Climate change: Clear and present danger

 Earle Holland

Lonnie thompson in the Himalayas 2006

Glaciologist Lonnie Thompson says his latest paper on global climate change was anything but groundbreaking.

“There was nothing in that paper
that I have not already said a thousand times in talks and lectures across the country and around the world,” Thompson said. “It wasn’t about the analysis of a new ice core or some new findings about ancient climate.

“I just wanted to put all the facts and arguments down in one place so that anyone would be able to go and look at the evidence and understand. I think it amounts to a good assessment of where we are in understanding the changing climate.”

Thompson is one of the most respected international scholars in the field. He has published hundreds of papers, including those in the most prestigious science journals: Science, Nature, and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The latest paper, though, appeared in the journal Behavior Analyst—and the uproar that followed its publication last Novem-ber contrasts substantially with Thompson’s matter-of-fact opinion.

What set the piece apart was not only where it appeared—a journal of behavioral studies—but its message. “Virtually all [climatologists] are now convinced that global warming poses a clear and present danger to civilization,” Thompson wrote.

He continued: “There is now a very clear pattern in the scientific evidence documenting that the earth is warming, that warming is due largely to human activity, that warming is causing important changes in climate, and that rapid and potentially catastrophic changes in the near future are very possible.”

Adopt and adapt
“As human beings, we need to carefully consider our options,” Thompson said. “We can mitigate, that is, do something about [the changing climate]. Or, if you believe mitigation is impossible, you adopt strategies to adapt to 
a changing world. But you can 
only adapt so much, and what you can’t adapt to will inevitably lead to suffering.

“To me this is just pure logic.Laying it out in this paper really doesn’t advocate anything,” he 
said.

Many others saw it differently. Scientific papers, as a rule, pre-sent findings based on evidence or experiments, new information upon which new science can 
grow. Rarely do authors raise 
questions or discuss alternatives for action.

Dozens of news stories reported that Thompson’s paper included opinion as well as evidence, therefore suggesting a shift in his stance on the politically volatile issue.

Climate change skeptics in the blogosphere went even further, declaring that by arguing for specific actions, Thompson had slipped over into the world of advocacy. It’s a position often seen as highly risky for researchers who zealously safeguard their independence based on their expertise.

“I’m no advocate,” Thompson said. “If I were out organizing protests against the next coal-burning power plant, then that, to me, would be advocacy—going out and working to change or stop us from going in some direction.

“As a scientist, it isn’t my job to determine the policies that we adopt to deal with the potential impacts that climate science tells us we are likely to experience. But it certainly is my job to assess and bring forward as best I can what we know about the climate system.

“There is a lot about climate that we don’t know. But we know enough—and there is certainly sufficient evidence now—to conclude that we may be in trouble, and that trouble may come much sooner than later,” he said.

“If we don’t carefully consider what our options may be, and we haven’t really embraced dealing with some of these issues, then maybe we deserve what we get.”

‘A serious warning cry’
Over the last three decades, Thompson, working with his wife and research partner, Ellen Mosley-Thompson, has led 57 expeditions to some of the most remote locations in the world—
ice fields and glaciers atop mountain ranges across five continents. He and his team drill through the ice to retrieve cores that contain the history of climate in the regions for hundreds and thousands of years.

The literal miles of ice core segments stored at the Byrd Polar Research Center on west campus comprise the world’s best “library” of ancient climate.

Thompson, a University Dis-tinguished Professor of Earth Sciences, has spent more time 
at altitudes above 18,000 feet than any other human being, an accomplishment made even more extraordinary by his long battle with asthma. His efforts have resulted in numerous discoveries (see sidebar, page 8) and worldwide recognition.

In 2007, he received the National Medal of Science, the highest honor the United States bestows on an American scientist.

At the time, former vice president Al Gore said of Thompson: “His tenacity through the years in countering disbelievers, coupled with the quality of his team’s research from the very beginning, has shown us dramatically the effects we can expect in the near future.

“His work is the most serious warning cry yet that it is time to change our ways,” Gore said.

Gore’s praise aside, Thompson and his colleagues have avoided taking a public stand on the policy arguments surrounding climate change. The publication of the 
latest paper didn’t change that, they say.

“It isn’t the facts that are at issue here. It’s how we as humans assimilate those facts and then how we react to them,” Thompson said. “To me, that’s a lot more complicated than the science. Certainly, climate science is complicated, but human behavior is almost a chaotic system.”

Short-term thinking
Before he attempted to write for Behavior Analyst, Thompson reviewed the literature of the field in order to better understand what researchers who study human behavior know.

“A half century ago, there was a general belief that if you studied anything in enough detail, you could come up with a logical relationship between input information and a response—what caused people to act the way they did,” he said. After decades of work, scholars agreed that it couldn’t be done with humans, that there were too many variables.

“I found that enlightening, if not discouraging,” Thompson said.

