“The debate is over.”
Al Gore said that about man-made climate change. A lot of other people have said it, too. But it isn’t true. If the debate were over, then no one would be debating it anymore. There was a time when it was widely believed that there were canals on Mars and bathing was unhealthy, and just a few decades ago doctors said cigarettes were good for us. Those debates are over.
When you announce that the conversation has ended while someone is still disagreeing with you, it does nothing to lure them over to your side. In fact, it accomplishes the opposite. We don’t like to be told we’re wrong, but we really don’t like to be told that we aren’t intelligent enough to recognize the facts. Such an assertion causes us to dig in and cling more fiercely to our position.
That’s easy to do in a discussion about climate change, because there are more than enough facts to go around. The processes involved are complex, interconnected, and slow. If we heard that the Leaning Tower of Pisa had fallen over, we could fly to Italy and see for ourselves. But when it comes to the weather, and human influences on it, many of the facts seem contradictory. There are experts who say the earth is getting warmer, but others claim we’re going through a cooling period. Books and magazines tell us that islands in the Pacific have become uninhabitable because of rising seas, while the islands themselves maintain tourism boards with websites that beckon us to come there on our next vacation. Scientists on one side insist that elevated levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere cause higher temperatures, but scientists on the other side say that if the two factors are related, it’s the higher temperatures that cause increased levels of carbon dioxide.
As with many complicated questions, there is a correct answer to this one. But in order to determine what that answer is — beyond any doubt — we’d have to shut down all gasoline-powered engines, eliminate almost all manufacturing, halt the production of electricity, and stop burning coal. And then we’d have to wait about a century to see if carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere had dropped, average temperatures had leveled off, and ice sheets had begun to grow. Meanwhile, everyone would be dead, because despite Earth’s position in the so-called “Goldilocks Zone” (not too hot, and not too cold), nearly everyone on the planet needs some sort of shelter that includes heat or air conditioning.
Obviously, none of that is going to happen. And that takes us back to the debate. How do we settle it? I’m pretty sure we aren’t going to settle it. Both sides would have to walk away from personal gain and do what’s best for humanity. How often does that happen? Both sides would have to begin telling the truth, and stop bending and distorting information in order to bolster their own arguments. Does that ever happen? And both sides would have to actually behave in ways that reflect their words. If celebrities – especially those whose gift consists of pretending to be somebody else – want to assume the role of environmental spokesperson, they’re going to have to give up their forty-thousand-square-foot mansions and private jets. And if politicians – especially those who say one thing in front of the television cameras while stuffing their own pockets in the privacy of their offices – want to be seen as true leaders, they’re going to have to look beyond what’s best for their party and their own personal chances for re-election.
The world’s population is growing by a billion people every fifteen years or so. The city of Calgary has a million people. A population increase of a billion is like adding a thousand more cities the size of Calgary. Most of those people are going to want to own a home and drive a car and travel to other places and use whatever technology will be around then. Do we intend to tell them that they can’t? And what exactly are we willing to give up right now?
There are very few scientists in the world, and even they can’t agree on the most basic issues involved in climate change. We hear the word consensus thrown around, but we also hear claims of blackmail, death threats, lost funding, secret emails, fudged data, ruined careers, and professional ostracism. The rest of us are stuck in that huge middle chasm. We have neither the time nor the expertise to investigate and verify information, including the credentials of people who claim to be experts. We also live in a time when photographs and video can be altered and even completely fabricated, making it impossible to believe our own eyes and ears.
Is the Earth getting warmer? Probably. There isn’t a lot of stability in the universe, so I’m not sure why we would expect our climate to be any different. Are we contributing to that change? Probably. We’re here, and doing a lot of things. Can we reverse the trend? I doubt it. I’m not even convinced that things were better before. It’s true that we’re slobs, and there’s a continent of garbage floating around in the ocean. But we’ve begun to clean up our act. For example, a relatively large fraction of the world’s land has been designated as national parks, which indicates that we at least have some idea what we should be doing. Still, I wonder if we’ve over-estimated the effects of our activity. Maybe our coastal cities will be destroyed by flooding while we’re at home recycling beer cans and installing low-energy light bulbs.
Mainly, I worry that there will be rioting, and even a war, over the issue of climate change. If tempers continue to flare and each side continues to rage against the other, people will likely die and property will be ravaged. And it’s the future generations – those we all claim to be so concerned about – who will suffer the most.