• Weekly Planet: Watching the house burn
    June 08,2014

    Sometimes scientific debates are not really scientific at heart. They are emotional debates, and they are about fear, the unknown, blame and change. Rational answers do not address emotional concerns. Welcome to climate change.

    Popular media like to talk about the climate change debate, continually asking, “Is it real?” In the scientific world there is no debate. Yes, it is real. Yes, it is happening now. And yes, it is caused or accelerated by human activity. Over 97 percent of climatologists agree. End of debate.

    Climate change deniers are kind of like flat-earth proponents: clinging to a disproved and obsolete explanation because that’s what they believed in the good old days. Scientifically there is no debate that climate change is real and is happening now.

    Some of the confusion is no doubt connected to the word “theory,” as in climate change theory. One definition of theory given by Merriam-Webster is indeed, “an idea that is suggested or presented as possibly true but that is not known or proven to be true.” That is what your mechanic means when he says, “Well, my theory is that your fuel injector is shot.” That is a theory that will be proven true or untrue when the car goes into the shop.

    But the operating definition of “theory” in the case of climate change is another definition given by Merriam-Webster: “the general or abstract principles of a body of fact, a science, or an art,” as in music theory. Music theory is not a hunch waiting to be proven true or false; it is the relationship of the facts of music — intervals, scales, keys, etc.

    So it is with climate change. The facts are facts: global temperatures are rising. Polar ice caps are melting faster and faster and the trend is caused primarily by human-induced greenhouse gas emissions. Climate change is happening now. These are the facts.

    Do we know all the facts? Of course not. The chain of cause and effect is far too elaborate for us to know all the possibilities and consequences. But the demand to know all related facts before taking any action is kind of like watching your house burn down and declaring, “I’m not going to put it out until I know what started it.”

    The original term “global warming” defined a measurable and factual global trend, but it did little to alert us to the true consequences of climate change. Deniers can point to the bitter cold temperatures of last winter and ask smugly, “You call that global warming?” The factual climactic change is that the Arctic jet stream bulged far south of its usual path bringing us frigid cold, but meanwhile global temperatures continue to rise. This is not theory. It happened.

    So did prolonged and intense drought in the West and Southeast, record temperature readings, giant killer cyclones, superstorms, rising sea levels and jet streams changing course. These are not theories. These are facts. They are very frightening facts, and they make us feel powerless. How am I going to prevent tornadoes? The idea that I can do anything at all sounds stupid. The reaction becomes emotional.

    Many people fear that the cost of acting to reducing greenhouse gas emissions is just too high. But the costs of not acting are even higher. This spring many California farmers were receiving just 5 percent of their typical water allotments. California produces about half the fruit, nuts, and produce grown in the United States. Half! Damage from Hurricanes Sandy and Katrina alone reached $175 billion. Irene isn’t even a blip on that screen, yet we all know the damage cause by that storm.

    Yes, there is still much unknown about the ultimate effects of climate change. But can we at least agree that the house is burning — and we should act now?

    Robin Chesnut-Tangerman is an educator and green builder specializing in renovations and innovations. He can be reached at talisman@vermontel.net.

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