Global Warming, Record Lows - Fiddling while Rome burns

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Thu, Nov 30, 2006, 4:00 pm  //  Tip Johnson

"When do you wreck it as a system? It's like going up to the edge of a cliff, not really knowing where it is. Common sense says you shouldn't discover where the edge is by passing over it, but that's what we're doing with deforestation and climate change." Thomas E. Lovejoy, Director of the H. John Heinz III Center for Science, Economics and the Environment and co-editor of the seminal "Global Warming and Biological Diversity".

We are breaking a lot of weather records all over the world. Record cold, record heat, record wet, record drought, record wind and storms. Even a record number of media interview requests at the National Weather Service. This kind of noticeable change in global weather patterns is not a good sign. Complex multi-variate, non-linear systems have remarkable abilities to moderate influences, but only up to a point. They can also can exhibit cascading failures that can catastrophically accelerate change.

Imagine a ball in a bowl. Let's say the ball is the "system" and the bowl is the "environment". The ball, or system, can handle all manner of poking, prodding and rocking perturbations, always settling back into its stable environmental basin.

Now imagine that a combination of influences exert pressure on the bowl to gradually invert its shape. As the bowl becomes a dome, increasingly small perturbations can send the ball rolling, possible right off the edge of the table - right over the cliff Lovejoy thinks we should avoid.

Global warming is not just about warming. It's about greater temperature differentials and meteorological variability. Besides a rising sea-level, that means more storms, higher winds, more weather records of all kinds. In fact, the folks at Wood's Hole Oceanographic Institute remind us that it's a very complex system with much more going on than just greenhouse gasses. They've published an article, "Are We on the Brink of a 'New Little Ice Age?'" on the potential for a new ice age.

While there may be disagreement on the extent, no one disputes that climate change will bring serious economic disruption. And if our recent meteorologic variability is any measure, it's true. We just witnessed our economy get seriously attenuated by a few inches of snow - and the lack of a couple snow plows.

Meanwhile, a dozen states and several cities whose economies are seriously threatened by rising sea-levels, have sued our government to force the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate emissions of carbon dioxide - a significant greenhouse gas, but not a priority pollutant under the Clean Air Act.

Today, fiddling like Nero, Justice Scalia cracked a joke that got the court giggling and then explained, ""I told you before I'm not a scientist. That's why I don't want to have to deal with global warming." There's a good strategy! Where's that cliff? Hang-gliding anyone?

Speaking of broken records, have a little sympathy for environmentalists. Since Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring", I can't think of a single time they've been wrong. They keep telling us over and over and over again. It must be frustrating to be so right and so continually marginalized by government, industry and the media.

That's where we need to see change, not in our climate.

Related Links:

-> Are We on the Brink of a 'New Little Ice Age?'
-> Supreme Court giggles over CO2
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Global Warming, Record Lows - Fiddling while Rome burns

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