J. Peder Zane

May 20, 2014

Zane: Constant study, not crystal balls, the right call on climate

The stance taken by the NC Coastal Resources Commission stipulates that climate change has occurred - it is not a hoax - and is a pressing issue. That's why it demands constant study. But it also acknowledges that climate science is filled with uncertainty because it often exceeds the boundaries of our knowledge.

Cooler heads are emerging in the overheated discussion of climate change. The N.C. Coastal Resources Commission announced last week that it will no longer ask members of a state science panel to trade their lab coats for crystal balls. Instead of trying to do the impossible – accurately predict sea levels into the next century – the panel will prepare a 30-year forecast, to be updated every five years.

This makes eminent sense as the panel’s 2010 estimate – that seas levels might rise between 15 and 60 inches by century’s end – was less scientific finding than somewhat informed guess, akin to a doctor saying your creepy rash might be an annoyance or a death sentence.

The commission’s let’s-not-get-too-far-ahead-of-ourselves approach is a welcome rainbow of reason in a scientific discussion that has been clouded by politics. Not surprisingly, the loudest voices tend to be the most extreme.

One voice belongs to climate change activists including President Obama, who falsely claim that “the debate’s over” while smugly dismissing all skeptics as members of “ the flat-Earth society.”

The other voice belongs to climate change deniers who dismiss clear evidence that the earth has warmed and the seas are rising. They are supported by larger groups of uninformed people who have a knee-jerk distrust of liberals and fear mitigating actions will cost them jobs and money.

I believe the commission’s actions offer a third voice, one that calls for ongoing open and honest analysis. This stance does not split the difference: It stipulates that climate change has occurred – it is not a hoax – and is a pressing issue. That’s why it demands constant study. But it also acknowledges that climate science is filled with uncertainty because it often exceeds the boundaries of our knowledge.

To make predictions, climate scientists must create immensely complex models and computer simulations, estimating the specific influence of a dizzying array of variables, many of which (such as deep ocean temperatures) are hard to know or measure. At the heart of this work is the conclusion that the rise of heat-trapping greenhouse gases, especially carbon dioxide released by burning fossil fuels, will warm the globe and change the climate. This requires science and art. Like any human endeavor, it is vulnerable to preconceived notions and expected outcomes.

The earth has indeed warmed by about 1.8 degree Fahrenheit since the 1970s, as CO2 levels have risen. However, the warming has plateaued during the last 16 years, even though we have pumped billions of tons of CO2into the atmosphere. A study in the prestigious journal Nature Climate Change found that the rate of actual warming 1998-2012 is “four times smaller” than that predicted by most models.

The New York Times reports scientists are puzzled by the slowdown in warming: “Practitioners of climate science would like to understand exactly what is going on. They admit that they do not.”

This is not small beer; it goes to the heart of the theory. It should give pause to those who claim they can predict the future or who seek to tie tribal wars and terrorist attacks to climate change.

Fair-minded people should be able to agree that the earth has warmed and the seas are rising – for reasons that are not altogether clear. These trends should continue for the foreseeable future – but we don’t how long or how strong they will be. Human activity seems the most likely cause – but it may turn out to be a secondary factor.

Science is the best tool we have to understand nature, but it is as imperfect as we are. In the 1970s, scientists warned of a looming ice age. Researchers recently raised serious questions about the bedrock belief of modern medicine: the link between saturated fat and heart attacks.

Science is seldom settled.

I understand that climate change activists are afraid to admit doubts for fear it will provide ammunition to the deniers. But honest discussion is always best. And, truth be told, the debate in America is somewhat beside the point. We are already leading the world in reducing carbon emissions – they fell by 12 percent in the U.S. between 2005 and 2012. But we are not prepared to engage in the massive reductions required to cool the planet.

Even if we radically restructured our society, the rest of the world would not follow. The dramatic rise in global carbon emissions over the last few decades has provided enormous benefits, lifting hundreds of millions of Indians and Chinese out of abject poverty. Millions more are looking to join them. Industrialization is the best hope for impoverished Africans. Given no realistic alternatives, burning fossil fuels represents their best hope for a better life.

Would it be moral to consign them to a life of misery and want?

Contributing columnist J. Peder Zane can be reached at jpederzane@jpederzane.com.

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