Sunday, February 12, 2006

Solving the Climate Change Problem

Governmental organizations are attempting to stifle top scientists, says James Hansen, the longtime director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies. Hansen, who has spent over 30 years studying climate trends and models, claims that NASA blocked his attempts to speak out about global warming.

If scientists are being censored, what aren't we being told about global warming? How can we establish sound policies on environmental issues if information is being witheld?

These are questions that a handful of leading American scientific and political scholars – including Hansen himself – addressed at a panel discussion last Friday, part of the two-day conference “Politics and Science: How Their Interplay Creates Public Policy” held at The New School for Social Research in Greenwich Village.

“Unless the public is given information that accurately reflects what is going on in science, then policy making is likely to suffer,” Hansen said.

According to Hansen, average global temperatures have increased about 1° F since 1950, and he predicts a further increase of at least that much in the coming years due to a built-in lag between when atmospheric changes occur and global temperatures subsequently rise.

Anthropogenic warming is primarily caused by greenhouse gas emissions – especially carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide is released into the air when fossil fuels like coal, oil and gas are burned. According to the US Department of Energy, the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere during the last 30 years is as much as was released in the 200 years preceding it.

Carbon dioxide acts like a blanket, absorbing heat from the sun and preventing it from escaping back into space. Other gases, including methane and aerosols, also contribute to global warming, but in more complicated ways.

The warming caused by carbon dioxide could have a number of deleterious effects, with sea level rising as one of the most catastrophic. According to a 2004 Scientific American article authored by Hansen, global warming-induced flooding could cost trillions of dollars and endanger a number of species, including polar bears, seals and walruses.

“If we don’t begin actions to get us on a different path, within the next couple years we will pass a point of no return,” Hansen warned.

So, what can be done? Far from being a hopeless skeptic, Hansen is confident that, if we address the problem now, we can prevent these disasters. First, we need to halt the growth of air pollutants like soot, atmospheric ozone and methane, which he argues can be done using a “reward approach” for emission reductions. Methane capture, which removes methane from the atmosphere, is another option that would actually have economic benefits since methane’s value as a fuel would more than cover capture costs.

Secondly, Hansen says, we need to keep carbon dioxide emissions at about the same level they are today – something that can be achieved with improved energy efficiency, nuclear power, alternative energies, and carbon capturing.

To realize these goals, aggressive environmental policies will be essential. Michael Oppenheimer, director of the Program in Science, Technology and Environmental Policy at Princeton University, believes that strong scientifically-focused non-governmental organizations will play a critical role in transforming climate change issues into global regulatory regimes. By both pressuring the government and getting the message out to the public, these organizations “can serve as a bulwark against undemocratic and unrepresentative government,” he told the panel audience.

It’s not just up to specialist organizations to get the message out, though – scientists, teachers and even concerned citizens can help. “As a pedant, the first thing I think of is education,” said Paul Ehrlich, president of the Center for Conservation Biology and Professor at Stanford University. “We need discourse,” he said, and we have to “find much better ways to insert decent science and decent social science into the discussion.”

Indeed, in a democracy, it is up to us to change things. “The ultimate policy maker is the public,” Hansen said.

Can education, specialist organizations and progressive technologies really solve the climate change problem? “Yes” was the resounding answer from Friday’s refreshingly optimistic discussion – if we set our minds to it. The public has the power and the responsibility to demand sound environmental policies to protect our planet and future generations. “This is not a pipe dream,” Oppenheimer said.

Obviously, though, in order for this to happen, scientists must be given the freedom to speak out to the public, so we need to demand this from our government too. Stifling the truth, said Hansen, is “not the way science works, and it’s not the way a democracy should work.”


Blogger Tripod said...

Ignorant heretic stopping by to cast unbeleiving dispersions. Correlation does not prove causation. We (humans) have been keeping accurate scientific weather records for only a century or so. If the global temperature rises one degree in fifty years, how do we not know that this is not the historical norm over millenia?
Excessive CO2 is not good. Given. But wassup with dissing my Escalade? I'll make it all good by buying a Double Quarter Pounder at Micky D's. Damn bovine emisions are to blame. Time to mooooooove along...

12:50 AM  

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