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Sunday, January 29, 2006

political science, part II: this ain't a game

According to a Washington Post article today (which mentions the Bush admin v. NASA scientist tension I talked about in the post below this one), while many leading climatologists are becoming increasingly convinced that a "tipping point" in global warming is quickly approaching, after which these climate changes resulting from human activity will be impossible to slow or reverse, there is still some controversey over how concerned we should be about it.
Some scientists, including President Bush's chief science adviser, John H. Marburger III, emphasize there is still much uncertainty about when abrupt global warming might occur. "There's no agreement on what it is that constitutes a dangerous climate change," said Marburger, adding that the U.S. government spends $2 billion a year on researching this and other climate change questions. "We know things like this are possible, but we don't have enough information to quantify the level of risk."
Setting aside for the moment my feelings on why we should be concerned with environmental protections even in the absence of crisis, it seems to me that if we don't know exactly how dangerous or imminent "abrupt global warming" might be, but we do believe that once it happens we may be helpless to stop it, then maybe we should take a cue from the Boy Scouts and be prepared. Behave as though the worst-case scenario is looming. (more in expanded post)

The article notes that some, like Britain, seem to be adopting the prudent path, having already reduced its emissions by 14% since 1990 and aiming to cut them by 60% by 2050. Of course, we can't gauge worldwide progress by the efforts of one or a few nations; this is a serious problem for everyone. Controversey abounds on the best way of holding everyone accountable to pulling their weight. But whether we favor independent goal-setting, international agreements, or, as some economists have suggested, privatizing emmissions rights worldwide, we need to recognize the urgency of the situation. As Stanford University climatologist Stephen H. Schneider explains in the article, the urgency is greater for some than for others:
The small island nation of Kiribati is made up of 33 small atolls, none of which is more than 6.5 feet above the South Pacific, and it is only a matter of time before the entire country is submerged by the rising sea.

"For Kiribati, the tipping point has already occurred," Schneider said. "As far as they're concerned, it's tipped, but they have no economic clout in the world."

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