I try to give President George W. Bush the benefit of the doubt. Really I do. So when he recently made a decision on power-plant emissions that essentially blew smoke in the face of a global-warming report he had requested from the National Academy of Sciences—not to mention the Kyoto Protocol and other reasoned responses to global warming—I figured maybe he has the same problem with scientists that I do.
I was spoiled by the white-coated beaker-tweakers in the science-fiction movies of my youth. They made their positions clear by running toward you shouting, "It's coming! We're all going to die! Aieeee!!!"
Growing up expecting such unequivocal statements in no way prepares you for the complexities and reasoned parsing of an actual scientific paper. I read the "Climate Change Science" report presented to Bush. The alarming concerns are all there, about man-made causes contributing to the greenhouse effect, which may make life on this planet untenable—new temperature and weather extremes, flooding, drought, tropical diseases, extinctions, etc. But it is also a scientific paper, meaning that instead of "Aieee!!!" it says "uncertainty" a lot.
Factoring in the unknowable is an integral part of science—nuclear physics is full of uncertainties and probabilities, yet the bombs still kill you—but one could see how a soundbite-oriented president might read this report, scratch his nubby head and say, "Screw it. Let's go make some money."
Make it fast, though. When the National Academy of Sciences weighs in on a matter, you're not talking fringe wackos, but the best and the brightest of mainstream scientific thought. It has joined the consensus of other studies in predicting drought in the Great Plains (a.k.a. "the world's breadbasket"), rising sea levels, ecosystem collapse and such by the end of the century.
Two of the report's 11 authors are from UC Irvine: Chancellor Ralph Cicerone and Chemistry and Earth System Science professor F. Sherwood Rowland. I spoke recently with Rowland, a man with mobile eyebrows and a marvelously cluttered office in a building now named for him.
If anyone has cause to be peeved at the president, it's Rowland and the report's other august authors, who dropped everything last spring to produce the now-ignored report at the breakneck pace requested by the White House. Though Rowland has been branded an alarmist by Orange County Register editorial writers (for his previous research linking aerosols to ozone layer depletion), I couldn't coax an anti-Bush rant out of him no matter how I tried. He remained unflappably measured and detached in his responses, so much so that one suspects that if Rowland's head was on fire, he would busy himself measuring its carbon dioxide emissions. I'm not suggesting this objectivity is a bad thing. Scientists need it if they're going to be listened to, not that the media or Washington is.
After being subjected to skepticism and ridicule from the Wall Street Journal, Congressman Dana Rohrabacher (who called Rowland "another Chicken Little") and other non-scientists, Rowland's theories on ozone depletion were ratified after a gaping hole was discovered in the ozone layer in 1985, and he was awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1995. As for the continuing skepticism about global warming, he said, "There are people who simply don't believe in science, so there is no way you can discuss scientific results with them."
He said the initial White House response to the global-warming report seemed positive. "Our conclusion was that the man-made effect was a very important factor in the fact that the temperature is going up," Rowland recalls. "They seemed to appreciate that, and I thought their position was, 'We accept that global warming will occur, and we are going to prepare a response to it.' But their talk about 'uncertainties' last year spread to being 'maybe there isn't any global warming' or that maybe it was all a natural effect."
When it came time for action—with the power-plant-emissions policy announced in February—Bush dwelled on the report's uncertainties, saying it was too inconclusive to warrant risking a slowdown in the nation's economy, claiming that solutions result from growth. And a heroin addict might reason that more heroin will fix his problem. Bush was essentially saying that the richest, most polluting nation in the world is too selfish and immature to face the realities that other nations are facing and that we can only prosper by burning up our children's future.
This was me editorializing, by the way, not Rowland. He did note, though, that the uncertainty Bush has grabbed hold of is a double-edged sword. It is difficult to project how things will be 50 or 100 years from now, and conditions may not be as severe as many scientists are speculating. But they can also be worse in ways as yet unimagined.
Ironically, one of the sources of the report's uncertainty is scientists' not knowing what or how much human societies might do to slow their effect on global warming. Using that uncertainty as a reason not to act tends to make it morecertain that the warming will be worse.
"Climate change in the next 50 to 100 years is probably going to have a mixture of things that are inconvenient all the way up to catastrophic," Rowland said. "The expectation is that the Earth in general will be a warmer place, but some places will be warmer, some colder. In most places, the infrastructure has been built with the present climate in mind. If 50 years from now, that's not the climate anymore, there will be aspects of the infrastructure that don't fit. For an affluent group, that may turn out to be merely inconvenient, but it may also, if it floods your island, be catastrophic locally."
At the risk of being accused of promoting class warfare, may I highlight the projection that the same folks who get rich causing global warming will be the ones best situated to coast through it—able to move or rebuild—while everyone else gets the stick? It is not a soothing notion that we'd find equality only in catastrophe.
Scientists don't see global warming as a steady dial indicating rising temperatures, but rather a sequence of feedback actions and switches. For example, the upper latitudes are warming faster than the rest of the planet, resulting in the exposure of more heat-absorbing soil and less heat-reflecting ice and snow, which then hastens the melting of ice and snow, which, while also raising sea levels, may cause a switch to go off in nature. "In the North Atlantic, the Gulf Stream carries warmth to Europe. One of the possible switches is that fresh water coming in from melting Arctic ice might turn off the North Atlantic circulation, making Europe a colder place," Rowland said.
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While he listed a number of qualifying uncertainties with that, he considers global warming more likely than other threats attracting far greater funding and public attention.
"Look at the enormous amount of money spent on anti-missile defense," he said. "While there should be an amount of worry about stray nukes, if anyone wanted to use one against an American city, it would be far easier and more accurate to ship it here on a freighter than to build a missile."
When we spoke, it was before recent news that a chunk of ice the size of Rhode Island weighing 720,000,000,000 tons (that's 720 billion tons, heft fans) had disintegrated off the Antarctic ice shelf in the rapidly warming climate. "The speed of it is staggering," said British glaciologist David Vaughan, quoted in a seven-paragraph story on page 10 of the Los Angeles Times, which is better play than they usually give global-warming news.
I know that scientists need to maintain their dispassion and objectivity. That's part of their gig. But, inside, they're as human as the rest of us, and I'd like to think I speak for them in saying, "Aieee!!!!!!!!!!"