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Per Capita Davis: Take a look in the mirror

By From page A3 | November 07, 2013

When we look in the mirror, we see ourselves. Or, more precisely, we see ourselves backwards: my left arm looks like the right arm of the impostor in the mirror. It turns out that we can’t, without some optical gymnastics, really see ourselves as others see us.

And, collectively, we tend to view ourselves through the lens of our own history and culture. It’s hard for us, for example, knowing ourselves to be good-hearted people, to understand why much of the world has an antagonism toward us as a country.

So it’s interesting to me to read the foreign press, to see what others are saying about the United States as it relates to climate change. And I appreciate those friends who regularly travel, or just travel the Internet, and send me news articles from other countries.

Anyway, this is sort of a long way around to talking about a portion of the soon-to-be-released report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change: to some, the pinnacle of scientific consensus; to others, the perpetrators of the greatest hoax in history.

Given the task of identifying potential risks from greenhouse gas emissions, this is (or will be) the first report since 2007. The controversy already has begun. Are these scientists lying or are they telling the truth? Before even trying to answer that question, there is at least one thing nobody seems to dispute: The report is already way out of date.

If you’ve ever experienced the “consensus” method of decision-making, you know how long and tedious it can be to get everyone to agree. A consensus-based process tends to eliminate extremes from both (or all) sides and wanders toward of a middle-of-the-road that offends no one. It’s very hard to generate a radical decision when consensus is required.

The “climate change is a hoax” crowd (actually, it’s not really a big enough group to be properly referred to as a crowd) is trying hard to poke holes in the report (some of it was leaked before the final editing session). But the document is also being criticized by “climate change believers” (I hate that term; it’s not about belief, it’s about recognizing science) who are upset that in the time it has taken to prepare the report (a couple of years) the landscape has changed significantly, and not for the better.

The requirement for consensus requires that new information not be accepted after an agreed upon cutoff date so that the goal posts are fixed and immovable. According to these folks, there is recent evidence that the permafrost is thawing faster than anyone had predicted, and that polar ice (both poles) is disappearing (melting) faster than anticipated. Each of these phenomena has a “feedback mechanism” that could cause trouble.

Until I started learning about climate change I thought “feedback” was either a kind word for criticism or what happens when the electric guitar gets too close to the amplifier. No such luck: These feedback mechanisms are serious business.

In terms of the permafrost, there is more than twice the carbon (methane) lurking in this frozen ground than is currently in the atmosphere. When the climate warms, the soil thaws over the summer and only partially refreezes in the winter, so that next summer there are lots of small ponds, which again don’t freeze over the winter, and which then become lakes.

The increased warming of the soil becomes irreversible as the “feedback” of accelerated warming allows the release of more and more of the carbon that was heretofore trapped in and under the frozen ground.

Same thing with the polar ice. As the air temperature gets warmer, more ice melts, the blue water absorbs incoming sunlight rather than reflecting it as was the case with the white ice, and the feedback loop accelerates the process to where it becomes irreversible.

So how does this all tie into how the world sees the United States and our “debate” over climate change? How do other countries view our “debate” over the consensus of nearly a thousand scientists, the best that each country has in the field? What do people see when scientists tell us that they are 95 percent sure that global warming is real and humans are causing it and powerful interests and people in our country respond, “See, they really aren’t sure”?

Scientists, careful persons that they are, as a point of intellectual integrity never claim absolute certainty. To make their discipline and methodology more plain for us ordinary folks, they tell us (remember, this is a consensus document) that they are as certain of their climate change findings as they are that smoking can cause cancer.

So, when the rest of the world looks at this report, they’ll note that it includes a scary warning about food supply, predicting serious disruption to agriculture at a time when demand for food is growing. They’ll notice how many billion poor people in their countries live near coasts that will be the first to experience the flooding and dislocation sea level rise.

Maybe it’s just me, but I think they’ll wonder how it is that we can’t see what is so obvious to everyone else.

— John Mott-Smith is a resident of Davis; this column is published on the first and third Thursdays of each month. Reach him at [email protected]

John Mott-Smith

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