“I think one of the consequences of our modern, complex, global society is that we no longer take a longer view of things. We think very short term. If you are a student or a company, it is often along the lines of ‘What can I do today that will make a difference at the end of this quarter,’ not ‘Am I getting a good education’ or ‘Will 
I be in business 10 years from 
now.’ The things that we do today don’t promote long-term thinking.”

Therein lies the dilemma, Thompson said.

“The problem with the climate
change issue is that there is a 20-
to 30-year lag between what we are experiencing now and the climate change we have already built into the system. If we were to suddenly have a new energy source and stop producing carbon dioxide, the climate is going to continue to change for decades,” he said. “We are still going to have to be prepared for those changes.”

Thompson worries about people in underdeveloped parts of the world, “people living right on the edge of sustainability today. They don’t have any cushion, no bank accounts. They’re living hand-to-mouth. These people are in real trouble, and the problem isn’t 
going away.”

Everybody talks about the weather
Few policy issues have polarized the public the way global climate change has. While 59 percent of Americans acknowledge that the planet is warming, according to a 2010 survey by the Pew Research Center, they differ over whether humans have played a major role in rising global temperatures. About half of the population agrees that carbon dioxide, a byproduct of humankind’s reliance on fossil fuels, is enhancing the planet’s greenhouse effect, locking in solar radiation that might otherwise be emitted back into space.

And the recorded loss in ice covering the north polar regions in recent years has reduced the reflectivity of that part of the globe. Ocean water is darker than ice and snow cover, allowing the oceans to absorb more heat. Thus, more solar radiation is absorbed by the Earth system.

Reports in early January confirmed that on a global basis, 2010 was the wettest year in more than a century and that it tied with 2005 as the warmest since 1880. The New York Times reported that “nine of the 10 warmest years on record have occurred since the beginning of 2001,” based on research by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“But the problem is that many people’s minds are already made up. And with them, nobody is going to win that argument because their contentions aren’t based on the facts,” Thompson said.

“I think, unfortunately, that the public is just very fickle about nearly everything, but especially about the climate. All you need is one very cold winter for people to believe Earth is not warming. Last winter was unusually cold for North America and across northern Europe and Siberia, but the rest of the world was unusually warm.

“But people don’t see that. They see how much ice they have to scrape off their car windows in 
the morning. But that’s weather—not climate. Climate is the 30-year average of the weather, and people simply don’t think about that.

“The problem is that climate isn’t a belief system at all,” Thompson said. “The climate is based on physics and chemistry, and we can follow that. Sure, there is a lot of ‘noise’ in the climate system, but the trends are very persistent. But the trends don’t seem to change people’s opinions.”

Confounding the issue is confusion over the effects that climate models predict. The public sees a colder-than-normal December and discounts the idea of warming. But in reality, the climate models predict an increase in the severity of the norms—storms will be harsher, winters colder, and summers warmer.

“Thirty years ago, Ohioans only had thunderstorms in the summer. Now we have them in nearly every month of the year,” Thompson said. “These are subtle changes. But if you’re a young person—like the students in my classes—you don’t have that long-term view and don’t see the changes.”

Fact vs. opinion
In the latter half of the last century, scientists generally avoided the public eye, content to do their research and report their findings to peers and the small slice of the population whose interest in science rivals baseball fans’ lust for RBI statistics. Now, researchers are being called on to be more visible to the public and more active in policy involving science.

It’s a two-edged sword. Certainly, the knowledge that scientists can bring to a large, global question can enlighten the populace. But scientists’ aloofness, their desire 
to avoid playing a role in such
disputes, is precisely what won them respect from the public in 
the past.

And few scientists are eager to jeopardize their air of authority and be labeled as advocates.

“I really don’t worry about my reputation,” Thompson said. “People can say whatever they want. I think I have paid my dues.

“I think you have to earn the right to speak out, but we live in a world where most people have not. Some of the most outspoken people on the climate change issue lack basic grounding in the mechanisms and background of climate change. They simply don’t know; they haven’t even done the most basic research.”

The people who shout the loudest have the greatest impact, whether or not they are qualified, Thompson said. “I think that is extremely dangerous.
“We do value intelligent people who have paid their dues and who are qualified to speak on the climate change issue,” he said. 
“But on the other hand, we don’t want to deny anyone the right to speak their opinion, whatever it may be.

“However, it is important for 
the public to distinguish between scientifically based information and opinion. There is a great need
for qualified people to speak regarding issues on which they 
are professionally qualified to 
comment.”

The truth about consequences
In the end, Thompson and his colleagues are more acquiescent than agitated over the public turmoil concerning climate change. They continue their work on ice cores (the latest ones are from a rapidly disappearing field in Indonesia), reconstructing histories of past climate in hopes of gaining insight to our future.

”Whether we like it or not, the human race is conducting an experiment. We are changing the composition of our atmosphere, and there will be consequences for that,” Thompson said. “We’re deciding to just let the climate system do its thing. And it will. I have no doubt that the climate system will take care of the problem.

“But I don’t think we’re going to like the way it does it.”

 

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