Saturday, March 9, 2013

The Hockey Stick of Global Warming

Another beautiful morning in New England, and the only reason I'm writing on the blog instead of hitting the slopes is my snowboarding daughter who promised to go with me hurt her arm on her last outing. Thus I am confined to the home acres and looking out the window at the sun shining on a foot of snow as I write. This picture of natural beauty does not quite square with my feelings of dread, however, and here is why.
I don't have a huge audience for this blog, but it gets a good-sized bunch of readers, it seems, including ones from far-flung places such as Sweden and China, and one of the themes that gets a universal bump in response is the danger posed by global warming. I haven't seen figures, but I would wager that the numbers of climate change deniers are few in other countries where the oil companies and business barons have not spent billions in campaigns to discredit the science that has emerged around this issue in the last decades.
Yesterday we had yet another report, spearheaded by Shaun Marcott, a scientist at Oregon State University, detailing vast amounts of research extending back tens of thousands of years into the fossil record to show the extravagant climb in global temperatures that has occurred just in the last 100 years with the advent of fossil fuel consumption, spurred by economic growth in the West and now the world over.
The research project used oxygen isotopes found in ocean fossils to determine average world temperatures extending back into the prehistory of humanity, 12,000 years, to show that at no time in the vast observable record has the temperature risen so fast and so far as it has in the last 100 years, as an undisputed result of human behavior. The graph yielded by the scientists' work is the by-now familiar hockey stick, with the handle showing temperatures holding relatively steady through the eons and then climbing through the roof over a minute fraction of the recorded time in the upturned blade. This figure of the hockey stick, used to great effect in Al Gore's documentary An Inconvenient Truth, has done more to spur animosity from climate-change deniers than any other symbol of global warming, but yesterday's report seems to be another indictment of their denials, and an incitement to all of us to take immediate steps to reduce our carbon footprint. Has our past behavior put so much carbon into the atmosphere that there is nothing we can do at this point to avoid cataclysmic changes in the environment? No-one can answer that; indeed many scientists and analysts believe we still have a margin of time in which to act. But it is certain, and this is by now a trope, but it bears constant repetition, that our children and our descendants will be cursing us in our graves if we do not immediately put this problem at the top of our collective priorities.

(Global temperatures graph courtesy of Mother Jones magazine)
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