Let’s put on our Speedos and chat for a moment about global warming, shall we?
Call it what you will–global warming, climate change, the big melt, death by infinitesimal asphyxiation–it sounds bad, and in fact now holds the world’s record for scariest thing that anyone can think of that isn’t obviously bullshit. On which grounds–forgive me evangelicals–we must disqualify the uncomfortable burning sensation that might accompany fulfilled apocalyptic biblical prophesy.
The previous record holder was global nuclear war and its inevitable follow-up, the Mad Max scenario: a world without personal hygiene. That was some scary stuff too, and millions of school children were instructed to practice cowering and shitting themselves under their desks, ignorant of the fact that the unabridged emergency manual recommended school desks be hermetically sealed spaces of at least 500 square feet, have lead and concrete lined walls, water and air purification systems, and a tremendous supply of canned vegetables.
Atomic catastrophe may have been an Ultimate Horror, but it was easy to wrap your arms around. Its likely perpetrators were a small handful of megalomaniacs, wheelchair-bound mad scientists with prosthetic arms, and Texans. It was not entirely unrealistic to think that if they ever reached for the button, the rest of us could rush them, wrestle them to the ground, and knee them repeatedly in the groin. Secondly, we knew the threat was genuine. It was manifest in the cool lathed cylinders that slumbered in burrows bespeckling the forsaken wastelands of Siberia and Nevada. You could have touched their points and said “Ouch!” You could have seen them on top secret satellite photos, right there. (And–unfortunately–also there, and there, and there, and there…) You could even have rapped on their unreverberant shells with your knuckles, in response to which the missile would impishly whisper: “ker-BOOOOOOOOOOM!”
Missiles love the look on our faces when they do this.
The undeniability of the threat was a good thing. It clarified the mind. It let us know that we could cower and soil ourselves unashamedly. And we could take steps to forestall impending disaster, like holding bake sales and building fallout shelters out of plywood.
With what wistful affection we now recall those innocent days, the fecund vines of our imaginings laden with visions of melting flesh and burgeoning tumors.
Our new boogie man is a poor substitute for the old. No longer are we permitted the comforting illusion that when push comes to shove we can simply round up a posse and put things to right. The source of the climate change problem is 100 gazillion asians and indonesians who have gotten the absurd notion into their heads that they have just as much right to air conditioning and SUVs as white people. We cannot wrestle them to ground, for they are oriental, and thus all know karate.
Another point in nuclear holocaust’s favor: it was an invitation to party. Even the biggest loser can get laid when the world’s about to end. Global warming, in contrast, is a total buzz kill. It wants to take away the keys to our convertible. It wants us to shiver in winter and sweat in summer. It wants us to live like sardines in cramped apartments. To sum up, it does not want us to have any fun.
Damn you, global warming!
As a vehicle of impending doom, global warming offers little into which we can sink our incisors. We like threats that are obvious, acute, and preferably Newtonian. All we know of self-preservation we gleaned from Roadrunner cartoons, and so can recognize and avoid falling anvils. But our national love affair with complexity and nuance notwithstanding (I see in the news where the members of Elks Lodge post 219 in Murfreesboro, TN confirmed that thorny Poincaré conjecture last week–that’s a relief!), climate change is too abstract for our taste. In fact, it is so mind-blowingly complicated that you could fit all the people that truly understand it into a phone booth. The rest of us may profess an opinion and wear glasses that make us look smart, but really we’re just trying to align ourselves with whichever side we think is more likely to keep us alive. Hopefully, we’ll be permitted to keep our snowmobile.
And we are haunted by uncertainty. Do we need to sell the beach house or not? Either we’re about to die–in which case I’m sure we’d all make a special entry in our daily minders: “Rebalance composition of earth’s atmosphere (IMPORTANT!)”–or we’re not about to die, so can we please return our undivided attention to America’s Next Top Model? But the doubt–the doubt is the fuel of nightmares, and our mommy can tell us that there is no such thing as magic chickens that want to remove our eyeballs and hardboil them, but we know mommy is naive or in league with the chickens and the only rational course of action is to stare unblinking at the latticed shadows of the venetian blinds for the next seven hours until we swoon unconscious into the clammy folds of our own sweatsoaked pajamas at first light of the morning.
Friends, I cannot offer you a quick fix for climate change, nor will I dress it in a clown suit and say it is not a downer. But I can offer a thought or two to cut through the noise of the debate.
First, how is it that the overwhelming majority of scientists have come to believe that man made global warming is a reality?
