Ignorance is Strength? A Climate Change Primer
My hometown of Buffalo, NY just enjoyed its warmest February on record, the 17th month in the past 18 that temperatures were above normal (based on 30 year averages). Buffalo is known far and wide for its lake effect snowstorms, but the area has received only half its typical snowfall and I have used my snowblower all of three times this winter. The removal of the ice boom- a series of steel beams and chains that is annually strung along the mouth of the Niagara River to prevent massive chunks of Lake Erie ice from flowing downstream and damaging the machinery of the Niagara Power Project's hydroelectric plant- began this past Monday, the second year in a row removal was initiated in early March because the eastern end of Lake Erie never froze.
Western New York is certainly not the only place where unusual weather conditions are occurring. This past week wildfires raged over large swaths of Colorado, Kansas and Oklahoma, as if it were late spring or summer. California, after five years of extreme drought, has been deluged this winter with "atmospheric rivers" of precipitation relentlessly pounding the state, triggering historic floods, mudslides, avalanches and severe damage to the Oroville Dam spillway, prompting an entire town to evacuate. Coastal areas of south Florida are increasingly being flooded, not from storms, but mere high tides. In the Arctic, a positive feedback loop has emerged- as more ice melts due to higher than average temperatures, more surface water is exposed, more of the sun's heat is absorbed by the open water, the water temperature ascends, leading to more ice melt and the cycle progresses onward. This phenomenon not only affects polar bears and shipping lanes, but also influences wind currents and weather patterns throughout North America. Meanwhile at the planet's opposite pole, humongous ice shelfs are fracturing off Antarctica's shore launching icebergs and dangerously raising sea levels .
Unfortunately, despite abundant scientific evidence that global warming and climate change is transpiring, and man-made pollution stemming from the burning of fossil fuels is the primary contributing factor, skeptics persist. Here is an excerpt from my book, The Lost Son: A Rock 'n' Roll Road to Redemption (and True American Parable), that was spurred by a film I saw at the Houston Space Center and attempts to explain as plainly as possible the basic principles of global warming/climate change to individuals who lack advanced college degrees in scientific fields:
Skeptics downplay or deny any connection between human activity and climate change, but at the heart of this phenomena is an elementary and indisputable fact: for millions of years the Earth’s atmosphere was kept relatively stable by the delicate balance between the photosynthesis of plants and aerobic respiration of animals. Plants absorb carbon dioxide from the air, and combined with sunlight, produce essential organic compounds that provide energy for the organism. Oxygen is a byproduct of this biochemical reaction and is emitted back into the atmosphere. Animals then inhale the oxygen, which fuels the breakdown of dietary carbohydrates into a form of intracellular energy. Carbon dioxide is a byproduct of this process and is ultimately exhaled back into the atmosphere. Starting in the mid-1800s with the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, this bio-chemical equation was skewed by the mass burning of fossil fuels such as coal, gasoline and methane for humans’ ever growing energy demands. Several decades of fossil fuel burning, along with depletion of the tropical rain forests‒the Earth's major source of OXYGEN‒has resulted in untold tons of surplus carbon dioxide added to the atmosphere. As sunlight reaches the Earth, surface and air temperatures rise. Daytime heat is absorbed by bodies of water, land and man-made structures. At night, this stored energy is radiated back into the atmosphere. But carbon dioxide blocks the heat from exiting into outer space, resulting in elevated temperatures close to the surface.
While any single weather event is influenced by many complex meteorological factors, global warming does increase the frequency of phenomena that are temperature sensitive, such as hurricanes, tornadoes, droughts, wildfires, floods and even snowstorms. Warmer temperatures also melt polar ice caps faster, leading to elevated sea levels. The interconnectedness of these biochemical reactions and ecological factors are beyond dispute. The great unknown is not whether global warming exists, but how devastating its effects will be. Most climate change experts predict that absent major reductions in carbon dioxide emissions, the pace of global warming will result in mass extinction of plant and animal species, islands and coastal areas inundated with sea water, and tropical regions becoming uninhabitable due to excessive heat.
I pledged in my first blog post that I would avoid political topics. However, global warming/climate change transcends politics. It does not matter who you voted for, whether you are a Democrat, Republican or independent, or even your race, sex, age, ethnicity, or hometown- everyone is affected by this grave threat. All Americans (and people around the world) should be concerned with the words and actions of Scott Pruitt, the new head of the Environmental Protection Agency. As Oklahoma's attorney general, he sued the EPA 14 times to fight back against federal regulations he thought were too onerous to state businesses- and now he leads that very agency and seems determined to undermine its critical mission of protecting the environment. Or as Gina McCarthy, the head of the EPA during the Obama administration, stated earlier this week: "It's fine to have differing opinions on how to meet the mission of the agency. Many Republican administrators have had that. But here for the first time, I see someone who has no commitment to the mission of the agency" (article by Coral Davenport of The New York Times, published on p. A5 of The Buffalo News on March 8, 2017). Morale among the career scientists and officials whose main job is to ensure the safety of the nation's air and water was already reportedly at a historic low point when Pruitt, appearing on the CNBC show "Squawk Box" confidently rejected the established science of climate change by declaring: "I would not agree that it's a primary contributor to the global warming that we see" (referring to human activity, the burning of fossil fuels and carbon dioxide emissions) further outraging scientists, environmentalists and former EPA officials (as reported by The Buffalo News, p. A7 March 9, 2017).
The pro-business, scientifically-skeptical agenda of Mr. Pruitt reminds me of the quote in George Orwell's literary masterpiece 1984: "War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength." In the book, Orwell created a streamlined language called Newspeak, the official, manipulative communication device of an all-powerful future government to control its citizens and preserve societal order. It seems to me that Mr. Pruitt, and many of Donald Trump's Cabinet appointees and advisors are fluent in a type of Newspeak in which up is down, bad is good, any criticism or disagreement with the administration is labeled "fake news," serious charges are issued on social media without any evidence, and The President retreats to his Florida estate every weekend while his minions remain busy in Washington not just changing, but disrupting government programs so that the wealthy can prosper ever more to the detriment of everybody else. Welcome my friends to bizarro world, and as the government officials in 1984 insist: 2+2=5.