Wednesday, June 29, 2005

On climate change, they know the truth in Tuktoyaktuk

Much of the evidence may be anecdotal, but those who live close to the land and sea know that things are changing. Up in Tuktoyaktuk, in Canada's Northwest Territories (see maps here), well above the Arctic Circle, the signs of climate change are all too obvious -- and all too worrying:
It's not just the rising water and more frequent storms. The ice breaks weeks earlier, and much faster, than it used to in spring, and forms more slowly each fall. The weather is less predictable. These are hazards for the many residents who still go out on the land to hunt seal, polar bears, muskox and caribou. The wind blows from the south more often. Long-time residents see grizzly bears, ravens, white-throated sparrows, chickadees and other creatures that never used to venture this far north. Shrubs are poking up beyond the tree line. Permafrost is starting to melt.

Tuktoyaktuk means, in the western Arctic language, "resembling a caribou." The animals are a major food source. The longer growing season produces more vegetation for them to eat. But the early thaw slows their trip to summer calving grounds on the Arctic coast, and calves born during migration are less likely to survive. Local researchers say one of the two local herds, the Porcupine, has dropped by 3 per cent a year for the past decade.

(For more, see the full Toronto Star piece here.)

So much of the discussion of climate change (a better term than global warming) takes place in the abstract, in the world of theory, with computer modelling taking inconclusive (or at least circumstantial) data and projecting perceived trends into a distant future that is difficult to grasp. And it doesn't help that the world's superpower refuses to do much about it, at least officially. The Bush Administration -- the defining characteristic of which seems to be a self-delusional veil of ignorance on a whole range of issues, from Iraq and the economy to social security and stem-cell research -- has pulled the U.S. out of the Kyoto Protocol and has more or less refused even to discuss the problem, even as Tony Blair, one of America's only allies with any clout, has publicly stated that climate change is "probably, long-term, the single most important issue we face as a global community". (See my post on Bush-Blair here.) Things aren't all that much better here in Canada, and economic booms in China, India, and Brazil are likely to contribute to a worsening of the situation.

It is difficult to deny the results of both scientific research and computer modelling -- unless, of course, you live in a faith-based reality and refuse to acknowledge such factual objectivity. But those of us who live in the real world know that the problem is real and that something needs to be done to reverse the slide into global catastrophe. We have the science to point us in the right direction, and we have bad movies like The Day After Tomorrow to arouse some popular interest in an overlooked issue, but it also helps to have those on the front lines of climate change, those who live with it on a daily basis, those whose lives are profoundly affected by it, to tell us their stories.

Now it's up to us to listen to them. And to do something about it.

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  • I don't disagree with you. But I do wonder if the science is as solid as it is supposed to be. We see a lot of ridicule about the Bush Administration's ridiculing of climate change and we hear how solid the science is. But this seems to entail a bunch of scientists standing around telling us to believe them because, we know because are scientists. Frankly, scientists are as prone to ideological and political judgments as anyone else and I am somewhat skeptical of this pose of enlightened objectivity that the scientists propounding the climate change thesis proclaim. The reaction to "The Skeptical Environmentalist"--which was largely a wholesale denunciation--makes me wonder how objective these scientists really are.

    I'm not suggesting that the scientists are making it up and, given the overwhelming consensus that seems to exist on climate change, I tend to agree that it is a problem. But I don't know how to evaluate anecdotal evidence that you present in the absence of some theoretical framework--climates have obviously changed over time; the question is to what degree this change is caused by man's actions and whether it is a permancent change that will have long-term consequences.

    I am also not defending the Administration's approach to the subject. Clearly, they have stuck their head in the sand to avoid making hard decisions that would hurt their corporate friends. And, while I think Kyoto was a flawed treaty, the Administration's refusal to engage the issue in any way is appalling.

    What I am saying, though, is that the scientific community needs to make this issue less one of--I will say--moral purity and more one of presenting evidence. I hear about all these models and so forth and we are supposed to accept these as conclusive. Yet, there clearly are skeptics on this issue and simply dismissing them as industry hacks or something doesn't seem to be a constructive way to deal with dissent.

    I also believe that the refusal by environmentalists and scientists to deal with the economic concerns advanced by the Administration is a mistake. Let's at least face the possibility that emissions restrictions will slow economic growth. Whether it will or not is an open question, but we need to accept that it is a legitimate issue for the administration to concern itself with.

    Again, I am not arguing that climate change is not a critical problem that needs to be addressed. But I can't help having a nagging concern with how the environmental and scientific communities have handled the issue.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 4:34 PM  

  • That was wonderfully stated, Marc. As an avid camper and hiker, I am sypathetic to much of the environmental movement's aims, and wish these issues could be less partisan.

    By Blogger N. Lowe, at 8:59 PM  

  • Yes, the problem here is that the environment as an issue has been polarized like all the others. Just as it's tough to stake out a moderate position on, say, abortion (Hillary tried, but was attacked from both sides), it's tough to find the sensible middle ground on climate change. My sense is that, as always, the truth is somewhere in the middle. The focus should be on figuring out just what is going on, not on presenting politically-charged theories that oversimplify the issue. Just as the anti-environmentalists have reverted to the Panglossian notion that all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds, so have many environmentalists turned environmentalism into a moral crusade. I'm more sympathetic to the environmentalists on this, and I do think that the issue is a moral one, but both sides seem to be living in that "faith-based reality" that we moderates so despise.

    Environmentalists would do well, I think, to move away from moralism and to focus on the hard facts.

    By the way, an excellent book on the environment -- one of many books that I'm working my way through at the moment -- is The Future of Life, by Edward Wilson. Definitely worth checking out.

    By Blogger Michael J.W. Stickings, at 12:54 PM  

  • Really, what's wrong with a little moralism? That's so disheartning that people don't really care that our world doesn't have the life expectancy we fool ourselves into thinking it did.We want our kids to have enough money in the bank, a nice house, maybe a nice car too, but we're ging to leave them in a concreate jungle. The science isn't hard to see, or imagine, it's common sense really. If you heat it, it will melt. Maybe i care because i live in canada, maybe i care about the states even though i don't live there. everyone else has signed up but bush, and he already said that it was because it would kill the american economy, not because it wasn't a problem. he wants to convince everyone else that he has a different way, but his ways are pollutants, and no one else will agree to that. i'm afraid, if he doesn't, everyone else will throw in the towel with the US. Why can't he budge for the rest of the world, for his own kids, and theirs? Sadly, america now seems so far stuck in the past....

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 2:22 AM  

  • To Mark Schneider:

    What's wrong with denunciations aimed against "The Skeptical Environmentalist"?

    The popular meme about that book is that it's full of devastating and un-answerable truths against the environmental sciences, and that the scientific responses to it have just been name-calling and personal insults against author Bjorn Lomborg.

    Yet like all others of its kind ("A Moment on the Earth," "Hard Green," "Facts Not Fear," "Eco-Scam," etc.), Lomborg's book is full of intelligence-insulting elementary errors or projections. I.E. declaring that increased fish catches imply the oceans have grown more productive; substituting invasive species for exterminated native species in order to argue that overall species counts have not changed; and parroting the long-discredited "they call believed in global cooling 30 years ago!" canard.

    It isn't necessarily "political" for sciences to point out quackery, and just claiming to be a skeptic doesn't actually count as a qualification for the title.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 2:57 PM  

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