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Climate Change—A Moral Issue?
Gwenda Woodbury, April 15, 2007
A little more than a month ago now, Rob and I finally rented a video we had been meaning to see for a long time. It was Al Gore's presentation about global warming, made into a movie called An Inconvenient Truth.
I was so affected by the powerful message in his talk; I didn't sleep well that night—dreaming about worldwide catastrophes and desperate times ahead of us—no, not for most of you and me...but for our children and grandchildren. What had we done to our planet? What were we still doing to our planet?
I continued to be in a state of shock for the next few days, my mind going back over some of the most disturbing segments of the show again and again—the video footage of huge chunks of ice crashing into the sea at the polar ice caps, the graphic model of the Atlantic Ocean's thermal pump (the Gulf Stream) that warms the coast of England and keeps the ocean circulation going by cooling (and sinking) in the waters off Greenland...and most disturbing of all "the graph"...that incredible graph showing CO2 levels on the planet over 450 thousand years taken from ice core samples, and corresponding temperatures; especially with what climate scientists are saying about the next 50 years. It was such a powerful piece...when Al Gore climbed aboard that lift to point out where unabated CO2 levels could be in 50 years...and the unspoken corollary of where global temperatures could be. It was terrifying, really!
I insisted that our boys watch the video. Cailean had already seen it in school so when Ian came home from school on the day we had agreed to watch it together, he had eight friends along to see it with him. That was fantastic! All of the kids were appropriately stunned by the movie, and I did my good parent thing reminding them all that this problem would be theirs to solve in their lifetime.
I was convinced that everyone I knew needed to see this video. I talked about it to all my friends, e-mailed distant family and friends urging them to watch it if they hadn't already. I started discussing with Rob the possibility of trading in our minivan for a four-seater hybrid, and told the kids in no uncertain terms that they were walking to school and to friends places from now on if it wasn't pouring rain—period.
The video had had the creator's desired effect on me. I was moved off my complacent center to a position of anxiousness and action. The climate crisis was real to me now and I, we all, needed to do something about it and fast. My diligence with recycling and composting, reusing plastic containers or not buying them in the first place, carrying my own cloth shopping bags to the grocery stores, using energy efficient appliances and fluorescent light bulbs at home...it all seemed incredibly insignificant when measured against the problem we were facing.
Even reading the local paper sent me into a rage. How could people be worried about such trivial issues as transit fares, education funding shortfalls, and local politicians embarrassing themselves,...when we might not even be here in 50 years!?!? The predictions were that bad, if I was hearing things right...why wasn't every man, woman and child talking to their government representative to insist that legislation be passed to curb emissions now!? How could we all just continue going about our daily business as if nothing was happening around us that would impact our very existence on the planet? Were we all asleep?
Well, I'm happy to say that two things happened to pull me out of this tailspin. I began to get some feedback from several people that introduced me to the counter arguments around the theory of global warming. And, the people originally scheduled to give this morning's message had to back out with only a month notice. So, with a fire burning in my belly to get to the bottom of this climate change debate (figure out once and for all what was really going on with our planet) and the sudden opportunity to share this quest with my Beacon family in a service...I was on a roll. Nothing like a deadline to focus the mind!!!
I have included the many references used to prepare this morning's talk at the back of our order of service today, and I do highly recommend that you check them out. Each one of us must find our own truth and I think these resources are a good place to start. Like any good Unitarian, I do not expect you to adopt my interpretation of things—and I bring no hard and fast answers here this morning—only my own learning and questioning and slowly materializing perspective based on what research I have managed to do over the last several weeks. But I digress....
The counter argument for anthropogenic (people caused) global warming is basically simple: if the planet is actually warming (and there is still some debate about that) we are not responsible. Nothing we do to reduce our CO2 emissions will significantly impact what is happening to the climate today or in the near future. For starters there is a 600-800 year lag between changes in atmospheric CO2 and temperature. And the relationship between CO2 and temperature is actually the reverse of what the Al Gore video implied. In other words, temperature drives CO2, not the other way around. What's more, CO2 represents less than one percent of the atmosphere and trails behind methane and water vapor in potency of green house gases which are the supposed culprit driving global warming.
According to scientists not yet convinced that human activity is responsible, the computer models used to predict future global temperatures are based on many assumptions and extrapolations which could cause wildly different outcomes when varied by a small amount, and they leave out important factors like the effects of oceans and clouds—so making the threat seem worse than it really is. Our oceans play a far greater part in establishing atmospheric CO2 levels than humans ever will, as do volcanoes, bacteria, animals, and decaying plants. And what about the sun's influence?
To understand the full impact of their position, and the science that supports it, you must view the one-hour video first shown on the BBC, but now available on line,and soon to be released on DVD, called The Great Global Warming Swindle by Martin Durkin. It's an incredibly believable story about how the whole global warming crisis thing got going, and got so out of hand...if you believe their story.
And that's really the problem for me, what to believe. I love science, have been a research scientist in a teaching hospital affiliated with the University of Pittsburgh in a former life, and understand something about how "good" science is done. Rob and I enjoy reading Scientific American and other such popular science journals outside our own narrow areas of expertise because we are curious people, interested in knowing what is known about the world (universe) around us. And we want to do the right thing based on sound science.
