Three events coincided last month. In his second inaugural 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 Feb. 17.
In his Jan. 21 address, Obama 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 toward sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult. But America cannot resist this transition. We must lead it.”
Guzman’s book provides a bleak and frightening text in support of Obama’s call for action. Guzman 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 hundreds of millions of lives, if we are lucky. If we are unlucky, perhaps billions.”
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 analyzes 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.
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. Of course, his message is that we need to address the causes of climate change.
While I strongly support his 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 50 percent or even 20 percent. Isn’t it still worth hedging our bets by addressing the concerns he raises? If Guzman proves to be wrong, then 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.
Nowak’s flier calls attention to a Sierra Club Niagara-sponsored bus that will take local participants to the climate Washington rally. The cost per person is $70, but scholarships are available. For more information write firstname.lastname@example.org. There will be a related fundraiser from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. on Friday at the Sportsmen’s Tavern.