Let us dismiss the obvious: it is not because of the weather. Let it snow in July or broil in December, we can never reliably attribute any individual weather event to global warming. Even an anomalous season, or ten such seasons in a row is of dubious import. This is perhaps the only thing that climate change skeptics and believers agree upon. If the public does not display the same sangfroid towards hurricanes in June, the experts must bear some blame. They pay lip service to the statistical insignificance of singular examples. But like recovering alcoholics on a booze cruise, they cannot resist the opportunity when nature sends the drink tray around again, delivering the warmth, the cool, the rain, whatever supports their cause. Their hands shake and beads of sweat bud upon their brows. Maddened, they pounce, appearing on CNN to score their points with the public. How they loathe themselves in the morning.
The fact is we really don’t understand the weather, and even less the cycles within cycles within cycles, oceanographic, geologic, and atmospheric over centuries and eons, that impact the weather. Weather is hopelessly complicated and infinitely sensitive, the penultimate poster child of nonlinearity. It may be that every weather phenomenon we’re experiencing, however odd, is just the product of natural cycles that haven’t been recognized. Even if we are barreling towards a climate catastrophe, it may have nothing to do with car exhaust or ovine flatulence. It may be that god is sick of us and has decided to call it a day.
Who could blame him?
And yet the scientists are as sure as sure can be that the climate is changing and people are a major cause. I don’t know why they won’t explain how they know, but I will spill the beans for them. The secret is statistics. Scientists all over the world are conducting studies, building computer climate models, sampling the atmosphere, examining ice cores from the polar caps and and analyzing the past and present state of our environment in countless ingenious ways. And while there is a significant chance that the conclusions of any one study or approach are flawed or misleading, scientists have learned how to estimate the likelihood and degree of inaccuracy in individual experiments. They can then throw all the conclusions of those studies into a bowl, weight each for the likelihood of accuracy, shake well, dip the whole thing in a tangy statistical sauce, and voila, you can suddenly draw some very reliable conclusions.
Do you remember sitting is statistics class, watching the hands of the clock proceed at the same bright clip with which rocks grow older and praying that merciful death would find you and end your pain? Well, the scientists were there too, and they were paying attention. And that is why they can tell you that the chance we’re not frying the planet is essentially zero.
Here’s another perspective that may drive home the urgency of climate change. We tend to think of our world as an enormous expanse of emptiness that has been growing fuller with life and its pungent byproducts over the eons. So we ask: Are we full yet? Is there still more space to put the carbon dioxide from this breath I am breathing now? How about this one? It is a model that envisions not just landfills as a place to hide our candy wrappers for eternity, but waterfills and airfills as well.
But this model is wrong. For in fact, the world is full already, and has been full since microbes first conquered the planet in its infancy. You may remember from your high school biology classes that there are microorganisms that are anaerobic–that don’t use oxygen. These types of organisms ruled the world early in the planet’s history, because the atmosphere was dominated by compounds like methane, while free oxygen was in short supply. It was a great time to be anaerobic. Geriatric anaerobic microorganisms still sit on their front porches in their rockers reminiscing about how those days kicked ass and now everything’s gone to hell.
So where did all the oxygen come from? From the anaerobic organisms. It was their waste product. They “breathed” in compounds we would consider poisonous, and breathed out oxygen (which I must tell you, actually is poisonous. It is the chlamydia-ridden nymphomaniac of the periodic table, reacting with with every thing it meets and destroying it). Pretty soon the world was filled with oxygen and the anaerobic organisms asphyxiated in their own halitosis. But then, along came a new generation of microbes that could actually breath this poisonous, corrosive oxygen and emit carbon dioxide. Meanwhile, plants that use the carbon dioxide and emit oxygen proliferated. And thus was established the balance that supports us in such fine style today.
There is a miraculous and aesthetically pleasing symmetry to the relationship between the oxygen breathers and the carbon dioxide breathers. They share common microbial ancestors, and are more alike than different. They share the same cell structure, they need water to survive, and they evolve at a similar pace, minimizing the likelihood that one type of organism will suddenly start behaving in a way that destabilizes the system as a whole. This is nature’s elegant economy, purring along in homeostatic bliss. Secure, because all currencies are of a quantity and quality of her own design.
Or so it was until the first self-conscious thought blossomed in the mind of an ancient hominid, and all of creation whispered “Uh-oh.” For what we justly celebrate as an independence day will prove nature’s Waterloo. Our cognitive facility, the font of industry and mechanization, of refining and synthesizing, strikes a note not found in nature’s scale. When a new kind of plant evolves, there is every reason to believe that it will not disrupt our climatic balance. But have you ever sat in your car in rush hour gridlock with the air-conditioning roaring, an ocean of running automobiles stretching out to the horizon in all directions, the heat waves and fumes radiating upwards into the haze, and felt a thrill of panic? Well, you should have, because there is absolutely no reason to believe that nature can absorb that punishment, and every reason to believe she can’t.
And so the question to ask is not whether the undeniable change we are inflicting on the environment is having a particular effect, but rather, why would we mess with it at all, hitting the hornet’s nest with a stick as it were?
If you want to know how it will end, ask an anaerobic organism. If you can find one.