“Global Warming: Fact or Fiction”

It was clear as Tom Ackerman gave a quick précis before launching into his talk proper that there was no real question for him about global warming. Though his January Series talk, “Global Warming: Fact or Fiction,” was dominated by a hasty journey through a series of graphs showing the unprecedented levels of carbon dioxide currently increasing the levels of ozone gases trapping heat within our atmosphere, and models clearly suggesting the human role in that CO2 buildup, Tom Ackerman is clearly as convinced as most of the rest of the world: global climate change is a reality, it has been deeply affected by human involvement, and we have already done untold damage to the earth which will be felt for generations.

Ackerman also worked hard to introduce his listeners to the current state of public policy in the US on the issue. He highlighted the inaction of successive administrations, and the need for radical change given the United States’ dominance of the league tables of carbon emissions whether in raw terms or per capita. And he noted that we must be ready to heavily subsidise any alternatives to our current energy sources as they are not yet ready to be financially competitive with fossil fuels.

Listening to the talk I was reminded of Phill’s post this morning, in which he uses the metaphor of an ‘all you can eat’ meal to talk about inequities in a world of limited resources. I’m grateful for opportunities such as A Year Of Living Generously to help set manageable targets for changing lifestyle.

Try as we might, few of us will achieve an overnight turnaround of lifestyle, so I’ve been wondering most of the day how to extend that model. Perhaps there’d be some interest in a version of YOLG more adapted for those in the US? Perhaps those of us in Grand Rapids can do more to support the woefully under-realised public transport we have available? I’m hoping this lecture continues to work as a salient reminder of an all too pressing issue.


  1. My question during today’s presentation was, “When and how did this become a political issue?” More importantly, how can we get it out of politics? How people interpret the strong evidence for human-induced global warming has more to do with their political affiliation than it does with their ability to do science.

    I think Tom Ackerman provided a good start–he noted that neither American political party has really done anything about it, though one at least admits there’s a problem.

  2. Great thoughts here–thanks especially for the Year of Living Generously link, and the GR public transportation shoutout. I used to take the #6 bus to and from work almost every day, which was a positive experience for a number of reasons even beyond environmental (and financial) ones: I got to know various drivers, spent time around people I normally wouldn’t have any contact with, ensured a walk of at least half a mile to a mile a day getting to and from the stops, and had time to breathe and read immediately before and after work. I’ve completely gotten out of the habit and am quite dependent on my car once again, but I need to commit to that bus again!

    One thing that always bothered me about the bus, though, was that I was paying only 50 cents to ride, while many others on the bus who probably needed that discount far more were paying almost three times that. Doesn’t seem quite equitable, but I’m not sure how to get around it.

  3. Interesting thoughts, thanks. Eric — I saw you there and wondered what your take on the science was as I suspect you’re better placed to analyse it than me? It’s definitely very sad that this issue has become so politicised. I’ve been pondering ways to break away from that. I think that Tom Ackerman’s approach is a good start, pointing out the need for policy whatever party it comes from, and criticising them both. Kari and I talked a bit about how easy it would be to really rail on the current administration for their particular failings, but my guess is he would have quickly alienated a West Michigan audience in inauguration week had he done that.

    Kate – do you think you spent less on bus fare than you would have for gas? I feel bad that I’ve not really used GR public transport, though in the summer my excuse is I prefer to cycle. I think we’re going to work harder at using it. Interesting point about the discount you receive and who deserves that. I think more of us middle-class folks using the system would be a good first step. I’m thinking it would give us a more authentic voice in use of the system.

    If I were to offer to co-ordinate a YOLG equivalent over here, do you think we could get much uptake?

  4. Interesting, I travel part way to work on a bus, and being a social tart talk to loads of people. I was talking to somebody from the HR team of a retail shop this morning about global warming. She had just seen a TV programme over here which had convinced her. One of the few cases I’ve heard of science being explained in a way that significantly affected a lay persons views.
    The shame is that the science was different from the science you seem to have been hearing about (the evidence of the global temperature change resulting from the post 911 aircraft ban was key in this case).
    So we get a public that is given competing ‘facts’ from scientists and simple sound bites from politicians. It’s a shame, but facts don’t often win arguments like this. As a scientist with a public facing job I have had to learn that facts often only get in the way of people understanding.
    Global climate change is happening – I see it on the news. Anybody care to show me the science that proves me wrong? This is the message, and I guess, like me, you would find it hard to make bold statements like that without being willing to prove the point. But I think that may well be the way we need to present an issue like this if we are to have a real impact.

  5. James, the science was excellent. You will find a few scientists to dispute his findings, but you’ll also find scientists who don’t believe that there is such a thing as gravity, that the wings on airplanes provide lift, or that a curve ball curves. If one looks hard enough, there is always a source to be found who will provide a “credible” rebuttal. One of the great failings of science education is the lack of understanding that even the things we all hold as scientific facts are agreed on by everyone. Hence people take comfort that evolution is still “only a theory,” but no one notices that gravity is also only a theory.

    I teach about global warming in my intro chemistry classes. I like Tom Ackerman’s presentation because he presents the data and immediately addresses the common criticisms (1) volcanos spew more CO2 into the air than people do (2) 20 years ago people said we were heading for an ice age (3) how do you trust data determined for temperatures thousands of years ago? (4) you just hate President Bush. I like Ackerman’s approach so much that I’ve actually used many of his slides.

    (beware of mini rant ahead) I note the politicization because I get many of the same reactions, and as Jim has pointed out, many politicians have argued the opposite (like Rush Limbaugh has any credibility on global warming?). I’ve also been told by students that we Christians should only focus on saving souls rather than worry about this passing world. Many of my students assume that what I’m teaching in this unit is a load of hooey; I’m an academic, so I must be a freedom-hating Democrat bent on creating lies to make things difficult for the freedom- and God-loving administration.

    So…they trust us to teach them well enough to become doctors or engineers, but when it comes to something that contradicts what they know is true, we academics must be morons?

  6. I think you have put your finger on it there. Trust is what matters. If people don’t believe then scientific proof does little to move them. Politicians are often derided, but sadly they are believed more than scientists are. Science took over from belief. Now belief seems to be taking over from science.

    I don’t think the answer lies in making this a non-political issue. I think it lies in making sure politicians feel that they will be seen as untrustworthy if they say it isn’t real. And I don’t think we need to be morons, I just think we need to concentrate more on the final objective, otherwise we will spend more time arguing than we can afford.

    Unlike some I am not convinced that we have ample time to deal with this issue. The cost of changing our power sources is probably not the limiting factor – the resource availability is likely to be more important. If more people in GR commuted by bus would there be enough buses? Possibly not – so go buy some more buses. But hey – producing buses takes energy! So in order to become lower CO2 producers we first need to be higher producers. How much energy does it take to construct a wind based generator – and how long does it need to generate before it becomes carbon neutral?

    This is not something we can decide on today and solve tomorrow.