If you're here, you know I'm interested in carbon cycling. Which is a nice, non-controversial way of saying I care about global climate. Carbon in the air, whether oxidized or reduced, traps solar energy. Climate change.
2018 was the fourth warmest year on record. 2016 was the warmest and 2017 the second warmest.
The science on climate change is settled, and it has been settled for a long time—maybe longer than you realize. Articles in the 1800s (the 1800s!) describe the effect of civilization on the environment. They describe how the emission of carbon dioxide into the air creates a greenhouse effect—and they did so almost 200 years ago.
"The establishment and progress of human societies, the action of natural forces, can notably change, and in vast regions, the state of the surface, the distribution of water and the great movements of the air. Such effects are able to make to vary, in the course of many centuries, the average degree of heat; because the analytic expressions contain coefficients relating to the state of the surface and which greatly influence the temperature." -Fourier, 1827.
“The highest effect of the sun’s rays I have found to be in carbonic acid gas. ... An atmosphere of that gas would give to our earth a high temperature; and if, as some suppose, at one period of its history, the air had mixed with it a larger proportion than at present, an increased temperature from its own action, as well as from increased weight, must have necessarily resulted.” -Eunice Foote, 1856.
In other words, forced warming was understood as a concept long before we grew addicted to oil. Think about that.
As a personal issue, climate change got into my head-space in the early 1990s. It’s why I returned to research—specifically, in planetary science at Caltech. Previously, I’d worked on the human genome project and taught pre-nursing majors at a local community college (these are things that matter to human health and well-being too. They are important). Once I began to understand the global threat of climate change on ecosystems and human well-being, very little else, at least in terms of issues, seemed to hold much of a candle.
And the science on climate is settled in broad and medium strokes. It was settled long ago. So why do so many people fail to act? Why do governments fail to enact sufficient policy?
I have a few ideas about this. Maybe it’s guilt, maybe it’s biological drive, or maybe denial. Maybe it’s the time span of a human experience vs. the time span of climate actually changing. We can see climate changing over, say, a decade. (That wasn't true forty years ago--the rate of change is accelerating.) But we tend to live and breathe in seasons, and holidays, and school years. We don't think in decades on a daily basis.
In biology, animals are ‘consumers.’ Every consumer generates carbon dioxide as part of their biology, and humans do this more than most because we also have... fire.
Increasing the planetary ratio of consumers (especially fire-makers) to producers (otherwise known as plants, which absorb carbon dioxide and convert it to sugars) has a spiraling effect on the mass balance of carbon in our world and air. The carbon cycle.
Maybe the reason we humans aren’t acting in ‘big enough ways’ to combat global climate change is because the information about climate is scientific, instead of emotional.
The author Ursula Le Guin has said that science fiction writers tell lies, create fictions to reveal truth, with an intent not of predicting the future but of describing how things are. By this thinking, the lies of fiction reveal the truth of being.
Maybe through fiction, authors can move hearts in a way that scientists cannot. Maybe fiction is the means through which we will decide to act on the science of climate change. Fewer gallons of gas, keeping the thermostat down, insulating homes better, smaller family size, buying local, growing our own food, recycling, voting on climate, reforesting, restructuring our economy, demanding transparency in the energy sector, developing and using carbon-free energy sources. There are so many ways to become carbon-less, or carbon negative. We are innovative. We care, all of us. With luck, writers might make a difference where, to date, science seems to have gained too little traction.