February 05, 2008

“Climatic Zones” writes NASA’s James Hansen “have been shifting poleward for the past thirty years … If this movement continues … it will become the predominant cause of extinction of species, many already threatened.”

Climatic zones are indeed moving steadily north. But what consequences can be expected from a rate of poleward climate shift that Hansen calls “unprecedented ?”  The answer is a matter of degrees.

Hansen seems to take his cue from Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet, in which Mark Lynas likens global warming to a descent into Dante’s Inferno.

This Sunday, Lynas’ hellish vision is due to collide with the popular imagination on TV, amplified not by climate models, but the raw semiotic power of computer generated special effects. We will have to see what The National Geographic Channel unleashes, but judging from Lynas’ publicity website, which shows the dome of London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral awash in a rising sea, expect something in the middle ground between An Inconvenient Truth, and Planet of the Apes. The National Geographic Website is forthrightly hyperbolic:  “The difference between the world we know and something out of a disaster movie is only a matter of degrees.

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One extra degree on the Centigrade thermometer says Lynas, will cast America into a first circle where dust devils turn ‘day into night across thousands of miles of former prairie.’ A second degree conjures visions of Spain as a Saharan wasteland, while a third sees Houston’s “business district begin to sway” as super-hurricanes tear Texas apart and the whole Gulf Coast goes under. “None of this is theoretical conjecture…observable physical laws” make each degree an irrevocable step on the road to hell.

In Lynas’ fevered metaphor, two more degrees encompass the 4th and 5th circles of plant and animal extinction, and the Sixth, “global apocalypse and doom.” To arrive at this revelation, Lynas “read over a thousand scientific papers””€”so can anyone with a library card, and Google, including Michael Crichton, whose State Of Fear boasts equally long and tendentious footnotes. Don’t fall for either.

Each manifests the deplorable absence of something that is written of as though it were ubiquitous, but is in fact deplorably rare. Politicized science cannot exist unless both sides have some inkling of what it is they are trying to politicize.

The polarization of environmental rhetoric, from apoplectic denial to Apocalyptic environmentalism, demonstrates instead that most American politicians are scientifically clueless. The last few apocalyptic boom-bust cycles based on the misunderstanding of science, from “the energy crisis” to “nuclear winter ” teach that while publishers reward alarmism,  disinterested readers of the scientific literature behind these Jeremiads emerge with a heightened sense of humility rather than a flatly polemic view of the world. Climate can’ be understood by leaps of faith from one worst-case scenario to another.

Reading the journals they all invoke, from Science and Nature, to Eos and Geophysical Research Lettes, and the International Panel on Climate Change reports besides, I, too, find a six degree shift in coming centuries plausible. But I part company with Hansen and Lynas’ cohort over a matter of “€œdimensional analysis.”€ They are talking temperature, and I mean Latitude. Both are valid metrics for discussing the impact of climate change. It’s 90 degrees from Pole to Equator, and the hottest and coldest places on Earth, Ethiopia’s Danakil Depression and the Antarctic Plateau, are 83 Degrees Celsius apart.

Science may pride itself on the ability to model almost anything in a single dimension, but natural history, like human existence, unfolds in three and evolves over time. Drive south in midwinter and you’ll see what I mean. Geographically, the 48 States span about 20 degrees of latitude. Climatologically, their mean temperature spans about as many degrees C. From North to South. Miami and Minneapolis are 20 degrees and 32 F apart, and on average, it gets two degrees Fahrenheit warmer for each 100 miles you put between yourself and the North Pole. 100 years of unregulated fuel consumption has moved America south about 50 miles. Elevation counts, to the tune of a degree or so per thousand feet, but the present debate centers on whether the next century can shift regional climate by the length of Vermont, or Illinois?

Depart Greenwich Connecticut, on a frosty midwinter morning, and you can see the sun set over unfrozen ground in colonial Williamsburg. Eight hours and a further six degrees south, you can shed your overcoat by Carolina’s still green coast. Each 50 miles South raises this analogy’s ante by a degree or so Fahrenheit, and after 24 hours of driving south at one degree an hour you can relax in a swimming pool as the winter stars rise over Florida.

But what of the long, hot, Southern summer? The polemically engaged tend to make light of one of climate’s ‘observable physical laws.’ The Greenhouse effect reduces cooling at night more than it increases warming by day. To elide the two deliberately goes beyond sharp scientific practice into the realm of semantic aggression, where the Climate Wars are all too commonly fought. It is by no means an equal battle, and Hansen does his own side a disservice by stoking the fires of reductio ad Hitleram by likening coal miners to loaders of Holocaust trains.

Why bother with this semantic overkill when the Greens have already recruited the most formidable semiotic strike force on Planet Earth? The American Mining Association is up against The Advertising Council. Its members are paid to recruit focus groups to inform the media strategy and perfect the production values of both sides in the Climate Wars. Yet the miners don’t accuse the tree huggers of wanting to send anybody to a crematorium”€”or pace Crichton’s opéra bouffe, boil Green PR flacks in cannibal pots.

Big Energy prefers to keep its head down as the winds of semantic aggression erode the face of popular culture. Voters aren’t about to read Dante or the Journal Of Geophysical Research as long as FOX and PBS keep force feeding them enough junk science and apocalyptic rhetoric to turn the stomach of a tyrannosaur.

