Climate change in America
Two categorical positions about climate change dominate conversations
around the world. The first argues that the scientific community is in
broad agreement that all the signs support the conclusion that the earth is
growing warmer; that the reason it is growing warmer involves human
activity, especially greenhouse gases caused by burning fossil fuels; and
that the results could be catastrophic.
The second point of view, broadly speaking, holds that there is no global
warming which is inconsistent with nature's own fluctuation in global
temperatures, that if there is global warming it has not been adequately
proven to be the result of human activity, and/or that the warnings about
catastrophe are insufficiently supported by fact.
No serious group or individual can ignore the reality or inevitability of
climate change. The history of planet Earth is one of recurring climate
changes, including ice ages and, at one time, enough global cooling to
engulf the whole planet in ice and snow. And no serious person can deny the
role of greenhouse gases in changing Earth's temperatures. It was almost
certainly such gases from volcanoes that freed the earth from the ice.
The reason for the debate's intensity is the expense of taking action
against greenhouse gas production. The world community's most visible
effort to address the problem is an agreement called the Kyoto Protocol,
passed in December 1997. The Protocol, which has been rejected by the Bush
administration, went into effect Feb. 16. Proponents of Kyoto cite the
growing probability of devastating impacts.
The warnings are explicit in numerous publications, but two provide a good
preview: "Honesty About Dangerous Climate Change" by Paul Baer and Tom
Athanasiou, found on the EcoEquity Web site; and "On the Risk to Overshoot
2 Degrees C" by Malte Meinshausen, listed at Scientific Symposium "Avoiding
Dangerous Climate Change," (Exeter, MetOffice, United Kingdom, Feb. 2). A
Feb. 25 article at Asia Times Online lists these and other citations of
studies which have energized the international community to action to urge
governments to try to slow the release of greenhouse gases.
The most dire warnings are that a "tipping" point could be reached beyond
which it will not be possible to reverse changes which will stimulate
widespread changes in weather patterns, sea levels and who-knows-what.
Because of the current cultural dynamic in American journalism, news media
seek second opinions on such issues without investigating the motives of
the sources. When a report on global warming is released, a variety of
"think-tank" representatives - advocates of an ideology which refuses to
accept or is paid to reject such conclusions - expresses the view that the
scientific conclusions are either "bad science" or based on insufficient
The most convincing rebuttal of these ideologues is contained in an article
by a University of California professor that appeared in the
internationally-respected journal Science in December 2004. She found that
all 928 peer-reviewed climate studies from 1993 - 2003 agreed with a
generally-accepted scientific consensus. Not a single scientific study
The so-called controversy about science and climate change has some of the
elements of the current issues that surround evolution. The scientific
community accepts that the overwhelming evidence in rock fossils and the
study of species, while people with an ideological agenda continue to
insist evolution is merely theory, mostly because it conflicts with their
beliefs in Scripture.
Advancing science around this topic has been moving rapidly. As recently as
March, the Clean Air: Cool Planet (CAAP) and the Climate Change Research
Center at the University of New Hampshire pinpointed changes to the
region's climate in their report, "Indicators of Climate Change in the
Northeast." A broad range of indicators, including decreases in snowfall, a
decrease of 16 days of snow cover over the past 30 years, ice-out dates on
lakes earlier by 9 - 16 days in the Northeast and earlier spring bloom
dates of 4 - 8 days add up to hard evidence of the increasing impacts of
global warming. On the same day, Penn State glaciologist Richard B. Alley
issued a statement that spring snows in the Arctic have decreased and that
sea ice is smaller and thinner: all signs of continuing warming.
The Climate Change group released photographs March 15 showing that the ice
atop Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa is melting and could disappear completely
by 2020. The change could signal significant disruptions to ecosystems on
the plains below. That same day, UK spokesman Gordon Brown stated at a G8
meeting: "We have sufficient evidence that human-made climate change is the
most far-reaching and almost certainly the most threatening of all the
environmental challenges facing us."
He urged that a list of problems ranging from soil erosion to the depletion
of marine stocks will continue to threaten future economic activity.
Wealthy nations have caused these problems, he said, and they should fix
U.S. delegate James Connaughton told the BBC that the science was still
contested. The populated areas of Europe, which lie further north than the
populated areas of North America and could experience dramatic climate
changes, have led the efforts to reverse course. Almost all observers agree
that the Kyoto Protocol is flawed and that as currently constituted, is not
an answer to greenhouse gas emissions; but the U.S. refusal to play a role
in planning for reductions has helped alienate and isolate America from the
rest of the world.
Traditional indigenous people, most notably the Hopi and the Haudenosaunee
(or Iroquois), have long warned about a possible backlash at the hands of
nature that could include dramatic climate events. And indigenous people,
especially in the Arctic, have been among the first to demand that
industrialized nations do something to meet the threat. They have even
launched lawsuits claiming that inaction amounts to genocide of a sort. If
polar bears could sue, they'd undoubtedly make the same claim. Some
scientists, and indigenous people, think warming could place the polar bear
in danger of extinction.
The debate over global warming highlights an unexpected phenomenon in U.S.
culture. The U.S., an enthusiastic participant in the 18th century
intellectual movement known as the enlightenment, seems poised to turn its
back on the method of skeptical inquiry into patterns of fact and revert to
old ways which sought answers to all questions in Scripture.
Some Indian prophecies predict very difficult times, but not an end to all
life. Contemporary American culture, especially its political culture, is
influenced by expectations of a biblical end-time, a "second coming" and
the end of nature. Who would have thought a time would come when the Indian
prophets and the scientists would be on one side, and the end-of-nature
crowd would direct environmental policy from Washington?
John C. Mohawk Ph.D., columnist for Indian Country Today, is an author and
professor in the Center for the Americas at the State University of New
York at Buffalo.