Thursday, April 24, 2014

Climate change is being neglected


From page A12 | January 23, 2014 | 15 Comments

Here’s a scary fact about America: We’re much more likely to believe that there are signs that aliens have visited Earth (77 percent) than that humans are causing climate change (44 percent).

That comes to mind because a couple of weeks ago, I asked readers for suggestions of “neglected topics” that we in the news business should cover more aggressively in 2014. Some 1,300 readers recommended a broad range of issues, which I look forward to pilfering (with credit!) — and many made a particularly compelling case for climate change.

A reader from Virginia quoted James Hansen, the outspoken climate scientist: “Imagine a giant asteroid on a direct collision course with Earth. That is the equivalent of what we face now.”

Another reader, Daria, acknowledged that the topic isn’t sexy but added: “Whether we ‘believe in it’ or not, all species on Earth are being subject to frightening disruptions in our weather, food supply, land.”

You would think we would be more attentive, with the federal government a few days ago declaring parts of 11 states disaster areas because of long-term drought. More than 60 percent of California is now in extreme drought.

Yet we in the news media manage to cover weather very aggressively, while we’re reticent on climate. Astonishingly, coverage of climate actually has declined in mainstream news organizations since peaking in 2007, according to the count of researchers at the University of Colorado. (Coverage did increase last year after a low in 2012.)

The proportion of Americans who say they believe that global warming is real has fallen since 2007 as well, and climate beliefs have fallen victim to political polarization. In 1997, there was no significant gap between Republicans and Democrats in thinking about climate change. These days, 66 percent of Democrats say human activity is the main cause of global warming; 24 percent of Republicans say so.

My take is that when Democrats, led by Al Gore, championed climate change, Republicans instinctively grew suspicious. Yet the scientific consensus is stronger than ever. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in September raised its confidence that human activity is the main cause of warming from 90 percent probability to 95 percent or higher.

When we have this disjunction between scientific consensus and popular perception — well, that should light a fire under those of us in the news media.

An excellent basis for discussion is the new book “The Climate Casino” by William Nordhaus, a Yale University economist. Nordhaus is a moderate whose work has been cited by climate deniers, yet he concludes: “Global warming is a major threat to humans.”

Nordhaus acknowledges uncertainty but sees that as a problem: “The outcome will produce surprises, and some of them are likely to be perilous.”

For all the uncertainty, Nordhaus cites several areas of strong agreement among experts: Carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere exceed those observed for at least the past 650,000 years; hurricanes will grow more intense; the Arctic will become ice free in summer; oceans will rise up to 23 inches by 2100 (more if there were major melting of ice sheets); and the global temperature will likely be 3.5 degrees to 7.5 degrees Fahrenheit higher in 2100 than in 1900.

A 7.5-degree difference in average temperature may not sound like much. But it’s about the differential by which Arizona is warmer than New Jersey.

Nordhaus warns that “the pace of global warming will quicken over the decades to come and climate conditions will quickly pass beyond the range of recent historical experience.”

Perhaps the greatest risk is various discontinuities and feedback loops that are difficult for climate models to account for. Melting of the Greenland ice sheet is typically predicted to add only a few inches to sea level rise by 2100, Nordhaus says. But ice dynamics are still poorly understood, and that matters a great deal. If the whole Greenland ice sheet disintegrated, that would raise sea level by 24 feet.

Climate change is hugely exacerbated by changing patterns of how we choose to live, often in danger zones such as extremely vulnerable coastal zones — from New Jersey to the Philippines. This enormously increases the economic and human costs of hurricanes, rising seas and changing weather patterns.

In politics and the military, we routinely deal with uncertainty. We’re not sure that Iran is trying to build a nuclear weapon, but we still invest in technologies and policies to reduce the risks. We can’t be sure that someone is going to hijack a plane, but we still screen passengers.

So, readers, you’re right! This is a neglected topic. We need to focus more on climate change, and perhaps that can help nudge our political system out of paralysis to take protective action to reduce the threat to the only planet we have.

— The New York Times

Nicholas Kristof


Discussion | 15 comments

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  • MLJanuary 23, 2014 - 1:55 pm

    Another Warmist. Have you read any of the numerous reports the past 2 years? Ice is at record levels at both poles; a ship was frozen into an ice sheet; temperatures have been constant for 17 years (not rising); polar bear populations have risen; and the United States have decreased its CO2 output by 20 percent!

