Jolting Contrasts

By Bryan Walker 12/09/2011

I read this morning yet another dismal report on the extraordinary lengths to which Republican politicians hopeful of nomination as presidential candidate in America are going in their denial of climate change. Then I watched an excellent PBS television interview with a couple of intelligent and knowledgeable American scientists which regular Hot Topic commenter Bill had recommended.

It was an extraordinary juxtaposition, all the more surreal because both relate to Texas. How does a country like the US, with scientists and scientific institutions so advanced, manage to throw up leading politicians so wilfully ignorant?  (That’s a rhetorical question unless your answer has nothing to do with money.)

Rick Perry, the Governor of Texas, a current frontrunner for the Republican nomination, had this to say in a recent televised debate between the nominees:

Harris (moderator): Just recently in New Hampshire, you said that, weekly and even daily, scientists are coming forward to question the idea that human activity is behind climate change. Which scientists have you found most credible on this subject?

Perry: Well, I do agree that there is – the science is – is not settled on this. The idea that we would put Americans’ economy at — at- at jeopardy based on scientific theory that’s not settled yet, to me, is just – is nonsense. I mean, it – I mean – and I tell somebody, I said, just because you have a group of scientists that have stood up and said here is the fact, Galileo got outvoted for a spell. But the fact is, to put America’s economic future in jeopardy, asking us to cut back in areas that would have monstrous economic impact on this country is not good economics and I will suggest to you is not necessarily good science. Find out what the science truly is before you start putting the American economy in jeopardy.

His campaign communications director confirmed afterwards that this wasn’t just an off-the-cuff response:

…we shouldn’t jeopardise the jobs and the economy and the future of this country on science that’s not proven. That’s what the governor has said, said tonight and will continue to say going forward.

Well, if the Governor really had any interest in finding out what the science ’truly is’ he could have started by watching the July television interview right in his own state. It was on Houston PBS. Two scientists, Andrew Dessler, (pictured) Professor of Atmospheric Sciences, Texas A&M University and David Bieler, Chair & Associate Professor Geology, Centenary College of Louisiana responded to questions. I’ve embedded the interview below, but I’ll give an edited transcript of a few of their responses here for those who can’t spare the 25 minutes to watch it.

Bieler: We have extracted carbon stored inside the earth and the only place we can probably put that carbon is into the atmosphere. We have undertaken a massive re-allocation in terms of the Earth’s carbon budget. We’ve moved carbon from storage inside the earth to storage into the atmosphere. Some people will argue, oh but the oceans are going to absorb some of that. But that ocean chemistry that absorbs that is also very very fine. It’s not going to take care of the complete volume of carbon that we’ve moved.

Dessler: The premise of your question was based on this common-sense idea that humans are small, but you can’t really use common sense to understand earth science. It’s too massive. Your intuition fails. We think humans are insignificant. Humans have affected everything on the planet…

Humans have loaded the atmosphere with so much carbon at this point that essentially no weather that occurs is unrelated to climate change any more. In many cases we can’t specifically say with accuracy how climate change has affected; in other cases — the weather we’re having in Texas right now — we do have a pretty good idea of how climate change is impacting that. We can say pretty clearly that we’re making the present weather in Texas worse and that, I think, is the best way to think about it. Climate multiplies weather so if you have a heat wave, climate change makes it worse. I wouldn’t think about particular events being caused; I would think about particular events being worsened…

It’s bad news for just about every living thing on the planet. The reason is that humans as well as ecosystems adapt to the climate So we are adapted to our present climate We build cities that are on the coastline, we farm in regions where it makes sense to farm because you get the right growing season temperatures, you get the right growing season precipitations, and if that changes you’re no longer adapted to the climate. We’ve built our world around this climate…There is simply no change in the climate that is going to make the world as a whole better off. Change is bad when it comes to climate.

Bieler: Certain areas are going to be impacted in harsher ways than others. If you think about our situation — the Gulf Coast — very flat; a small rise in sea level brings sea level very far on to the continent. One has to ask questions about how long does it take an eco-system to respond to that change in sea level…Can our marshes keep up with the way sea level rise is encroaching on the continent? And the answer is probably no. The length of time it takes to establish a stable ecosystem that’s going to be productive and be able to sustain itself over long periods of time takes longer than the rate at which the sea level would be encroaching…so what the geologic record tells us here, looking back a long way, is that this is in fact what happens when sea level changes: the continent gets flooded as sea level rises and those ecosystems don’t move, those environments don’t move. They simply get swamped now by marine sediment from the shelf. That would mean that all the salt marshes, things like that, which are so important to economic activity in the Gulf region would be destroyed.  They wouldn’t move northwards so that the economic base would move northward and we wouldn’t really know how to manage recreating those things. So for coastal environments that are flat like ours we’re talking about a simple sea level rise being extraordinarily bad news for the ecosystem.

They go on to point out that the changes are already under way and how bad they eventually get will depend on our response to the need to restrain greenhouse gases. The interview is well worth watching in full, and a welcome antidote to the fevered and foolish denial of Perry. On the other hand it’s also a reminder of how serious for humanity the consequences are and will be if we put in political office people with no capacity to comprehend the magnitude of what we have unleashed.