Uncertainty Regarding Global Warming
No Longer Excuse for Inaction

Eric Udelhofen
Guest Editorial

22 August 2005

Uncertainty Regarding Global Warming
No Longer Excuse for Inaction

Eric Udelhofen

Two months ago, I was an outsider to the global warming discourse. I had heard mention of the phenomenon, but considered the advent of its impacts remote. I figured that global warming doomsayers were on the fringes of the scientific community, and did not deserve my attention. As a result, my knowledge of global warming was extremely limited. And it likely would have remained that way, had I not received the opportunity to work as a research intern with the Center for Capacity Building, a subset of Boulder 's National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR). Because of this opportunity, I have spent the past two months diving headlong into the vast literature that has been penned on the topic of global warming, with a specific focus on sub-Saharan Africa. The literature has one striking commonality-: every article begins with the presupposition that global warming is both occurring and human-induced. Perhaps this shocked me as thoroughly as it did because I failed to keep abreast the relevant news as well as I should have. More likely, I suspect, my surprise was engendered by two main factors: the way in which the popular media presents the issue of global warming, and an abiding trust in the integrity of the American political system and the leaders selected through it.

The main problem with the way the media presents the global warming issue stems from the type of balance that is typically sought when presenting such a contentious issue; the reporter will cite one expert climatologist who believes humans are responsible for global warming and one “expert” who believes that global warming is within the realm of natural variability. The reader then sees the battle as one on one, and both arguments are given equal weight, when in actuality the numbers are more like 95 percent of the scientific community against 5 percent. Prior to two months ago, when I would read an article about global warming, I assessed both viewpoints equally, and as a result assumed that there was still considerable uncertainty among the experts. With such a conclusion, I was left with hardly any motivation to limit my own contribution to global warming, and I assume that in this regard I felt much like the majority of Americans feel. If the experts can't even say for certain that human activity is contributing to global warming, why would I take pains to limit my contribution on a micro scale?

My research here at NCAR has allowed me to read more than 100 books and articles written by the world's most respected climate-related scientists. This literature has thoroughly convinced me that the scientific community has reached a consensus regarding human implication in global warming.

People need solid facts if they are to take action; in this case, the general public needs to know that their own actions and decisions are in many cases contributing to global warming. As a result of my new knowledge, I have begun to take measures to limit my own use of fossil fuels; I now bike to work and take the bus home to Denver instead of driving. Not everyone has the freedom to read the scientific literature regarding global warming. Most people will depend on popular media sources to inform them. If the necessary individual action is to be taken, readers must see past the one-to-one presentation offered by most news stories to recognize that the scientific community is in agreement, and we are to blame.

My faith in the system established by our founding fathers was another reason for my inaction. If elected officials at the highest level were not taking serious steps to limit the contribution of the U.S. to global warming, why would I do anything about it? I realize now that waiting for a top-down policy mandate is foolish. The beauty of our political system is that policy often bubbles up, from individuals to cities, and eventually to a national level. Individuals taking concerted action get recognized by public officials. We are more empowered than we think.

For many, my conclusion regarding the consensus of climate scientists on the subject of global warming is suspect, perhaps a result of biased readings, but you don't need to take my word for it. As the Senate recently learned from Ralph Cicerone, the president of the National Academy of Sciences, “nearly all” climate scientists believe that the observed global warming is caused by increases in atmospheric levels of greenhouse gases. Though the Bush administration will continue to use rhetorical sleight-of-hand to downplay the certainty of this consensus, and media may continue to present the issue as only half certain, the scientific community is in agreement. No longer can uncertainty be a cause for inaction. With luck, Americans will realize their own empowerment and stop waiting for the national government to tell them to limit their contribution to global warming. As I'm beginning to realize, this may be our only chance.

Eric Udelhofen
Carleton College
udelhof@carleton.edu

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