Glaciologist Keith Mountain suggested in an interview with The State Journal’s Lindsey Erdody that public perception of global warming (a term he dislikes) hinges largely on what’s happening in the here and now. A steamy summer or a freakishly warm winter makes it easy to believe the world is heating up. In cold and snowy times, doubts creep in.
There’s little dispute that the world is hotter now than it was a century ago. But temperatures vary widely from place to place on a daily basis. Mountain, who studies glaciers to compare past and present climate, believes we should focus less on the daily readings and more on the way climate change is altering our environment.
Sometimes it’s what you don’t see that hurts the most. After an uncommonly warm winter with “spring” storms in January, Kentucky had a brutally hot and dry summer through July, but conditions have moderated lately. More persistent changes are observed far to our north in the Arctic, the freezer compartment of the planetary refrigerator.
The National Snow and Ice Data Center reported this week that the ice cap on the Arctic Ocean, which naturally recedes every summer, set a new shrinkage record in August and is continuing to retreat in September. National Public Radio quoted the center’s Ted Scambos as saying there’s less Arctic ice now than at any time in thousands of years. Once, he said, the sheet was so thick that a few warm summers hardly fazed it. Now, prolonged warming has left it so thin that even average summer heat can be overwhelming. Three-fourths has melted this summer.
Why should Kentuckians care about dripping floes up north? Well, even if you don’t worry about the fate of polar bears and Eskimos, perhaps you do have some interest in our own climate and how distant thawing affects it. The logical conclusion might be that we’ll get much hotter, and recent trends support that proposition. But there’ll likely be odd cold spells mixed in as well. The Huffington Post reported Wednesday that rising temperatures and receding ice in the Arctic will make extreme weather of all kinds – hot, cold, wet, dry – more frequent around the world. We’ve certainly seen that happen recently.
While the winter of 2010-2011 was unusually cold and snowy in the eastern U.S., exactly the opposite conditions prevailed in 2011-2012. No one really knows what the next winter will bring, but Jennifer Francis, a climate scientist from Rutgers University, said changes to the jet stream as a result of Arctic warming could make the coming season “very interesting.”
Even with our weather growing weirder, politicians are unwilling to rock the boat. Today’s voters are more concerned about lost jobs than melting ice. A crash program that calls for drastic curtailment of the “greenhouse” gases blamed for trapping solar heat in our atmosphere would deliver a big jolt to a consumer economy that banks on ever-expanding industrial production, so widespread denial of climate change is not surprising.
Andy McDonald, director of the Frankfort Climate Action Network, which helped sponsor the glaciologist’s Thursday speech at Kentucky State University, hoped the message would convince local people of the threat without scaring them to the point that they give up all hope of changing our ways.
It’s a tricky balance. Skeptics will gloat if there’s a sudden reversal of the warming trend. But if we postpone decisive action to wait for incontrovertible proof of manmade change, the world risks running out of time. By not choosing, we flirt with climatic disaster.