Four very hot years

Last year was the fourth warmest year on record. 2016 was the warmest and 2017 the second warmest. Four of the five hottest years on record have happened since 2014.

The science on climate change is settled, has been for a long time. Articles in the 1800s  describe the effect of civilization on the environment–how the emission of carbon dioxide into the air creates a greenhouse effect. Articles from almost 200 years ago!

“The establishment and progress of human societies, the action of natural forces, can notably change, and in vast regions, the state of the surface, the distribution of water and the great movements of the air. Such effects are able to make to vary, in the course of many centuries, the average degree of heat; because the analytic expressions contain coefficients relating to the state of the surface and which greatly influence the temperature.”  –Fourier, 1827.

“The highest effect of the sun’s rays I have found to be in carbonic acid gas. … An atmosphere of that gas would give to our earth a high temperature; and if, as some suppose, at one period of its history, the air had mixed with it a larger proportion than at present, an increased temperature from its own action, as well as from increased weight, must have necessarily resulted.”  –Eunice Foote, 1856.

Forced warming has been understood since long before we grew addicted to oil. Think about that!

As a personal issue, climate change got into my head in the early 1990s. It’s also why I switched my personal research goals to planetary science. Previously, I was on the human genome project, and I taught pre-nursing majors at local colleges (these things are important, too).  But the global threat of climate change on ecosystems and human well-being–to me very little else seems to hold much of a candle in terms of degree of systems-level threat.

And the science is settled. So why do governments fail to enact sufficient policy?

I have a few ideas about this. Sometimes I think it’s down to guilt, or simple biological drive, or maybe denial. Maybe it’s the time span of a human experience vs. the time span of a measurable geological process. We can measure climate changing over, say, a decade. (Not true forty years ago–the rate of change is accelerating.) But we live and breathe in work weeks and seasons, holidays and school years. We don’t think in decades.

In biology, animals are ‘consumers.’ Every consumer generates carbon dioxide as part of their biology, and humans do this more than most because we also have fire.

Increasing the number of consumers (especially fire-makers) compared to producers (otherwise known as plants, which absorb carbon dioxide and convert it to sugars) has a spiraling effect on the mass balance of carbon in our world and air. The carbon cycle.

Maybe the reason we aren’t acting in ‘big enough ways’ regarding climate change is because the information about the problem is scientific instead of emotional. I don’t know, but it’s one idea.

The author Ursula Le Guin has said that science fiction writers tell lies, create fictions to reveal truth, with an intent not of predicting the future but of describing how things are. By this thinking, the lies of fiction reveal the truth of being.

Maybe through fiction, authors can move hearts in a way that scientists cannot. Maybe fiction is the means through which we will decide to act on the science of climate change. Fewer gallons of gas, keeping the thermostat down, insulating homes better, smaller family size, buying local, growing our own food, recycling, voting on climate, reforesting, restructuring our economy, demanding transparency in the energy sector, developing and using carbon-free energy sources. There are so many ways to become carbon-less, or carbon negative. We are innovative. We care, all of us. With luck, writers might make a difference where, to date, science seems to have gained too little traction.

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