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  • Chris LambertJanuary 23, 2014 - 4:01 pm

    I'm not sure why denialists feel the need to spout lies and half-truths, or facts out of context. Do you truly not understand that climate change means climate chaos? Including colder than normal temperatures in unexpected places? I also wonder why I even waste my time writing this. Quite a few climatologists suspect we have already passed the point of no return, with the possibility of our extinction this century. If you really want to understand this, google "climate positive feedback loops".

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  • Rich RifkinJanuary 23, 2014 - 4:30 pm

    "Temperatures have been constant for 17 years (not rising);" ........ According to NOAA, you are incorrect. NOAA has reliable recorded temperature data going back to 1880. Since that time, all of the hottest years on record for the Earth have been in the last 17. All of them. 2010 was the hottest year in recorded history. It was 1.2 degrees F over the mean for the 20th century. The next 9 years, in order, were the next hottest years on record: 2005, 1998, 2013, 2003, 2002, 2006, 2009, 2007, 2004. .............. Notice that you don't have a single year in the 1980s, 1970s, 1960s, 1950s, etc. There is no scientific doubt that the Earth is heating up. ................ However, it is important to note that, given the increase in atmospheric C02 and other greenhouse gasses over the last 20 years, the projections of temperature rise by most IPCC atmospheric scientists have not been met. That is, they expected it would have been hotter than it has been. At the same time, they underestimated the degree of dissolution of C02 in our oceans. As a result, the world's seas are now more acidic than was projected. But don't take solace in that. A much lower pH in the oceans threatens all sorts of creatures--including species that hundreds of millions of humans now rely on for food. Acidified oceans are not a sanguine prospect.

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  • Jeff BooneJanuary 23, 2014 - 6:41 pm

    "When we have this disjunction between scientific consensus and popular perception — well, that should light a fire under those of us in the news media." Great, the second least trusted entity (behind politicians and just in front of climate scientists) are supposed to start convincing the population. The "problem" is a deficit of trust. Until that is fixed, there is no progress to be made convincing more that anthropogenic climate change is not just another lie perpetrated by those enemies of free enterprise and capitalism. And, what happened to the publish fact that there is nothing we can do to effectively alter the climate, so we should be adapting?

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  • greg johnsonJanuary 23, 2014 - 7:14 pm

    I think your point about the deficit of trust is spot on. The worst thing that ever happened to the climate change argument was that Al Gore became the spokesman. The issue is certainly politicized. I'm sure there is a lot of guessing in the scientific models. I still remember an article in my town newspaper that came out in the late 60s. It said that if pollution continued to increase at its current rate, it would be hazardous in the year 2000 (a time I could not conceive of) to go outside and collect your newspaper. Although pollution production has been curbed, the claim was likely inaccurate. However, we have 7 billion people on the planet,a few billion of which are in rapidly industrially evolving countries over which we have no control. I would love to see science divorced from politics, a clear statement of what we know, and coordinated, rational policy. The situation scares the hell out of me.

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  • ontJanuary 24, 2014 - 1:45 am

    The GOP distorts and lies about the science to protect their corporate sponsors. There's your politicization. That leaves the Democrats as the only responsible party left to address the issue.

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  • Greg JohnsonJanuary 24, 2014 - 8:55 am This is off topic, but since you had asked about this source, I thought I'd give it to you--from that ultra right-wing university UC Berkeley. Here's what your man Obama has done for the one percent. No wonder they love him!

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  • Rich RifkinJanuary 23, 2014 - 7:31 pm

    Jeff, if you Google "The Sixteen Least Trusted Institutions in the USA – Congress Trusted Least," you will see that trust in the news media (23% in 2013) is higher than that of Congress (10%), HMOs (19%), organized labor (20%), and big business (22%). It is behind banks (26%) and the criminal justice system (28%). Despite the low trust in these groupings, I suspect levels of trust in all of them are much higher for the known than the unknown. By that, I mean the constituents of say, Nancy Pelosi, likely hold her in high esteem and trust her, but most outside her district feel otherwise. Same thing with John Boehner. His constituents trust him. Americans on the whole do not. (See Rasmussen Reports: "Just 30% of Likely Voters have a favorable impression of Republican House Speaker John Boehner, according to a new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey. Fifty-three percent (53%) now view the Ohio congressman unfavorably, his highest negative yet.") With the media, I am sure those who read the New York Times every day trust it. Those who do not are much more likely to not trust it. Those who watch Fox News think it is trustworthy. Those who never watch it think it is not. Etc.

