World of Wonders

When we see things that aren’t, we miss the wonderful things that are.

Extreme Weather Calls for Extreme Care in How We Write about Climate Change

As the death tolls rise in step with temperatures in Russia and flood waters in Pakistan, and with each passing “hottest-on-record” month, it’s tempting to think this summer’s extraordinary weather is incontrovertible proof of global warming.

Russia fighting fires

The sentiment is a common thread of daily conversation; it’s reflected in science blogs and mainstream media. For example, in an article in the Telegraph this week, Environment Correspondent Louise Gray writes that, “Experts…said the recent ‘extreme weather events’ prove global warming is already happening.” (My emphasis.)

But do experts actually say that? And do these events really prove global warming?

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Filed under: climate change, science literacy, ,

Climate Change: Take a chill pill?

According to columnist Neil Reynolds of the Globe and Mail, when it comes to global warming, we can all relax. As he advises in the title of his July 19th column, “Please Remain Calm: The Earth will heal itself.”

The title is the message Reynolds takes from an article by Nobel laureate and physicist Robert Laughlin in the summer issue of The American Scholar. In “What the Earth Knows”, Laughlin writes that we shouldn’t be overly concerned about climate change, nor our consumption of fossil fuels, because our planet has endured global devastations in the past and has always recovered. “The Earth,” he writes, “has suffered mass volcanic explosions, floods, meteor impacts, mountain formation, and all manner of other abuses greater than anything people could inflict, and it’s still here. It’s a survivor.”

To be clear, Laughlin doesn’t appear to be a global warming denier. In his article he clearly states: “Carbon dioxide from the human burning of fossil fuel is building up in the atmosphere at a frightening pace, enough to double the present concentration in a century. This build-up has the potential to raise average temperatures on the earth several degrees centigrade, enough to modify the weather and accelerate melting of the polar ice sheets.”

But the conclusion he comes to is the same as that of deniers: there is no need to act. There is no need to alter our profligate fossil fuel consumption. Carbon caps, carbon sequestration research, alternate energy technologies, turning off your air conditioner, refrigerator and television set, turning down your thermostat, driving a hybrid car—none of these measures are necessary. In his words, “the Earth doesn’t care.”

What’s more, “Climate ought not to concern us too much when we’re gazing into the energy future, not because it’s unimportant, but because it’s beyond our power to control.” At best, any changes we make in our use of fossil fuels will merely change the amount of time it takes to turn them into carbon, after which the planet will subsequently and naturally reabsorb them.

The problem is that Laughlin confuses global upheavals like volcanism, meteor impacts and mountain formation with a phenomenon like human-caused global warming. Thousands of air travellers grounded in Europe this year became only too familiar with our inability to control volcanoes. But while we may not be able to control such forces of nature, we can control anthropogenic climate change. We created it—we can un-create it. After all, we faced a similar global threat when we burned a hole in the ozone layer but, thanks to the Montreal Protocol in limiting CFCs, we are well on our way to defusing that danger.

Laughlin also confuses the enduring planet with the life on it. Yes, the Earth is a “survivor.” It has recovered from global upheavals much greater in magnitude than global warming. But there’s a difference between the planet and the fragile life-forms on it. We could consume all our fossil fuel reserves as recklessly and rapidly as possible, and the Earth would heal itself. It could put up with a rise in global temperatures and ocean levels, and drastic extremes in weather. The planet would survive—but that doesn’t mean we would. And that’s a chilling prospect.

Filed under: climate change, media, ,

Climate Change and Journalism: Truth in the balance

Leonardo DiCaprio describes Climate Cover-up as “an imperative read”, Wade Davis calls it “an essential book”, and Frank D. Gilliam Jr. says it is “a must-read.” How is it then that the author of such an important book on global warming isn’t a climate scientist, but instead is a public relations professional?

Because, as the book’s author James Hoggan writes in the introduction, the scientific debate concerning global warming is over. “Every science academy in every major developed country in the world [has] stated clearly that the world’s climate is changing dangerously and humans are to blame.” As he and co-author Richard Littlemore portray in depth in Climate Cover-up, the greatest climate change challenge today isn’t the science; it is the organized campaign to manipulate public opinion and maintain the illusion that human-caused global warming is still unproven and the science controversial.

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Filed under: climate change, media, ,

Just how much science does our science minister understand?

To many in the research community, last week’s federal budget cut to the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmosphere Sciences is a sign that the Harper government is “skeptical of climate-change science and hostile to those who provide evidence that aggressive action must be taken to avert catastrophic global warming.” As a result of the cut, scientists have begun to shut down the Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory, located on Ellsmere Island some 1,100 kilometres from the North Pole, which served as a base for the collection of data on climate change.

Skeptical of climate-change science? The report reminded me of the flap from a year ago, when Gary Goodyear, our science minister, refused to reveal if he believed in evolution. His initial refusal, followed by a confusing and disingenuous “yes, I believe in evolution”, bolstered the suspicions of many that our science minister was a creationist and wasn’t quite on the same page as Darwin when it came to the origin of species.

You have to wonder what other scientific concepts–along with climate change and evolution–Goodyear doesn’t quite have a handle on. Germ theory, plate tectonics, gravity, atomic theory? Should we worry about future cuts to Canada’s space program because he’s pretty sure the Earth is flat?

Filed under: climate change, evolution, politics, science literacy, , , ,

About me

CHRIS SASAKI
I am a Toronto-based writer, author and photographer who is inspired and fascinated by science. Science is our best way of understanding the natural world, but it is much more than that. Science is culture, and its pursuit ultimately leads to meaning, values and wonder.  My interests include evolution, Darwin, the Galapagos Islands, secular humanism, religion, skepticism, climate change, and science culture.  For many years, I wrote and produced astronomy programs for the McLaughlin Planetarium of the Royal Ontario Museum. I am author of many books for young readers (Sterling Publishing and Penguin Young Readers, N.Y.) and articles for children's magazines. I also write non-fiction related to the themes reflected in this blog. You can read some of my longer non-fiction and view my photographs at www.chrissasaki.com, and follow me at www.twitter.com/chrissasaki.

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