Polar Warming and Politics

Late last week, Republican political guru Karl Rove told a gathering of people involved in the business of extracting natural gas from underground shale formations that "climate is gone." By that he seemed to mean that global warming will not be an issue of much concern to the new Republican-controlled House of Representatives. Indeed, Rove assured the trade group that the new House "sure as heck" won't pass legislation to limit greenhouse gas emissions.

Of course, the last thing any climate scientist of repute would assert is that "climate is gone." Indeed, global warming is coming on strong, as researchers who work at the poles can tell you. Among the scientists who have studied the rapid loss of Arctic sea ice, the melting of Greenland's ice sheets, the precipitous warming of the Antarctic Peninsula, and the near-universal wasting-away of the world's mountain glaciers, you will find few, if any, global warming skeptics. Because the simple truth is this: the world's cryosphere, or ice zone, is melting. Polar scientists such as Bill Fraser are getting an advance look at what we'll all soon be experiencing -- the transformation of the environments, the backyards, that we have come to accept as immutable.

There are many reasons why a sizeable portion of people in the U.S. don't believe that the current warming of the planet is real or is being caused by human activity. Some people are indifferent or ignorant. But for others, skepticism is purely political. Some conservatives, opposed to government regulation, believe that the left will use global warming to impose more regulations on business, and so have been funding foundations and campaigns to cast doubt on global warming. science. This assault, well described by UC San Diego Prof. Naomi Oreskes in Merchants of Doubt, was also used in campaigns to discredit evidence that smoking caused cancer. These are cynical attempts to distort science, and those who peddle doubt about global warming now will, in a matter of a few decades -- when continued warming will have caused far greater disruption than today -- be widely held in contempt.

Then there are the skeptics who are convinced that global warming must be a hoax because it is being pushed by academics, environmentalists, left-leaning politicians, and other assorted undesirables

Other, well-meaning skeptics simply don't believe that human activity can alter the planet's climate, that what we are seeing now is a natural swing like those that have occurred over millions of years. I wish that were true, but the incontrovertible evidence -- supported by all of the world's academies of science -- is that rapidly rising atmospheric concentrations of CO2 are warming the planet. That CO2 and other greenhouse gases trap heat in the earth's atmosphere is a law of physics. And, yes, changes in the tilt of the earth's axis do account for our roughly 100,000 swings in cycles of glaciation, deglaciation, and inter-glacial periods. The problem, as deftly explained in Penn State geoscientist Richard Alley's book, The Two-Mile Time Machine, is that we should actually slowly be sliding into a cooler period, which we most assuredly are not, as evidenced by what's happening in the world's ice zones. As Alley points out, any natural cooling trend in the coming centuries or millennia will be swamped by warming from the greenhouse effect.

To those who don't believe man can effect a global process like climate, I raise two issues. First, have you seen the satellite photos of the world at night, and the way that we have lit up much of the planet? And second, what we're doing now is actually quite simple. In the space of a cenury or so, and especially in the past few decades, our rapidly industrializing world is digging up, drilling, and extracting huge stores of carbon that were laid down over many millions of years. Think dinosaurs, and the steamy earth, and all that vegetation that was buried underground and has now become the fossil fuels that run the world today. We're taking all that carbon -- tens, even hundreds, of millions of years of it -- and burning it in the blink of an eye. And that's warming our planet, which will soon have a population of 6.5 billion and is projected to hold 9 billion people by 2050.

Not a good time for the issue to be so politicized in the U.S., and so gridlocked.

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