With the instinct of a savvy politician, Michael Bloomberg focuses on climate change. He says he will demand a plan to deal with the problem from potential Presidential candidates.
California’s recent Governor Jerry Brown joins Mr. Bloomberg. In an NBC interview, he emphasized his belief about the imperative of climate change actions.
“I would point to the fact that it took Roosevelt many, many years to get America willing to go into World War II and fight the Nazis.”
Climate Change is “Settled Science”
Meet the Press’ Chuck Todd dedicated his entire December 30, 2018 show to climate change, declaring it a “settled science” and declining any different views.
Though there are strong opinions by liberal politicians, there is not a public consensus on this. For example, two weeks earlier, Investor’s Business Daily observed:
“A growing contingent of scientists and economists call into question the climate change dogma, saying that the temperature data show no clear recent warming and noting that the benefits of global warming might be greater than the costs.”
Marginally More: Americans Want Immediate Action
Poll-wise, an increasing proportion of Americans see climate change as an issue requiring immediate action.
The joint Wall Street Journal-NBC poll taken in December 2018 found strong support among Democrats, little support among Republicans, and a split decision with Independents. The Wall Street Journal reported:
“The urgency of the issue is viewed differently within each political party. Seventy-one percent of Democrats and 48% of independents see combating climate change as an immediate concern, while only 15% of Republicans do – the same share of Republicans who supported immediate action nearly 20 years ago, in a 1999 survey.”
National Climate Assessment
Central to this discussion is the November 2018 report entitled, Fourth National Climate Assessment, Volume II Impacts, Risks, and Adaptation in the United States. Over the holidays, I tried to understand its arguments and conclusions.
The Assessment aims to be an authoritative inventory of the inevitability of climate change with implied doomsday consequences. Conveniently, we may view it as a modern Domesday Book in several senses.
The Domesday Book was written around 1086 in England, and it is a book of judgments.
The October/November 2001 issue of History Magazine quotes Henry II’s treasurer, Richard Fitz Negl:
“This book is metaphorically called by the native English, Domesdai, the Day of Judgement. For as the sentence of that strict and terrible last account cannot be evaded by any subterfuge, so when this book is appealed to on those matters which it contains, its sentence cannot be quashed or set aside with impunity.”
But the “Domesdai” explained by Negl carries forward to the more modern usage “doomsday,” meaning time or event of a crisis or great danger.
From my research, the Assessment reflects both a day of judgment that will be difficult to escape and in a more general sense, the portending of a great crisis related in the Assessment’s ten key messages.
Ten Key Messages of Climate Assessment
This Assessment proclaims that, by century’s end and as a result of human activity, there will be a significant increase in temperatures, the oceans will be less healthy, global sea levels will rise, precipitation patterns will change and intensify, and there will be less ice and permafrost, especially in the northern hemisphere. This could be an issue for millennia.
To address these challenges, the Assessment presents risk reduction strategies. This reduction is through emissions mitigation and adaptation actions. Regarding adaption actions, the report documents some current measures but proposes “new approaches that create conditions for altering regulatory and policy environments cultural and community resources, economic and financial systems, technology applications, and ecosystems.” (page 1312)
Responses for Risk Reduction
The Assessment implies extensive governmental planning, centralized, and local governmental action and efforts to anticipate changes in climate over very long time frames. This effort will emphasize “iterative risk management” with the belief that “proactive adaptation” can exceed costs.
The contingency to the adaptive proposals is the willingness of the public over the long term to accept, participate in, and pay for these actions. The Assessment concludes:
“It is not well understood how community acceptance of needed adaptations develops. This presents both a barrier to the implementation of adaptation measures and an opportunity for additional research into ways to close this gap in understanding.” (page 1333)
Stipulating the Science
What are specific and convincing imperatives? Are we confronting the equivalent of an incoming large asteroid or a volcano explosion, or will the physical impacts likely be at the margin of the current normal?
I guess the answer is – it depends. The fear I believe is for many the perception is that a dedication to mitigation measures particularly, serve a specific political perspective that seeks increased centralization, higher taxes and yes, less freedom. This is a conclusion of our times where we attempt to understand the “agenda” and define who wins the leverage and loses their way of life.
Very specifically, looking at a mitigation measure for replacing current gasoline and diesel vehicles with electric ones, where does the capital come from to purchase new vehicles? How do the replacement vehicles operate on rural dirt roads and difficult terrain where gasoline/diesel SUVs and pickups now work best?
