The Billings Outpost

Global climate science isn’t hard; politics is

By CARA CHAMBERLAIN

It is time to leave politics behind, to advance beyond the silly Red State/Blue State maps, to forget about finding solutions from people vying for office who, to remain electable, ignored the real threats facing our nation and the world. It is time to educate and empower ourselves and push the politicians rather than let them push us.

Consider their response to just one major threat: climate change. Instead of planning for disaster, they wished away or, at best, minimized the contradiction between our inordinate burning of fossil fuels and the fact that such burning threatens our long-term survival.

Surely, we have better institutions than politics for seeing us through such crises. Religion and science come to mind, and I suggest that the two are not as naturally at odds as one might think.

Like many conservatives today, Mr. Romney ridiculed the very idea of “healing the planet.” But this is clearly not the approach that Brigham Young, the great nineteenth century leader of Mr. Romney’s own church, would have taken. Young, in fact, sought to live in harmony with all creatures: “But if we have provisions enough to last us another year, we can say to the grasshoppers—these creatures of God—you are welcome. I have never yet had a feeling to drive them from one plant in my garden; but I look upon them as the armies of the Lord.” Similarly, staunch evangelical scholar Francis Schaeffer maintained that, “Christians, of all people, should not be the destroyers. We should treat nature with an overwhelming respect.”

It isn’t necessary to be an adherent of either faith to understand that for both of these leaders, religion could be enlisted to effect a change of outlook and provide a spiritual basis for sustainable living.

Like Brigham Young and Francis Schaeffer, many scientists are offering a broad view of life on earth, but their voices are rarely heard above the clamor of talk radio, Fox News, and MSNBC.

In 1976, long before global warming became politicized, I heard about it for the first time. I was a member of the Forest Service’s Youth Conservation Corps. Between making trails and bridges, and laying barbed wire fences for ranchers, my fellow YCCers and I were treated to an evening debate between two physicists who journeyed up Big Cottonwood Canyon above Salt Lake City to talk to us. Why, I have no idea. We were just a bunch of teenagers, after all.

They didn’t call it anything particular then. According to the physicists, it was simply a matter of fossil carbon dioxide being released back into the atmosphere through human industrial processes. Though they argued about carbon sequestration, they recommended something be done in the next 10 years.

Yet here it is 2012 and still we debate: Is the phenomenon real? What should it be called? Is it “natural”?

Actually, the basic science is easy. Earth is a pleasant place, all things considered, because of the greenhouse effect. Such atmospheric gases as carbon dioxide (CO2), water vapor, and methane trap enough of the sun’s heat to keep us at a global temperature of about 60 degrees (the 20th century average). Without these gases, our planet would be too cold to sustain life. Conversely, when their volume increases, the average global temperature rises (as it already has). CO2 can be absorbed by oceans and forests, but, when these “sponges” become saturated or weakened, the gas builds up in the atmosphere. More CO2 in the atmosphere means more heat on Earth. Given current trends, it will soon take a mindboggling 100,000 years to return to the climate we have known.

To be sure, Earth doesn’t care. Many living things, perhaps Brigham Young’s grasshoppers among them, will withstand warmer temperatures nicely. Indeed, some regions will experience extreme conditions while others probably will not. Average global temperature interacts with local and seasonal phenomena, so far producing the greatest changes in the arctic. Florida may experience few measurable divergences (perhaps stronger hurricanes) while the interior West may be in for long droughts and heat waves. It’s one thing to measure atmospheric change, another to know how the parts of a complex system will react.

The fossil record, ice cores, and tree rings help scientists measure fluctuations in past climates and give an idea of what a warmer future Earth might look. However, most predictions have been too optimistic. As my long ago YCC physicists explained, the prediction part of the science is difficult.

By all measures, humans are particularly vulnerable. There are a lot of us, and most live on the edge of disaster as it is. Flooding, desertification, and mass extinctions will make it hard for us to flourish. As fisheries crash and land falls from agricultural production, human suffering will intensify. This is, of course, a moral crisis that one would expect religious leaders to be going full-bore to address.

I wish it were all a hoax. I wish we could laugh, as Governor Romney did, about “healing the planet” or, like President Obama often does, ignore the whole issue. But, most often, wishes only allow us to evade responsibility. Politicians often lag behind the cultural curve anyway. It is time for us to borrow a page from the Mormon pioneers of old and get down to work; to blend spirituality and scientific stewardship; and, as Brigham Young urged, to “love the works which God has made.”

Cara Chamberlain teaches at Rocky Mountain College.

Copyright 2012 Wild Raspberry Inc.

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