Overheated

 

(This 1141st Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on February 3, 2013.)

 

Three events coincided this week. In his 2nd Inauguration Address President Obama urged action on climate change. I received the book Overheated: The Human Cost of Climate Change by University of California at Berkeley Law Professor Andrew Guzman. And Bill Nowak forwarded a flier about a "Forward on Climate Rally" in Washington on February 17.

 

In his January 21 address the president said, "We, the people, still believe that our obligations as Americans are not just to ourselves, but to all posterity. We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations."

 

He continued, "Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms. The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult. But American cannot resist this transition. We must lead it."

 

Guzman's book provides a bleak and frightening text in support of the president's call for action. He wrote it, he says, because he "became more and more convinced that the most important hurdle to meaningful action on climate change is the fact that people have not come to accept how serious it is."

 

Writing as a lawyer and economist rather than a meteorologist, he tells us, "Over time, I found myself putting together a story about how a seemingly modest increase in temperature of a couple of degrees is enough to make the seas rise, food production collapse, nations go to war, and disease spread virtually unchecked. It was becoming clear, in a way that I felt was not widely appreciated, that the consequences of these changes will be measured by the hundreds of millions of lives, if we are lucky. If we are unlucky, perhaps billions."

 

He then goes on to provide chapter and verse for his apocalyptic scenario. First he offers a detailed outsider's analysis of the science for and against climate change including a comparison of the most respected climate change skeptics with the most respected scientists who support human-caused climate change. His analysis speaks strongly for the climate scientists.

 

Accepting climate change projections, he then analyses the human outcomes in the years ahead. In doing so he is careful to use simple analogies. For example, he compares the effect of icebergs and glaciers melting with ice cubes in a large pan of warm water. Like icebergs the melting ice cubes already in the water cause no rise in the water level, because ice displaces its own weight in water. Melting land-based glaciers, on the other hand, add new water to the pan and cause the water level to rise as is happening today.

 

In separate chapters he addresses the human effects of sea level rise, drought, fire and disease, all caused by climate change. His projections are horrific: island nations under water and shore communities driven inland, widespread famine, whole communities burned out and contagion abroad in the land.

 

Guzman has written what is indeed a frightening book. I found myself wondering, "Why is this man smiling?" in the dust jacket photograph. Of course, his message is that we need to address the causes of climate change.

 

While I strongly support his (and the president's and Nowak's) call for action, I do not believe that we need to accept Guzman's projections as necessary outcomes. Even the skeptics should be prepared to accept that the future COULD be bleak if we don't act now. Perhaps the chance of those things happening is only 80% or 50% or even 20%, isn't it still worth hedging our bets by addressing the concerns Guzman raises? If then Guzman proves to be wrong, skeptics can say, "I told you so," but if he and the overwhelming majority of the scientific community are right, then we will have catastrophic consequences. And some, like Hurricane Sandy, have already happened.

 

Nowak's flier calls attention to a Sierra Club Niagara-sponsored bus that will take local participants to the climate Washington rally.-- Gerry Rising