In my opinion, we can lose perspective and accountability for other management and regulatory initiatives. Climate change can become the diversionary whipping-boy for many fires and storms. The vital understanding of interrelated causes will be lost, and climate change will be an inclusive answer.
Prerequisites to Commitment
Before we accept these explanations as compelling, we should review climate change from different perspectives. This is prerequisite to establishing the magnitude of a doomsday scenario and possibly committing ourselves with the ardor of a Michael Bloomberg or Jerry Brown to a philosophy addressing it.
We need to understand how climate has affected populations throughout history. I cannot accept on its face the postulated consequences defined by climate science without understanding the past and how we have as a species adjusted to natural change. I have seen the rings in old California trees showing periods of abundant and sparse water, but the forest survives.
I have read about Greenland, which hosted communities around the first millennia and then lost them to increasing sea ice flows. Now I read of profound change as Greenland warms. We can only fully understand the future if we know the past.
We must learn from history, since it reflects the dynamics of change. We must emphasize adaption as an imperative. Reuters has developed stories about the profound change in current Greenland. There likely is the opportunity as the island warms, but changing long proven ways is hard. Especially when the focus is on an expectation, if we mitigate zealously, we may dodge the judgment in the climate-change-doomsday-book.
We need to understand the positive impacts of climate change and how they relate to the more destructive aspects and how equity is achieved. We need to detail the beneficial effects and have them assessed against catastrophic consequences.
As temperate climate moves north, we need to know if there will be more arable land and, what the opportunities may be instead of the Assessment’s stubborn doomsday tone. In this regard, the Assessment provides graphics indicating some improvement with agricultural yields over portions of the country on page 285. I would like to explore and understand this better.
The Assessment does document “adaption” at some length in Chapter 28, “Reducing Risks Through Adaptation Actions.” National Geographic has explained this change in a must-read clarifying essay about adaption for resilience.
We need to understand how resilient actions will allow us to address climate change. We should be practical. Beyond scientists, let’s bring those closest to nature – farmers, fisherman, and foresters – into the discussions. Their frontline experience must be fully considered.
I grew up on a farm in California’s Central Valley remembering little rain over long stretches. At times, no water came from our pump, threatening our crops. We understood that periodic change was built-in and we had to adapt. With resilient action and specific investments, the farm remains under cultivation today with new ownership and management.
Historically, this has been a brief period. Our farm was near where transient populations had lived centuries before. Historically, there had been rivers and sloughs supporting families, but the land became arid because a river changed its course.
The native communities moved seasonally to other rivers and sloughs leaving only the jetsam of their existence. Later, the land became arable because of investment in ditches and groundwater. We have succeeded because we are a resilient and mobile species.
The focus must not be on whether or not climate change will occur and the threat of a dour doomsday denouement. Instead, let’s focus on dynamic balancing between improving quality of life using fossil and alternative fuels, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and defining adaption opportunities and equities. This philosophy is my prerequisite to commitment.
Searching for Safety
Aaron Wildavsky’s observes in his 1988 book Searching for Safety:
“My objection to current discussions of risk and safety is that they are one-sided, focusing almost entirely on the dangers of risk-taking while rejecting, to the detriment of common safety, opportunity benefits that would be lost by risk aversion.”
After the release of the Assessment in November, Senator Ben Sasse was interviewed about climate change. He observed the message is alarmist though scientifically significant with solutions requiring dialogue.
Jennifer Rubin of the Washington Post’s responded implying Senator Sasse is a climate change denier which, I believe, is modern language for heretic. She then delivers the hammer:
“It’s noteworthy that Sasse was a former university president; one assumes at this point no respectable university would hire a climate-change denier as its president.”
The climate change issue has all the signs of religious war including personal charges of heresy. The Assessment defines the key unknown. As previously noted:
“It is not well understood how community acceptance of needed adaptations develops.”
Concurring with Senator Sasse, this is where the effort should be focused on a positive, constructive fashion.
Americans often do not deal well with messages delivered from on high. The Assessment is an essential source of information and a call to action, but we need more. It cannot become a power-play of one American partisan group against another or the elite scientists against their perceived unknowing rural skeptics. It is too important. Instead, we must work through the need and response deliberately, so we are comprehensive and accurate.
Most of all, we must not underestimate the Earth’s and our species resilience and the spirit of hope when searching for opportunities. Thoughtful cohesion, wise management, and dynamic solutions, as much as science will assure, we overcome the doomsday prophesied by some.