Maine fall color. Photo by Tom Snell
If you’re not sure that global warming exists or that we humans are the cause of it, read my page on global warming first.
So what is this thing called climate change? With so much conflicting talk out there, it’s easy to confuse global warming, weather, and climate. What are they?
Global warming is the increase in average overall temperature of the planet. Underscore the words “average” and “overall”. It’s not the cold winter temperatures people might be experiencing in New England on a given day in January. It’s the average temperature of the whole planet.
We’re all familiar with weather: clear skies for a week, two days of rain followed by a thunder storm.
Climate is what it’s generally like in a given region. For example, we say that New England has a climate of cold winters and pleasant summers, Florida has a climate of hot summers and almost never any snow, while Seattle has a very wet climate with lots of rain.
So what is climate change? How can just a few degrees rise in global temperature, if it’s happening, change our climate? And what does that mean? We’ve always had periods of drought and hurricanes, tornadoes and floods. Why is it any different now?
Global climate is a huge, complex system. Because of its complexity, it’s sensitive to small changes. Here’s a parable that might help. Imagine Mr. Climate standing on top of a large wooden fence post. The top of the post is just broad enough that with a lot of care Mr. Climate can stay balanced for a very long time. Occasionally he gets a little unsteady, wobbles a bit and waves his arms about creating a tornado or a hurricane, but he manages to stay on top of his post. Then one day Mr. Global Warming comes along and taps Mr. Climate ever so lightly on the shoulder. It’s not much of a tap, but it’s just enough to make Mr. Climate very unsteady. He flails his arms about (more big storms), loses his balance (even bigger changes in local climates), but manages to step onto another fence post nearby. Mr. Climate has changed from his present stable state (the first fence post) to a very different state (the second fence post). Voila, climate change!
All of human culture has been built around that first stable state. The jump to the second very different post, combined with our huge population with its negative impact on Mother Nature, will be catastrophic if we don’t get smart and act very soon.
What we’ve seen so far – reports of more powerful storms, intense heat waves and drought, melting glaciers and burning forests – are only the weakest beginnings of what is almost certain to come. Failure to take immediate action to adequately address the human-induced causes of climate change will be a fatal mistake. The resulting disruptions will most likely include intense struggles for water and natural resources, mass human migrations, global famine, wars, and cultural and ecological collapse. Even the super wealthy will not be able to buy their way to a safe haven.
So far, however, the world’s response to these issues has been miniscule. It’s as though we’re behaving like two little kids. The first is using nothing but a cap gun to hold off a well-equipped army (climate change) that is just over the horizon and marching rapidly toward him. The second has a blindfold on and says “What army? I can’t see it so it can’t possibly exist!” Meanwhile our advanced scouts, the climate scientists, have very fuzzy binoculars for viewing any details about the dangers that lie ahead and nothing about our reactions to those dangers.
Yes, we have a few small but important militias nibbling away at the edges – citizens armed with solar panels, improved auto efficiency and air quality standards, or a few states encouraging a wind farm here and there. These are important, but these don’t give us the huge, well-equipped army of thousands of square miles of solar arrays and wind farms that our nation needs to completely replace our carbon fuels and thereby fend off this coming catastrophe. Once we as a nation get serious we will have much more leverage to persuade the rest of the world to follow our example.
Simply repairing the damage from each storm or drought when they appears is like an army that keeps building hospitals for the wounded without ever confronting the enemy that’s creating those wounded.
So, for our children and grandchildren to inherit the peaceful, caring and healthy world we wish for them, I suggest that we as a nation shift our focus, not on each individual storm or war or famine, tragic as they might be, but to the big picture, the driving forces that will be behind nearly all future storms and wars.
These problems are not intractable, and they present us with magnificent opportunities for truly visionary leadership. My focus in this blog is on what we, individually and as a nation, might do, must do about global warming, the root cause of climate change.
Global warming is not something we can chip away at in some easy, symbolic way – a wind farm here, a carbon tax there, or a bit more energy efficiency, although these help. To seriously address the problem, we need to make both an immediate and massive shift away from carbon fuels as well as to greatly improve the efficiency of our energy use at every level.
At the same time, we need to be aware of at least four difficulties unique to climate change.
- We have no recorded history, no previous human experience to inform and guide us about the coming effects of climate change and what actions are best to take. We can’t say, “Remember what happened fifty years ago? It will happen again if we don’t act now!”
- Despite the news reports, climate change is just an intellectual abstraction for many of us. Scientists tell us of a five degree rise in global temperature and we think, “Only five? Why is everyone so alarmed?” When I step into my garden everything is beautiful: the flowers are blooming, the trees are green and healthy, and the birds are flocking to the feeder. My intuitive self senses no warnings; nothing to push me to action.
- By the very nature of global warming, we must act long before its full effect is upon us. It’s easy to react to a crisis, but hard to be proactive. We know how to plan for tomorrow, for the next quarter, or even five years ahead. However, not only are we not used to planning 40 years ahead, we’re not used to having to act that far ahead. But if we drag our feet, or wait until the true crisis is upon us, it will be much too late.
- With climate change, if we manage to take effective action, the tangible effects may not be obvious. The best result would be if there were no change at all. If we’re successful, we may have nothing we can point to for all our expense and effort and could be accused of an immense waste of resources.
These difficulties are not insurmountable. Like any effective General, we must know our enemy and the landscape of the coming battle in intimate detail. Understanding and addressing these difficulties can help make us be more effective.
Please see my solutions page for further discussion.
I welcome helpful, thoughtful comments.