Curiosity, our climate and deciding who to believe

Sunday's column delayed by technical difficulty

It’s tough to know who to believe.

On one hand, you’ve got 138 science faculty and research staff from 27 Iowa colleges and universities.

They signed on to a climate statement released just before Thanksgiving contending that our current drought is consistent with the type of weather we can expect in the wake of climate change. It was a moderate, reasonable statement, which took pains to not directly attribute the drought directly to climate change. It’s still very difficult to tie any particular weather event to a changing climate.

But as global temperatures warm, the authors say extremes like this will be more common. Dry years are dryer. Wet years will be wetter. They want Iowa’s elected leaders to consider the possible consequences of this as they shape public policy.

“What we’re trying to find out is how serious the problem will be,” said Neil Bernstein, professor of biology and chair of the Department of Natural and Applied Sciences at Mount Mercy University. He’s among the lead authors of the statement.

“It’s not a question of whether we have a problem. And it’s not a question of whether humans have caused the problem and are making the problem worse. The question is just how bad it will be for the Earth’s life support system,” Bernstein said.

"Certainly there’s lots of disagreement about particulars. And certainly there’s uncertainty about what’s going to happen in the future, how much we can attribute to certain changes," said David Courard-Hauri, Chair, Environmental Science and Policy Program, Drake University, another lead author. “But that doesn’t mean there’s a lot of uncertainty about the fundamentals.”

Or you can side with a lawyer from Tampa.

James M. Taylor, a senior fellow at the Chicago-based Heartland Institute, responded to the Iowans‘ statement with an op-ed on these pages this past week. He dubbed them “alarmists,” and cited studies that argue “modest” warming will actually make droughts less likely. The earth is becoming a gardener’s greenhouse where extreme weather events decline and crops flourish. The lawyer from Tampa also criticized the letter-signers’ climate academic credentials.

The Heartland Institute is the think tank that made headlines earlier this year by launching a billboard campaign featuring huge photos of Ted “the Unabomber” Kaczynski, Charles Manson, Fidel Castro and Osama bin Laden, each saying “I still believe in global warming. Do you?” All heck broke loose and the campaign was canceled, although the institute was unrepentant.

The institute doesn’t disclose its donors, but the Washington Post reported last week that it received nearly $750,000 between 1998 and 2006 from Exxon Mobile and $25,000 last year from foundations affiliated with Koch Industries, which invests heavily in oil and energy.

The institute is now teaming up with the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, to seek repeal of state laws requiring power companies to get some of their energy from renewable sources. Iowa is one of 29 states with such a law, which passed with bipartisan support.

So maybe the Heartland Institute is interested in science. Or maybe it’s a spin factory seeking to turn very thin evidence into hefty public doubt, demonize its critics and hobble promising energy industries, enriching the bottom lines of its corporate benefactors. Tough call.

Again, who do we believe? More importantly, who do our leaders believe?

This is an extremely complex, difficult issue that most politicians would rather avoid than tackle. Journalists, too. All I’m buying today is an inbox and comments section filled with invective.

And all I’m asking from Iowa’s leaders is to be a whole lot more curious, and maybe even a little courageous.

Climate change is real. It’s happening. We don’t know how severe it will be, or the depth of its regional impacts, but we do know that the possibility exists for some very bad outcomes. Science is diligently trying to figure this out, and uncertain doesn’t mean untrue. I’m sitting in a city that broke its flooding record by more than 10 feet in 2008 and is now preparing to cut water usage as a drought refuses to break. That makes me pretty curious about predictions for extreme weather.

Modest warming would be swell. But a new study released by the World Bank says severe warming is now becoming more likely. That’s consistent with a study commissioned by the CIA, which found that climate change is accelerating, with serious national security implications. And that’s consistent with the findings of the International Energy Agency, which says a five-year clock is now ticking on taking action to prevent the most severe effects.

I’m not calling for panic or drastic government action. But these are real and serious risks that should be taken seriously. We should consider constructive, conservative policies that can both lessen the damage and mitigate the impact. Maybe that’s alarmist. And maybe that’s what we owe our kids. Depends on who you believe.


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