Like Six Degrees, PBS new season of Green TV is a two dimensional smorgasbord of   geophysical disasters. It’s enough to make Darwin weep and the Intelligent Design movement shout Hallelujah”€”  catastrophes of Biblical proportions are the norm, and the geophysical gradualism that stands as Victorian science’s crowning achievement has no place at the table. Green peer group pressure has prevailed over peer-reviewed science just as viciously at the Corporation For Public Broadcasting as faith-based science policy has at the President’s Council On Bioethics.

And with just as good an excuse. What geophysicists term Deep Time is too boring for Prime Time, but End Time rhetoric garners publicity whether used to sell abstinence education or carbon offsets. We are seeing a network bent on getting the nation up to speed on the case for evolution conveniently ignoring the very principles of biogeography that helped Darwin frame it. Darwin walked uphill in the Andes to confirm for his own eyes what Alexander von Humboldt earlier reported”€”that species shift with falling temperatures.

Darwin’s pathfinder also laid the graphic foundation of climate modeling”€”he was the first to hand draw the lines of average temperature called isotherms on maps regional and global”€”today’s climate debate boils down to how fast they can move over time. For throughout geological history, the field has been in motion”€”the Earth’s eccentric axis shifts the tropics several degrees in a 41,000 year cycle.

If one degree is nature’s answer to Lynas’ question, the flora and fauna of Newark, New Jersey has about a century to adopt to the climate of Newark, Delaware. If the answer is three, make that Newport, Rhode Island, and Newport News, Virginia.  The six degree Celsius shift that Lynas and the Special Effects industry favor is beyond the pale of even the IPCC’s lenient taste , but if , Dies Irae ex machina, it were to materialize, like the Statue Of Liberty’s surfing wipeout in The Day After Tomorrow,  22nd century shockumentary producers might be in for a shock themselves.   You can’t expect an Oscar for comparing footage of Birmingham, Alabama today with Birmingham, Michigan tomorrow. Alabama’s biotreme already endures summers about as hot as even nature stoked on CO2 will be able to deliver”€”the sun is not going to get hotter on our account.

To true believers, too much history is a dangerous thing. Few Greens believe in popularizing the history of ecology lest it ignite curiosity and lead to the reframing of environmental debate along lines not of their publicists choosing. It is hard to transform the politics of Pittsburg by threatening parents, not with their children’s extinction,  but their having to endure the hellish climate of Philadelphia. Sesame Street is not about to admit that, by the IPCC model’s own reckoning, those two cities are exactly as far apart in temperature today as Pittsburg is from the climate projected for the year 2100″€”if that. Climatologist Steve Schneider has lately published a sober analysis of why he expects the climate models to deliver in the low end of the range of potential change.

Though they share the same latitude, the two P’s 2.5 degree Fahrenheit difference reminds us that elevation is as important as location. Florida’s oppressive sea-level summers have led, not to a mass extinction of senior citizens, but a second exodus to the high, dry, desert of Arizona. Such observations drive greens wild”€”animals don’t own second homes. But then again, many cunningly walk uphill and down, as well as north and south- the trees and the rest of the static flora have more to worry about than the bears.

Not that it does them much good when the real world’s foremost cause of mass extinction stalks a delicate biotreme like that of South Africa’s Table Mountain.   The demon haunting that wonder of biodiversity is called not ‘global warming’  but suburban sprawl, and in ecological hot spots around Capetown, it has decimated whole phyla. Yet Nature, the plant kingdom included, goes on continuously re-colonizing the world in the aftermath of abrupt interglacial climate change and the ravages of geophysical catastrophe. These are sources of radical change, yet no one damns nature for them”€”“harm” is evidently a matter of human not natural indifference.

In the end, nature has more to fear from cooling than warming, because while heat causes animals discomfort and plants stress, frost bites and kills. Life on Earth is wet, and when water falls to zero Celsius, its liquid to solid phase transition ruptures cell walls as catastrophically as frozen pipes. The ice caps so many are obsessed with saving are the Earth’s penultimate deserts.

Though unready for prime time, biogeography’s eternal turf fight rolls on, oblivious to environmentalism’s rhetoric of motives as to its metaphysical dreams”€”in the real world, evolution reflects how populations adapt to environmental stresses over generations.

If the environment is headed for a meltdown, at least we have a map. With temperatures shifting tenths of a degree a decade, and isotherms moving poleward scarcely a mile a year, if the world is on the road to hell it definitely is not in the fast lane.

If Public Television aspires to credibility, it needs to put down its Greenpeace playbook long enough to look out their windows, because if the IPCC’s models are right, and not merely Big Science’s answer to video games, we face an extended version of the biogeographic shift of the last century.

The political question is not how the world will cope with sea levels in the fourth millennium, or when Greenland will turn green, but what an informed electorate will make of the prospective transformation of Ohio into Arkansas or Massachusetts into Maryland. Though mere reality may lack the melodramatic punch of what PBS plans to endlessly loop from now to the election, policy remains too important to be taken on faith, let alone predicated on special effects, or science fiction.


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