EYE ON EUROPE
The Safer Bet
Will we need igloos soon
-- or more suntan lotion?
By MICHAEL JOHNSON
I came down here to Bordeaux to get warm following 20-some years in London, and I thank the forces of global warming for providing a very mild winter this year. Until, that is, last week, when suddenly Scandinavian winds arrived to chill us to the bone.
These zigzags seemed a fitting metaphor for climate change in the larger sense. One person tells you to roll up your trousers, the floods are coming. Another calls those people nincompoops and says everything is fine.
In Britain, the University of East Anglia predicted a few years ago that England would soon have the same climate as the French Riviera. A year later the headlines were all about a new ice age.
I looked around the web and found evidence of ice everywhere. Malta, Israel, China and even New Delhi have been enduring record low temperatures. In Afghanistan, more than 900 people and 316,000 head of cattle have perished in the cold so far, Reuters reports from Kabul.
Im confused. I thought Al Gore said the debate was over. Where is his global warming when we need it? Hes so sure of himself, so easy to believe, that I almost bought his book, the one with the inconvenient price tag of $23.
Is this planet warming up or not? Actually the experts are trading epithets worthy of the schoolyard. The debate is not over yet, Al.
Trying to follow the public discourse, however, has been a frustration for us laypersons. Climate-change skeptics are denigrated as irresponsible right-wing goofies by climate-change activists, and the goofies have in turn accused the activists of global fraud. Junkscience.com dismisses them as alarmists who think the sky is falling.
On the other hand, Australian climate expert Prof. Ross Garnaut created a stir at a recent government conference in Adelaide claiming his research shows dangerous climate change is coming much more rapidly than has generally been understood. The window for corrective measures is between now and 2020, and after that, he said, get ready for real change. The show will be over," he said.
Could this be a case of screenwriter William Goldman, who has written that Nobody knows anything? He was talking about Hollywood but he makes a larger point. Woods Hole Climate Change Institute in Massachusetts is at least cautious, pointing out that climate fluctuations happen over millennia, whereas our data goes back only 150 years.
Something strange is happening. My wife and I almost bought a house on the Ile de Ré, halfway down the French west coast, for its stunning sea view. But we were frightened off when we noticed crumbling cliffsides at the propertys ocean front. Dont worry, the real estate agent said blithely. You will lose only about a foot of your front yard every three years.
Maybe I could live with that. If my math is right, thats five feet less grass to mow every 15 years.
Next we looked at a house in Arcachon. The owner pointed out seashells embedded in the stone of the exterior walls--proof of Aquitaines underwater past. Im told that fossil evidence proves there have been three separate periods of the sea moving several miles inland in the area. We may have a few hundred thousand years margin, but I still cant decide whether to worry or not.
Yet I now learn from www.surfacestations.org that satellite data indicates the panic over melting icecaps may have been unfounded. Yes, polar bears were clinging to ice floes last year but the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says most of the ice has reformed. Ice surface that had dropped alarmingly is almost back to normal levels.
Sometimes the conflicting data comes from a single country. In Australia, weathermen reported a couple of weeks ago that most of New South Wales had the coldest February in 50 years following the hottest January on record for the rest of the country.
Ordinarily I might step back, wait and see. Time will surely tell how the planet responds to our behavior. But what if the show is over in just 12 years, as the Australian professor predicts? For comfort, I like the line I read in The Onion a few months ago. The subject was terrorism but it applies to climate change. I paraphrase: Id better get worried now so I wont look too stupid in case the Gore goons turn out to be right.
©2008 by Michael Johnson. The illustration is courtesy of Gino Santa Maria. This column first posted March 24, 2008.
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