So it is very disturbing to me to learn that there has been so much politicization of this area of enquiry, and so much interference from companies with vested interests in the outcome of the research that we are left wondering what and who to believe. It seems from these two cornerstone videos that anyone can be bought, and since governments began funding this research with Margaret Thatcher, politicians, who are notorious for talking out of whichever side of their mouth that suits the given audience, have been given incredible power to control what we do or don't do with our planet.
I started poking around the web-based forums that these movies and the global warming debate in general have spawned. Fascinating reading! A person could spend whole days, maybe weeks cruising the various sites and following, or perhaps engaging in, conversations between anonymous people. The web has created so many ways to bring people together across the world that anyone can join in a debate with the click of a mouse button.
But I must be getting old...the idea of a worldwide venue where everyone is arguing with equal authority in a faceless, nameless virtual chat room...is just a bit beyond my comfort zone. But you "meet" (in quotation marks) such interesting people in these discussion forums! Some of who speak with such authority and obvious knowledge that it is easy to be swayed to their viewpoint. Others are clearly just jerks or contrarians whose likely intent is nothing more than "stirring the pot".
What I learned from a few days of reading conversation threads was that you have to be very careful what you believe and who you trust to give you the honest truth about what is happening on our planet. Any bit of data can be manipulated.
Both Al Gore and Martin Durkin were exposed in these forums as less than perfect "bearers of the Truth"—Al Gore being slammed for owning several massive energy wasting homes and jet setting around the globe to deliver his message of doom. Martin Durkin being exposed as an opportunist involved with "science" supporting the tobacco companies' claims years ago in the lung cancer debate.
And both movies pointed out unethical editing of scientific reports by politicians on the opposite side of the argument to make those reports sound more like the message they wanted to send. Both sides accuse the other of unethical practices and hidden agendas. For instances, if you support the Theory of AGW, some would label you an anti-capitalist whose real agenda is to block economic growth in third world countries. If you support the Theory of Natural Earth Cycles (my own phrasing), some would label you as an obstructionist waiting until the proverbial horse is out of the barn before shutting the gate, too selfish to think beyond your own lifespan. Just where is the truth about climate change on our planet?
I'm not sure we really know...and maybe it doesn't matter. Here's why. If our contribution to the green house gases building up in our atmosphere is really so insignificant, then what is happening will happen anyway whether we reduce our emissions or not. If green house gases are not causing the climate changes we have experienced over the last 30 to 40 years, then we have no control over what is happening anyway. But does this mean we should do nothing to reduce our impact on the planet? I think not. But I believe this whole CO2 and green house gases global warming debate IS deflecting our attention away from an ongoing issue of what we CAN affect in the here and now, and in fact what we have done already to curb our impact on the planet...which no one would deny has been substantial.
Another video I've included in the reference list is a must see if you have any doubt of our ability to transform the planet on a geological scale. "Manufactured Landscapes" is an eerie collection of video footage and still images from Canada, the US, India and China, by the internationally acclaimed photographer, Edward Burtynsky. One image that still haunts my memory is the miles and miles of "coal" mountains as far as the eye can see that have been mined somewhere in China to feed their developing economy. Another was a comment made while showing the massive dam built on the Yangtze River to produce hydroelectric power, which displaced whole towns. It's the largest volume of water held by a dam anywhere in the world, and when it was filled...the earth wobbled. Imagine that...us having an impact on our planet of that scale! Incredible...
With this kind of power...what should we be doing? Cleaning up the air and water are important unfinished tasks, as are restoring habitat destroyed by forest clearing, and strip mining. We've come a long way, but still have a long way to go. Treading lightly on the planet through reusing what we have already taken out, and reducing further exhaustion of our natural resources just makes good sense. And isn't good stewardship of our planet something everyone from any culture or religious background can accept and hold onto?
Joy loaned me a wonderful video (also on the list) called The Next Industrial Revolution which documents a movement to bring together ecology and human design in a Sustainable Economy. It's major thinkers are an architect and chemist whose byline is "Waste equals Food". The video explores how businesses are transforming the way they work with nature, while enhancing profitability. I will never buy another athletic shoe from anyone but Nike.
But is sustainability really possible? Many people think not, including Tom Poiker, who was kind enough to give me a short essay describing his take on the whole global warming debate. Paraphrasing Tom... "To say that we are approaching sustainability is a joke. We are using our resources too fast, even the renewable ones. We are expanding our [ecological] footprint, although we should be reducing it because we [continue to] increase our population. There is just no sustainability."
But like Tom, I believe that acting in accord with the Al Gore camp is the more responsible (and moral or ethical if you will) response to living in balance with our world. We are only one species after all...yet our ability to manipulate our environment creates an immediate imbalance with all other species and the world we share. That carries a huge responsibility of stewardship in my book.
In the end...if there ever really is an end...the planet will survive. The earth will continue being with or without our species on it. So if we extinct ourselves (along with many other species in the process) at least there is some comfort in the knowledge that life, in some form, will continue on earth. We are witnessing perhaps, not only the making of history, but evolution....
I'd like to conclude with a quote from the Angelfire website I found that resonated with me, and gave me some sense of peace:
"Gaia—Mother Earth, the giant living being. Earth will not 'self destruct' with global warming, as some may say...she will live on, continue holding her place in the galaxy and the universe...but life on this planet will change, and sooner than you may think."
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