When Science Isn't Science | WHAT REALLY HAPPENED


When Science Isn't Science

The Earth’s climate is extraordinarily complex. Unlike dinosaur fossils or organic chemistry or primate behavior, climate is always in flux, with countless factors influencing one another in an endless unfolding of diachronic stochastics. Given this complexity, one might presume that scientists who study planetary climate would be endowed with exceptional patience, scholarly integrity, and intellectual humility. After all, it takes a long time to learn even a little bit about such an intricate system, so part of the job description of climate scientist would seem to be acknowledging that there is only so much that is known about the 1.09 x 1044 or so molecules swirling about in the atmosphere. Even more complex than all that, though, is navigating the public’s interest in the field. Climate is contentious, and a climate scientist will have to keep his cool, sticking to the facts amidst even the most heated rhetorical environments.

And yet, this is precisely not how a startling number of climate scientists choose to behave. Former head of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Goddard Institute for Space Studies James Hansen, for example, once made the rather alarming claim that “it will soon be impossible to avoid climate change with far-ranging undesirable consequences. We have reached a critical tipping point. […] We have at most ten years—not ten years to decide upon action, but ten years to alter fundamentally the trajectory of global greenhouse emissions.” And what might happen if the Earth warmed by the five degrees Hansen was warning about? Hansen tells us in detail.

The last time that the Earth was five degrees warmer was three million years ago, when sea level was about eighty feet higher. Eighty feet! In that case, the United States would lose most East Coast cities: Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Washington, and Miami; indeed, practically the entire state of Florida would be under water. Fifty million people in the US live below that sea level. Other places would fare worse. China would have 250 million displaced persons. Bangladesh would produce 120 million refugees, practically the entire nation. India would lose the land of 150 million people.

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