NORMAN — Next spring I will again have to update my lecture on global warming. Atmospheric carbon dioxide is now rising above the 400 ppm level for the first time in perhaps 5 million years — a scenario humans have never experienced. In my Geology class, before I contrast recent climate change to the past, I plow through the facts ... a 0.8°C global rise in temperature and a 20 cm sea level rise over a single century, changes in rainfall patterns, growing season changes, melting of sea ice and glaciers. Then attribution ... greenhouse gasses cause atmospheric warming (fact), atmospheric greenhouse gasses have risen >43 percent in the last century (fact), chemical fingerprints of atmospheric carbon implicates fossil fuel burning (fact); yet I see the eyes of my students glaze over. Science only informs, but because of misinformation, stored like noxious gas in the blogosphere, the crystalline facts of global warming have been clouded as opinion, or worse, and they fail to incite or excite. The implications of the facts, however, transcend science, and should ignite our humanness.
To me, a geoscientist who researches past climate, modern climate change is a moral issue. Climate has changed in the geologic past, but geoscientists can clearly demonstrate that the human-induced warming we experience today is far faster than the non-catastrophic climate swings buried in Earth’s past, and likely too rapid for many living plants and animals to adapt. Climate scientists frame potential effects with increasing clarity. Economists propose clear paths, such as revenue-neutral carbon taxes, to enable the transformation away from fossil fuels, because most see the economic benefits of mitigating climate change as outweighing their costs.
What transcends the science and economics is that our actions or inactions impinge on the rights and freedoms of others. We protest vehemently and demand protection when our own political planks (e.g., gun or reproductive rights) are threatened. But when a Pacific Islander from Kirabati or the Carterets has to abandon her home as the island drowns with rising sea level and storm surges, her freedom to live in her homeland is lost. When a Tanzanian, living along the shores of Lake Tanganyika, hauls in fewer fish and can’t feed his family, as rising water temperatures damage the lake’s food chain, he has lost the right to harvest food in his homeland. When the village of Newtok, Alaska disappears in the next five years because of rising seas and increased erosion caused by accelerated ice melt, the 350 native Alaskans will have lost their homeland entirely.