselves in 20 years living on a much less hospitable planet, the cost of correction, if even possible, will be hugely more than if we act to prevent the problems now.
On the other hand, if the scientists at the IPCC and NCA are wrong, 20 years from now the world will have less air pollution, fewer health-related issues from burning coal and oil, our energy supply will be clean and green, and, most importantly, the hard work will be ours, rather than kicking the can down the road for our children or grandchildren.
— John Mott-Smith is a resident of Davis. This column appears the first and third Wednesday of each month. Please send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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