When I was in college here in SoCal, I had a fascinating summer class taught by a professor from the University of Hawaii on regional climatology. It was just for fun (I was a history major) and brought into focus the many aspects of climatology and its effects on both the history of the earth and human history. The most important takeaway was and is that the complexity of weather exists both at a global level and at regional levels, with microclimates within the latter. The effects of everything from atmospheric gases to amounts of light or dark areas on the earth’s surface to the persistence of cloud (or volcanic ash) cover all interact in complex ways.
That was decades ago, and since then the power of computers and the complexity of weather models have increased exponentially. And climatology remains just as important as it always has both for the planet and for the life on it within the thin biosphere from ocean bottom to outer edges of the surrounding atmosphere. Historical climatology demonstrates how profoundly climate can alter life on the planet, including extinctions on massive scales. The Gaia theory posits that plants and animals can alter the composition of the atmosphere by their existence and activities, which can enhance or impair their survival over time depending on their adaptability.
We now live in the (informally named) Anthropocene period, indicating the results of the existence and activities of humans on the planet and its weather. Humans are a very recent development, mere minutes at the end of the last day of the year if a calendar year represents the history of the universe and this planet. You can see where this is going. Those with interests in science have been contemplating the effects of mankind on the earth since at least the 16th century, when humans numbered in the mid hundreds of millions, not billions. If there’s anything we’ve learned from the various disciplines of science that didn’t even exist that long ago, it’s that seemingly small changes can have subtle but cumulative effects over time.
The war on science has always existed. Be it evolution, contraception or climatology, when science meets religion, belief or special interests, the intellectual progress of humans comes to an abrupt halt. My inherently pragmatic response to new information is to reconsider and rethink what it means, and I find it incomprehensible why anyone wouldn’t do the same. After all, the alternative of ignoring information makes no sense, particularly when the amount of information is huge and highly regarded.
When it comes to climatology, there are so many interrelationships that it’s hardly surprising the cumulative effect is so significant. If small changes can have long-term consequences, large changes have even greater impact. For example, as ocean water becomes warmer it contains fewer nutrients, which in turn mean fewer plankton, the tiny creatures that represent a fundamental food source for the biological pyramid above them. Plankton are also an inhibitor of carbon dioxide. With reduced masses of plankton, there is increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. This is just one example among many. Those individuals most resistant to the influence of humans on climate change are also the least likely to have knowledge of the details and what the long-term effects will be.
Which brings us to opinion as truth. Truth is not a matter of opinion unless there is either insufficient evidence (who, what, where, when and, often the most difficult, why) or credible questions regarding the evidence. Even then, opinion is not actually truth but rather related to the evidence itself. The evidence determines truth. For example, is the climate changing? Yes. The is true and not in dispute. What does the evidence say regarding cyclical climatology versus climatological change driven by human activities? More than 97 percent of climatologists agree that humans are driving the scale and rapidity of the changes.
We have comparative climate data for hundreds of thousands of years to use in gauging current levels and rates of change, and the current numbers far exceed historical data. The conclusion seems inescapable…unless one has reasons for not wanting to accept this reality — and these reasons are neither science nor scientific. They are, instead, about agendas and special interests and ideology and simple denial. For this pragmatist, there is no truth in any of these. The war on science has always been truth versus those who want the world to be a certain way regardless of how it really is.
It comes down to this. What needs to be done, should be done, can be done to slow down climate change remains controversial and contentious even when there is agreement that doing nothing is not a viable option. Reversal of climate change is also not an option. The challenges for those who will be living with climate change consequences later in this century will only be made worse by how little is done now. Pragmatism is about truth — not necessarily optimism, and the truth is that the twenty-first century may determine much about the quality of life on earth for a very long time.