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The Providence Journal (Rhode Island)

We're Nearing Climate's Tipping Point

P. H. Liotta

MARK TWAIN once quipped that "everybody talks about the weather, but nobody ever does anything about it." While Twain's remarks were tongue-in-cheek, they took on resonance in the wake of NASA Administrator Michael Griffin's recent comments on National Public Radio regarding climate change. Griffin stated: "I have no doubt that a trend of global warming exists," but he added that he was "not sure that it is fair to say that is a problem we must wrestle with."

Griffin's remarks garnered attention, largely negative, when he suggested that "I would ask which human beings, where and when, are to be accorded the privilege of deciding that this particular climate that we have right here today, right now, is the best climate for all other human beings. I think that's a rather arrogant position for people to take." Michael Oppenheimer, professor at Princeton, claimed he found "it astounding that the head of a major U.S. science agency could hold such attitudes — basically ignorance — about the global warming problem. In fact, it's so astonishing I think he should resign."

James Hansen, climate scientist and director of NASA's Goddard Institute, was equally direct in critiquing his boss: "I almost fell off my chair. [His remarks were] remarkably uninformed." Notably, Hansen and other scientists from the Goddard and Columbia University had just released a report that stated that human-made greenhouse gases have brought the Earth's climate close to a critical "tipping point." With the release of the Fourth Assessment Report of the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (of which this author is a member), the scientific data provides irrevocable evidence that change is taking place.

It is immensely difficulty to talk with any certainty or sense of prediction about climate change — more commonly (and incorrectly) called just "global warming." The complexities of environmental change have widely different impacts in different regions and are often interwoven with vulnerabilities such as disease, water and natural-resource scarcities, increased storms and flooding in some areas, with extreme temperatures and extended drought in other areas

With the continuing failure of decision makers to deal with climate change and its impact, we are entering a future from which we may not be able to turn back. Indeed, the last time in history carbon dioxide (CO{-2}) levels were at levels similar to today's was during the time of the mid-Pliocene "warm" period — some 3.5 million years ago. As one NASA scientist jokingly retorted to the science journalist Elizabeth Kolbert, "It's true that we've had higher CO{-2} levels before. But, then, of course, we also had dinosaurs."

Phenomenal natural disasters — from volcanic eruptions to seismic quakes to massive tsunami effects and giant hurricanes — should serve to remind us that the Earth itself is the ultimate weapon of mass destruction. Today, when mollusks are found growing only several hundred miles from the North Pole, or entire species are in permanent migratory pattern change, or butterflies throughout the Northern Hemisphere are shifting ranges northward by up to 150 miles, or predatory insects or plants begin to invade ecosystems or undermine biodiversity, or polar bears drown because of the loss of surface ice, then all is not well. One has, at such point, reached a "tipping point": commonly described through the visual anecdote of leaning over in a canoe to the extent that one is no longer "rocking the boat" but flipping it — and from which there can be no recovery.

In the 1970s James Lovelock made an intellectual leap by suggesting the possibility the Earth's lands, oceans, atmosphere and living matter could be seen as a single organism, one that regulated itself to support life. Called the "Gaia Hypothesis" after the ancient Greeks' Earth Goddess, it was in many respects a new way of looking at the world. And it was an idea that was as evocative as it was controversial. In part, it repositioned the role of the physical scientist into that of a physiologist. Whereas before there was the studying of processes that responded to natural forces, now there would be the looking for functions that served a larger body.

While it may be trite to suggest that "it's not nice to fool with Mother Nature," it is not inaccurate to suggest that human influences such as ever increasing greenhouse-gas emissions and subsequent effects on climate and security could very well cause "Gaia" to seek her revenge. The time for debate is long past. Perhaps we should pray that the time for effective action has not passed as well.

P. H. Liotta is executive director of the Pell Center for International Relations and Public Policy at Salve Regina University, and the coauthor of Gaia's Revenge: Climate Change and Humanity's Loss. The Pell Center hosted an international conference on environmental change this week, with support from NATO, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the United Nations.

© 2007 The Providence Journal

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