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Posted at 09:29 AM ET, 07/09/2012

Climate change: Global warming is a fact

Saturday night I hung out in my sauna. Actually I just sat on the front porch. It was 101 degrees at 8:15 p.m., according to the Post website; while weather.com reported that it was 99 degrees. In such situations I prefer the front porch because of the veneer of civilization suggested by the street, the cars, the other houses. The back porch views nature, which, we now know, is not our friend.

We seem to have suddenly jumped from the Holocene back to the Eocene. Soon there will be ferns and palm trees in Greenland.

It’s not climate change that worries me. It’s climate change denialism, and all other forms of anti-scientific thinking, and solution-deferring, and the covering of the eyes in hopes that it will create invisibility.

On “This Week,” George Will blamed the current heat wave on “summer,” which is certainly technically true. He seems to believe that only hysterics get concerned about climate change when the thermometer is stuck at 100 for two weeks and all-time temperature records have fallen in much of the country, and all this coming after a bizarrely winterless winter:

“You asked us -- how do we explain the heat? One word: summer. I grew up in central Illinois in a house without air conditioning. What is so unusual about this? Now, come the winter, there will be a cold snap, lots of snow, and the same guys, like E.J. [Dionne], will start lecturing us. There’s a difference between the weather and the climate. I agree with that. We’re having some hot weather. Get over it.”

I’m not sure that advanced the conversation. Yes, climate and weather are different, but E.J. didn’t argue that the heat wave is due to climate change, he merely argued that it would be prudent to assume that climate change is going to create problems for us and we should take precautions. You can argue solutions all you want, and there is abundant room for disagreement about how to respond most effectively to climate change. But to say it’s just summer is too much like the Black Night in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” saying it’s just a flesh wound.

At some point we should stop litigating the basic question of whether climate change is happening. Climate change is a fact. The spike in atmospheric CO2 is a fact. The dramatic high-latitude warming is a fact. That the trends aren’t uniform and linear, and that there are anomalies here and there, does not change the long-term pattern. The warming trend has flattened out in the last decade but probably only because of air pollution from Chinese coal-fired power plants or somesuch forcing we haven’t fully discovered (smog is hardly the long-term solution we should be seeking). The broader patterns are clear.

Models show the greatest warming spike down the road still, decades hence. Thus in a sense, saying that “this is what global warming is like” whenever we have a heat wave actually understates the problem. Having spent much of my life in Florida, I can tell you, what kills you in summer is not the temperature but the duration of the season, which lasts basically forever — into November or even December in South Florida. So, yeah, 100 degrees in July gets my attention here in DC, but so will a stretch of 85-degree high temperatures in October.

Let’s say it’s April 1999 and you’re watching a baseball game, and a guy comes to the plate who is built like the Pentagon. He is so huge he has muscles not yet described by science. His neck is as wide as his head. He swings the bat so violently that the fans hear a sonic boom. He swings and misses a lot, but when he finally connects, he hits the ball completely out of the stadium and into the players parking lot. Question: Does this mean baseball players are using steroids?

It’s an unfair question, clearly. Babe Ruth used to hit home runs like that, and he wasn’t on steroids, he was on hot dogs and beer. But the scenario I’ve described is consistent with steroid use by baseball players.

Seems to me it’s not the heat, it’s the temerity that’s our real problem – the temerity to think that we can go, quickly, from about a billion people to 7 billion, on our way to 9 billion, with dramatic increases in resource usage and energy consumption and carbon emissions and so on, without it having dramatic consequences for the planet.

My suspicion (and others will recoil from this) is that the planet in the future will have to be managed the way you run a nuclear power plant – lots of engineers, risk assessors, government oversight, a public-private partnership of sorts, with a steady eye toward low-probability but high-consequence events.

This isn’t the Thoreau view of nature, and it will incite objections from those who say we need to just pull back and stop putting so much stress on natural systems. But I think we need more science, more research, more engineering, more innovative solutions, and most of all more political leaders who understand that individual choice and free markets, though essential to modern society, by themselves will not protect the commons from long-term exploitation.

Or maybe the heat has gotten to me. I am retiring now to my fainting couch.

By  |  09:29 AM ET, 07/09/2012

 
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