My Bookmarks on Science & Technology, Climate Change, Astrobiology, Genetics, Evolution

September 23, 2010 – Original Source: Rutland Herald

In a lecture at Middlebury College earlier this week, journalist David Goodman noted that on some factual questions there is little dispute. Everyone knows that the New York Jets defeated the New England Patriots on Sunday.

Why is it that on the question of climate change, about which the facts are piling up all around us, as many as half of Americans don’t believe it is a serious problem?

The reasons for popular resistance to the reality of climate change are many, but that resistance is having far more grievous consequences than a difference of opinion about who won a football game.

The latest factual indication that climate change is upon us is the bleaching of coral reefs around the world, which scientists worry may be prelude to a global die-off of crucial marine ecosystems. According to a New York Times story on Tuesday, scientists have thought for years that corals would be an early indicator of the world’s ecological distress. Now that distress is evident.

Corals are animals that exist in the form of tiny polyps. Coral reef ecosystems have been called the rain forests of the ocean because of their diversity, beauty and the vital function they perform as habitat for marine species.

Corals are extremely sensitive to excessive heat. A previous serious die-off occurred in the eastern Pacific and Caribbean in 1983, and it was associated with an El Nino weather pattern that accounted for unusually high water temperatures. Since then bleaching and mortality have recurred, and scientists have watched with alarm as the baseline temperature of the ocean has risen, making corals more vulnerable to spikes in temperature brought about by events such as El Nino.

Now scientists are more than alarmed. They are watching a new bleaching event on a global scale — from Thailand to the Caribbean. It so happens that the first eight months of this year have equaled the first eight months of 1998 as the hottest January-to-August period ever recorded. And now, as if on cue, organisms in the ocean that are sensitive to heat are on the verge of a die-off.

Of course, scientific facts are subject to interpretation in a way that Sunday’s football scores are not. But the physical evidence of the warming trend has become so pervasive that scientists, with few exceptions, have long ago accepted climate change as the only possible explanation for what is happening.

The world’s scientists are a highly individualistic group of people who carefully monitor the physical world, question the data before them and challenge each other’s conclusions. The sort of unanimity that now prevails is an indicator, not that scientists are mindless sheep or are involved in a nefarious cabal; rather it is an indicator that the evidence is in. There will always be a few contrarians who make a name for themselves by standing against the tide, accusing the other 99 percent of succumbing to political correctness. But there is nothing political or correct about observing the die-off of corals or polar bears or the myriad other bits of evidence around us. These are facts whose relentless accumulation is beyond dispute.

Corporate interests and the politicians who serve them have clouded the issue through mockery and obfuscation. That’s because slowing the rate of climate change will require a fundamental change in the world’s economy. Oil and coal companies don’t like that. Those with a political agenda who seek to discredit climate science do so by saying that it is their opponents who have a political agenda.

But it is hard to see the political gain in taking on the oil or coal industry. If the burning of fossil fuel were not harmful, then why not continue to do it? But we know now that our continued burning of fossil fuels is imperiling ecosystems upon which human life depends.

Coral reefs support extensive fisheries that support millions of people. If the corals die, whole populations of organisms, including sponges, which filter ocean water, and fishes that people eat, will perish.

We will know the final score when the game is over. But the game is not yet over, and it is one we don’t want to lose.

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