Monday, January 30, 2006

The Tipping Point for Global Warming

Yesterday the Washington Post reported on the possibility that the earth is approaching a "tipping point" at which global warming will be so far progressed that we will no longer be able to do anything to reverse its progress. A change of just a few degrees in average temperatures is likely to result in major changes in the way we live. First there is the sea-level issue:

Princeton University geosciences and international affairs professor Michael Oppenheimer, who also advises the advocacy group Environmental Defense, said one of the greatest dangers lies in the disintegration of the Greenland or West Antarctic ice sheets, which together hold about 20 percent of the fresh water on the planet. If either of the two sheets disintegrates, sea level could rise nearly 20 feet in the course of a couple of centuries, swamping the southern third of Florida and Manhattan up to the middle of Greenwich Village.
Scientists interviewed for the article worry about the effect of warming on ocean fisheries and Atlantic currents.

The article also raises the troubling issue of censorship in the government:

When Hansen posted data on the Internet in the fall suggesting that 2005 could be the warmest year on record, NASA officials ordered Hansen to withdraw the information because he had not had it screened by the administration in advance, according to a Goddard scientist who spoke on the condition of anonymity. More recently, NASA officials tried to discourage a reporter from interviewing Hansen for this article and later insisted he could speak on the record only if an agency spokeswoman listened in on the conversation.

"They're trying to control what's getting out to the public," Hansen said, adding that many of his colleagues are afraid to talk about the issue. "They're not willing to say much, because they've been pressured and they're afraid they'll get into trouble."

Of course, charges of politically-inspired censorship in the current administration are nothing new. Expert research has consistently been suppressed to benefit the administration's image or undermine opposition to its policies. In this case the government's refusal to deal with the problem of global warming will eventually make it impossible to mitigate its consequences. We need solutions and we need them now.