Our family drove to eastern Washington this autumn. We encountered stunning views shaped by massive geologic events. The weekend trip inspired me to think about climate change–both climate change caused by natural forces since the beginning of Earth, and climate change caused by human forces.
Traces of our region’s tumultuous past abound in central and eastern Washington. Potholes State Park, where we stayed, is named for the small bodies of water scattered around the area. Depressions–dozens of feet wide and up to sixty feet deep–formed during the last Ice Age.
We drove north to Dry Falls State Park to hike and learn more about the geologic history of the region. Dry Falls was the largest waterfall to have existed on Earth–two and a half times higher and five times wider than Niagra Falls. It developed during the last Ice Age as a result of an enormous sheet of ice that dammed up rivers, creating Glacial Lake Missoula. The water broke through the ice dam, causing repeated floods, turning many square miles of ground into what is called the Channeled Scablands, and creating a monster waterfall.
Evidence of tremendous, natural climate change surrounded us. This reminded me of a presentation by a professional climate change skeptic I heard when I happened to attend a Rotary Club meeting in Medford, Oregon in 1991 or 1992. The man spoke for a long time, citing fact after fact about the great geologic and meteorologic changes our planet has experienced naturally over many thousands of years.
Before hearing him, I thought it likely climate change was intensifying due to pollution, but he inundated us with data to build his case that climate change could all be explained by natural phenomena. I left unsure, and open to either possibility. Over the years, my belief grew stronger that humans were causing our dangerous rapid climate change, and I felt Al Gore’s 2006 film about global warming, An Inconvenient Truth, built an irrefutable case.
It has become clear large corporations that profit from the burning of fossil fuels insidiously have paid scientists and others to distort the evidence of human-caused climate change, much as tobacco companies hired scientists and public relations personnel to confuse the public regarding the link between their products and cancer.
I appreciate having heard that detailed presentation by a professional climate change skeptic; it helps me better understand the deluge of information that has convinced so many people climate change is solely a natural phenomenon. But here are four points worth making to people unsure whether human pollutants are disrupting our climate:
1. The skeptic I heard presented himself as having extensively and objectively examined the scientific studies involved in global warming. Yet it is a great hypocrisy that such skeptics rely heavily on scientific research about natural climate change over the course of Earth’s geologic history, then discount equally rigorous scientific studies and virtual worldwide consensus of the experts involved when it comes to current climate change caused by humans.
2. The scientific consensus around human-caused climate change has reached the same degree of certainty as the scientific consensus that smoking causes cancer.
3. The conservative response should be to reduce the risk of human-caused climate change, as denying the risk is reckless, not conservative. The evidence points to a minimum of 95% certainty that more greenhouse gases released into our atmosphere by burning fossil fuels and other human industry increases climate chaos. Normally, people respond to small risks by doing such things as purchasing insurance, wearing seatbelts, acquiring guns, or keeping their children inside. It is irrational to then avoid responding to a ruinous global risk that is nearly certain.
4. The stakes couldn’t be higher: more intense storms including hurricanes and tornadoes, increased flooding, submerged coastlines and islands, more droughts and water shortages, more forest fires, adverse soil impacts, and the loss of many species of animals and plants. As a result of most of these factors, famines are expected to increase in number and severity, and populations are likely to move from regions where conditions become too harsh, leading to increased tensions between nations.
We know what we need to do to solve this human-made climate crisis: more than anything else, we need to stop burning fossil fuels. Our environment needs all fossil fuels to stay in the ground. Our individual choices matter, but our collective choices, channeled through our government, matter much more: whether tax breaks go to oil companies, or to develop green energy industries; whether public funds are used to build more roads, or public transit and bicycle paths; whether we base our economy on the need to constantly expand, or we develop new economic models that are more sustainable.
Let’s keep our rivers flowing, and our waterfalls cascading.
(All photos from our family album, taken October 26 and 27, 2013 in central and eastern Washington State.)