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  • Jeff BooneJanuary 24, 2014 - 2:45 pm

    Rich - certainly... I think we all tend to better trust people and institutions that echo our views. The polling data for news media trust demonstrates that as Republicans trust Fox News at 73% but only 18% trust MSNBC and Democrats trust Fox News 25% and MSNBC at 56%. However, there has been a general downward trend of trust for the news media. My point is/was that science is not well-served by fomenting such strong connections with politics and media. And that media taking some stronger position of reporting on the science of global warming is not going to help move the needle. The thing that will move the needle is more open scientific debate and science focusing on just the facts... and that includes a rejection of policies that are targeting reducing climate change because we know it will not do any good and will only cause harm in other areas. The debate should be about adaption and not cause.

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  • Rich RifkinJanuary 25, 2014 - 4:31 pm

    "The debate should be about adaption and not cause." ............ So if you were advising someone who eats a lot of sugary foods and does little exercise and is 100 pounds overweight and has type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure, your recommendation would be to tell the person to buy larger clothes and take drugs to control his blood pressure? That would be adaptation. It would probably make him more comfortable. I would, however, instead suggest he think a lot more about the cause of his health problems: sugar and sedentariness. .............. I know, unfortunately, Jeff, that you are closed minded on this issue of climate change. You will not accept the science. However, should you ever realize that every mainstream climate scientist agrees on the basic facts at hand--that CO2 levels are rising in our atmosphere and that is causing harmful climate change and the harm will get much worse in the years to come--you should start to think like a free-market economist for a solution to the problem of greenhouse gasses: They are an externality which needs to be internalized through a tax in order to achieve a market efficient outcome. That is exactly what Milton Friedman would have favored. It is favored even by the right-winger Art Laffer. The money generated from a carbon tax need not generate revenues for governments. It could replace another tax and be made revenue neutral. To work, it has to be global in nature. However, under the GATT and the WTO, it could easily be imposed in treaty form, and those countries which did not observe it would be greatly hurt by their loss of trade rights.

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  • Curt MillerJanuary 23, 2014 - 9:46 pm

    It is interesting that the Entersprise apparently has the money to buy syndicated rubbish like this. Neglected is such a, well, sad word. In the present case it is rightly deserved. Remember global warming? When that didn't pan out, what with a 15-year reduction in the warming trend from 1998 to 2012 compared to 1951 to 2012, the weather alarmist crowd shifted the topic of the argument to climate change. Now there is a sturdy concept. Yet, anyone who has taken any geology or earth science courses learned that the earth's climate has changed many times over the eons. This can only be news to dimwits who were taking sociology or grievance studies courses at the time. Also, why the heck would anyone believe predictions of FUTURE climate patterns developed by a bunch of computer jockeys pouring in reams of data about the current or past weather collected from around the world? Do you remember the admonishment of your computer science prof? "Garbage in, garbage out." Their models can't even reproduce past weather/climate as far as warming or cooling is concerned.These people are trying to MODEL something as complex as worldwide weather, sell their findings to various governments, and then give economic control to political actors whose interventions would make everyone on the planet poorer. Fianlly, there is nothing about current weather conditions in this country that can support climate change as some sort of pending disaster. Snowstorms in the east, drought in the west, super freezes in Antarctica, Arctic sea ice melts? We've seen it all before, it is old news, and it will happen again.

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  • ontJanuary 24, 2014 - 1:38 am

    "Remember global warming?" The last decade was the hottest in the period of modern record-keeping. Pesky facts.

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  • Jeff BooneJanuary 24, 2014 - 3:47 pm

    "Modern" record keeping. Maybe just convenient "facts". It got pretty hot about 1,000 years ago when those Icelanders were farmers and ranchers.

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  • ontJanuary 25, 2014 - 2:10 am

    Well they're ranching and farming today too, but global temps are warmer now than 1000 years ago, and headed much higher as co2 levels are the highest in 800k years due to human fossil fuel burning.

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  • Rich RifkinJanuary 25, 2014 - 4:47 pm

    The temperatures in Iceland today are much higher than they were 1,000 years ago. No one debates that. The question is why. ......... FWIW, historical Icelandic climate change is a well-studied subject. Before CO2 build-up in our atmosphere heated up the polar regions, it mostly had to do with changing sea currents. When warm seas have reached Iceland--as they now do--it has been warmer and supported more farming, fishing, etc. When the sea currents have shifted, Iceland has experienced long periods (centuries) of frigid temperatures and less productive farming and fishing (and losses in population). For a scientific explanation, Google "Holocene periodicity in North Atlantic climate and deep-ocean flow south of Iceland by Giancarlo G. Bianchi & I. Nicholas McCave."

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