climate change

What’s global warming like in San Marcos, Texas? Strictly speaking, I can’t answer that question, although I live in San Marcos, a town of some 50,000 people halfway between San Antonio and Austin. The reason is that global warming (or climate change, whichever you prefer) is such a large-scale event in both space and time that it’s hard to attribute any particular thing to it exclusively.

Two extremes

Some people have seized on this fuzziness to assert either that it doesn’t exist at all — you can always debate about how accurate climate models are and whether the scientists have neglected some factor they don’t know about — or that its effects are so random on a small scale that you can’t say for sure what it’s doing. For reasons that are not entirely clear, many people on this side of the argument are evangelical Christians.

Other people have used the same large-scale characteristics to reach the conclusion that humanity is headed straight to the wastebasket unless we revolutionise the world, including every level of government in every country, to stop global warming in its tracks, which itself would take several generations to do. For reasons that are also not that clear, many people on this side of the argument don’t believe in God, or at least don’t believe God is going to bail us out of the looming mess at the last minute, anyway.

A moderate voice

One person who combines aspects of both sides, and is highly qualified to speak on the topic, is Katherine Hayhoe, a climate scientist at Texas Tech in Lubbock. Hayhoe has a PhD in atmospheric science and has spent her professional career of two decades or more publishing both in the technical literature and in efforts to publicise the science of climate change in a way that the average person can understand.

She is married to a pastor, who co-authored a book with her (A Climate for Change: Global Warming Facts for Faith-Based Decisions), is chief scientist for the Nature Conservancy, and holds an endowed chair in public policy and public law. If anybody is qualified to talk about climate change to religious people, Hayhoe is. And almost alone among people who talk a lot about climate change, she has a good attitude about it.

Attitudes are a lot more important than people give them credit for. The unique thing about humanity, in comparison to the rest of the living beings on this planet, is that we can think about our situations historically over time and make long-term plans to deal with various challenges.

Plants and other animal species can adapt to changing circumstances to a degree, but not if all members of a species get killed by a sudden shift in the environment. Only humans can anticipate something by looking at preliminary signs of its coming and plan to deal with it in advance. But attitude will determine how well we do that.

Long-term preparation

Planning in advance is essentially what Hayhoe wants us to do. In an interview she conducted with Tim Reckmeyer of SW Newsmedia last February, after Texas’ Big Freeze, she pointed out that one side effect of global warming is to weaken the jet stream, because the Arctic is warming even faster than the rest of the world.

Weakened jet streams tend to wobble more north and south, and an unusually large wobble to the south was what let extremely cold air all the way down to Texas last February, leading to multiple power-generation failures and a week without water and power for millions of Texans, a couple of hundred of whom died as a result. So, paradoxically, it is possible that global warming contributed to the extraordinary cold snap of last February.

On the other hand, my wife and I planted some tomato vines last March, once it got warm enough that we weren’t worried about another freeze. Our little cherry tomatoes in particular did very well this year, and the fall and winter so far have been so mild that we are still harvesting cherry tomatoes with only twelve days to go till January. If this is global warming, it’s good for cherry tomatoes, anyway.

Three responses

Hayhoe points out that there are basically three kinds of things we can do about global warming: mitigation, adaptation, and suffering. By mitigation, she means doing something about the main things that cause global warming in the first place, chief among which is carbon emissions.

By adaptation, she means dealing with the consequences of global warming: rising ocean levels and all that means for coastal regions, and changes in crop patterns and weather cycles, including more of certain types of severe weather in some cases. And the third thing, suffering, will happen without us doing anything about it.

Hayhoe says that it’s up to us to choose what mix we’re going to have of these three things. Obviously, if we ignore mitigation and adaptation and just pretend everything will be fine, she thinks we’ll have more of the third thing—suffering. And she may well be right, although suffering due to global warming is not always that easy to distinguish from suffering as part of the general plight of humanity since the dawn of time.

Mitigation means things like carbon taxes and the panoply of world-government-like policies that the more extreme members of the Democratic Party would like to impose on the US. I think Hayhoe would say about this that it doesn’t have to be as painful as it looks, and there are plenty of opportunities to preserve economic growth for poor as well as rich countries if mitigation is done wisely. If Hayhoe was in charge, that might work as well as she says, but not all government policymakers are as wise as Hayhoe.

And adaptation I think is something that everyone can agree on. With carbon dioxide levels doing what they’re doing, we can fairly reliably predict that certain things are going to happen, and it’s just carelessness not to prepare for them. Conscious and planned adaptation is one of the things humanity does best, and sensible actions along these lines are probably what will get the most consensus among disagreeing parties.

We’ve enjoyed our cherry tomatoes this year, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it all comes to an abrupt end in a world-beating cold snap. Global warming won’t change the old saying that goes “if you don’t like Texas weather, just wait a few minutes.” It just may make it more true than ever.

Republished with permission from the Engineering Ethics blog.

Karl D. Stephan received the B. S. in Engineering from the California Institute of Technology in 1976. Following a year of graduate study at Cornell, he received the Master of Engineering degree in 1977...