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  Geotimes - June 2007 - Geologic Column

Plunging into the Debate on Climate Change
Fred Schwab

A recent, early morning episode at home provided a personal epiphany for my understanding of the debate over global climate change. I stumbled downstairs and encountered a film of water rapidly spreading across my basement floor. I didn’t care what was causing the flooding; I simply wanted it stopped. I easily identified a clogged toilet as the cause of the mess, and a trusty plunger solved the problem before any serious damage occurred.

While attempting to belay my flood, I suddenly realized that my situation had some similarities with the ongoing controversy over climate change. The early February release of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report makes global climate change as undeniable as the then-spreading pool of water in my basement, and just as suddenly, more people want it stopped. Mountain glaciers are melting and snow cover is shrinking. Ice sheets in Greenland and Iceland continue to break into pieces. Arctic ice is disappearing and sea levels are rising. All this seems to be because the average global temperature has risen 0.74 degrees Celsius (1.4 degrees Fahrenheit) since the late 19th century, with 11 of the 12 warmest years on record being since 1995.

Most of the scientific community concurs that global climate change is linked, at least in part, to human activities — like my clogged, overflowing toilet. Our increased temperatures, however, seem to be particularly due to the burning of fossil fuels. Greenhouse gases in the atmosphere have increased markedly since the Industrial Age began. The IPCC Fourth Assessment report states that as of 2005, carbon dioxide has risen from about 280 parts per million to about 379 parts per million. The same report says that methane has more than doubled in this time, from about 715 parts per billion to 1,774 parts per billion.

Debate continues about whether the warming effects of greenhouse gases are overshadowed by natural events. A 2006 National Academy of Sciences study showed that temperatures 400 years ago, before the Industrial Age, matched current high temperatures. Even if natural phenomena play the dominant role in changing global temperatures, however, dramatic consequences await a world that fails to respond to warming, irrespective of the cause.

Media coverage in just the past few months suggests that a threshold has been crossed in the global climate change debate. Anna Nicole, Britney and Baghdad are occasionally nudged off the front page. Citizens are ready to respond to these changes in climate, and geoscientists need to be prepared.

Two extreme camps — zealots who characterize human-driven global warming as an impending disaster and skeptics who maintain that human-driven warming is either insignificant or unproven — are now separated by a third group that takes a more moderate stance. “Many in this camp seek a policy of reducing vulnerability to all climate extremes while building public support for a sustained shift to nonpolluting energy sources,” as reporter Andrew Revkin wrote in the Jan. 1, 2007, edition of The New York Times.

Many scientists and politicians now encourage placing an equal effort on coping or adapting to global warming as they have either stopping it or at least slowing it down. “Mitigation and adaptation complement each other. In both cases, the crucial need is to stop talking and start acting,” wrote columnist Fareed Zakaria in the Feb. 12, 2007, edition of The Washington Post.

Nicholas Stern, head of the United Kingdom’s Government Economic Service, released the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change in October 2006. This report examines the financial consequences of a changing climate and urges an immediate response to global warming in the form of taxes, regulation, carbon voucher schemes and the development of alternative energy sources. Though the document has been much-maligned and the authors’ estimates of the cost of action have been largely written off by some economists, its point is still valid: Doing something now will cost far less than reacting to changes in the future.

Society is realizing that coping with or slowing global climate change will require cooperation. Only a truly international effort can overcome the significant challenges that lie ahead. Governmental and private efforts need leadership and coordination.

Because certainty has replaced doubt and skepticism in the scientific community, public awareness and anxiety are increasing. It is incumbent on the geological community to provide both the push and the pull to deal with climate change. We must educate and motivate the public, clearly outline the evidence for and uncertainties about climate change, and offer intelligent, realistic solutions while conveying their cost. And, unfortunately, I don’t think the solutions will be as simple as grabbing a plunger.

Schwab is a professor of geology at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va. E-mail:

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