Saturday, November 17, 2007

A critique of an article in The Reporter, Stetson's newspaper

I wrote this letter in response to an article about climate change in Stetson's student-published newspaper. Dr. Abbott (my adviser) and Dr. Hallum (my Environmental Politics professor) contributed ideas.

UPDATE: My critique was accepted and published in the "Letters to the Editor" section of the Nov. 30 Reporter -- find it here.
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First, let me say that coverage of climate change is a good thing. It's an issue that must be discussed, so that awareness can be raised about it and action can be taken. That said, I found several errors in this piece that need correction.

1.) The first, most glaring error is the author's attempt to explain global warming. She confuses two different human-caused atmospheric phenomena, the depletion of the ozone layer and the increased concentration of greenhouse gases. If this was an opinion piece, it's understandable -- this is a common mistake. However, if this was a Reporter-commissioned article, more rigorous fact-checking needs to be undertaken.

The ozone layer provides protection from the Sun's ultraviolet (UV) rays. This is a very good thing for life on this planet; UV radiation causes genetic mutation and can lead to skin cancer. The depletion of the ozone layer is caused by human emissions of gases known as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). Great strides are being made in reducing CFC emissions.

Global warming is a completely different problem. "Greenhouse gases" such as carbon dioxide, water vapor, methane, and nitrous oxide prevent heat from escaping the Earth's atmosphere into space. (CFCs are also powerful greenhouse gases, which can be a source of confusion between the separate problems of ozone depletion and global warming.) Some concentration of these gases is natural in the atmosphere; indeed, without them, our planet's average temperature would be some 61ºF colder. However, human activities are contributing huge amounts of these gases to the atmosphere, which is causing the average surface temperature of the Earth to rise. This is turn will cause a host of changes to the climate, mostly for the worse as far as human societies are concerned. These changes include droughts, floods, and more intense storms, including hurricanes. It will also cause drastic changes in species and ecosystem distribution, the melting of the polar ice caps and land-based ice, and sea level rise (which Sophia's article discussed).

Unfortunately, Sophia seems to have confused these two human-caused atmospheric phenomena. Even more unfortunately, that's only the first (although the most egregious) error in this article.

2.) More alarming is Sophia's attitude towards the effects of global warming. She makes the mistake of considering increased current ice melt to be a natural phenomenon. Sure, the amount of ice at the Poles has varied considerably over the billions of years that make up Earth's history. This has been caused by slight variations in the Earth's orientation and orbit, meteor impacts and volcanic eruptions, and other phenomena. However, what is causing the melting of the ice NOW is increased temperatures due to greenhouse gas emissions from human activities, especially the release of carbon dioxide from the use of fossil fuels (coal, oil, and natural gas) and the release of methane from agricultural activities. This is NOT, as Sophia says, "just nature."

3.) Later, Sophia says that "there isn't anything we can really do about the ice melting and the ocean rising over the next decades." Wrong again. If we sharply curtail our emissions of greenhouse gases (especially carbon dioxide), we CAN avoid much of the sea level rise that would happen if we continued with a carbon-intensive economy. We can also avoid the worst effects many of the other problems global warming will cause. In fact, according to the former Chief Economist of the World Bank, Sir Nicholas Stern, the costs of implementing technological and institutional strategies to mitigate the impacts of global warming will be significantly lower than the costs to society if global warming were to hit us with its full force.

4.) Finally, Sophia's last point is that "we may not see the effects of melting ice, but our children definitely will." While this may (MAY) be true for sea level rise, it will certainly not be true for the other predicted effects of global warming. This process is ALREADY affecting us, and its effects will intensify in the years to come. For example, observations of ice melt in the past year have revealed that this process is happening faster than many scientists had predicted. Although I believe that Sophia had the right idea in at least asking readers to consider the next generation -- we have to leave the Earth in good condition for them -- she should also realize that our choices will affect us as well.

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