Global Warming, Our Immediate Responsibility

January is a good month. It’s a month that is the human symbol of starting over. Out with the old, in with the new. This January was particularly exciting for us here in the US, as we ushered in a new era of progressive politics with almost a little too much pomp and circumstance. But underneath the excitement lies a particularly disconcerting truth. We still have a nation to fix.

I like getting big things out of the way, so here it is. According to Susan Solomon, scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, once global warming sets in, it isn’t going away. The voice on NPR told me with such solemnity that I assumed that we had already lost the war with Global Warming. No matter how evenly I accelerated my car, it would no longer matter because the damage was done. Once I stopped hyperventilating I realized that there was more to the story, and the thoughtful voice informed me that the effects haven’t reached the point of no return yet. The oceans are currently padding the effects of global warming, holding it in check indefinitely. According to Solomon, the oceans will be able to hold off the siege of carbon dioxide for some time, but there are more immediate problems at hand.

According to Solomon’s study published in the Proceedings of the Natural Academy of Sciences, not immediately curtailing our carbon emissions could create permanent dust-bowl conditions in the U.S. Southwest as well as the Mediterranean. I immediately thought of all the wonderful French wines I wouldn’t be able to try if that happened and subsequently panicked until I was informed that even this could take decades. I let out a nervous sigh of relief, knowing that this news just adds to the urgency of our battle for the atmosphere.

“We’re used to thinking about pollution problems as things that we can fix. Smog, we just cut back and everything will be better later. Or haze, you know, it’ll go away pretty quickly,” Solomon said of cleaning up our current mess. “People have imagined that if we stopped emitting carbon dioxide that the climate would go back to normal in 100 years.  What we’re showing here is that’s not right. It’s essentially an irreversible change.”

It’s still rather unsettling that we can’t get a better picture of what kind of time frame we’re working on here. Global warming isn’t exactly priority number one on everyone’s list, which is understandable considering our current economic meltdown. A Rasmussen Report as well as a Pew Research Center Pole taken around inauguration time showed a general cooling in global warming concern. Again, the current economic crisis calls for immediate attention, but how much longer will it be until global warming gets immediate attention?

Fortunately, we’re already beginning to see a drastic reversal of climate change policies as President Obama opened the door for states to regulate their own emissions (something California has been chomping at the bit to do). Of course I’m worried that global warming apathy will continue and lead to irreparable repercussions, but at the same time I’m optimistic. The Pew pole showed that in general, environmental issues are important to the American public, and that right now we’re just experiencing a lull. On the other hand the Rasmussen Report showed again that the American public is becoming increasingly divided along party lines, especially when dealing with the environment (21% of questioned Republicans believe that global warming is being induced by human activity).

President Obama has made it a priority of his to curtail global warming, and he hired an energy secretary who knows his science to prove it, but we can’t forget that our planet is our responsibility. No matter how many laws are enacted or how much reach the EPA is granted, it will still ultimately be up to us how far we allow global warming to go before it’s stomped out.


The New York Times (There is a nice little graph here that shows how America’s concerns have changed over the years)

National Public Radio

Thanks to CarbonNYC for the picture (via Flickr creative commons).

And in case you missed it, our Fireside Chat for the week.

Anthony Cefali

Anthony is a student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison majoring in biology as well as English. He became interested in the biofuel initiative after getting a job in the Raines Lab of Petroleum Alternatives at the university turning sugars into biofuels. He is the first to admit that he doesn't fully understand everything that he does or is trying to do, but enjoys doing his bit to help the environment. Anthony has very few plans for his future, but is interested in how natural systems work and how urban development changes these systems. On a good day, Anthony enjoys riding his bike really far away and reading Kurt Vonnegut books.