Global Warming: Increased Public Acceptance May Be Tenuous

The cover story in the August 16-22, 2008, issue of New Scientist magazine examines climate change over the next ten years. It points out that climate scientists are improving their ability to predict intermediate changes in the climate because of an increased understanding of the role of the oceans. It appears that there are fluctuations with periods of a decade or so, and that we may be in for about ten years of respite from the recent upward trend of global average temperature.

This can be good news or bad news, depending on how people and governments respond to it. As the editors of New Scientist point out in their accompanying editorial:

Even a decade of planetary cooling would not change the long-term prospect of a warmer world. The decade-long oceanic oscillations will come and go, but the carbon dioxide we are putting into the air will stay there for centuries.

It is essential to get this message across. Fluctuations in temperature will be just that – ripples on a swelling tide of warming.

If we can continue the recent emphasis on rapid deployment of non-fossil-fuel energy sources, the coming decade of likely cooling or stability may not end with a rapid upsurge in global temperatures.

However, the temporary respite in the warming trend may encourage some interest groups to resume their campaign to discredit the scientific consensus in the eyes of the general public, making it difficult to maintain the political progress being made in this area.

For example, both John McCain and Barack Obama have been outspoken about the need to act to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. Their policies differ, but I think either one will end up in about the same place as political compromises will be necessary in the legislative process.

McCain, however, will face much greater pressure from his own party to go slow. A misinterpretation of the scientific significance of short-term cooling may ratchet up that pressure.

Will a President McCain be able to keep climate change high on the agenda?

For that matter, will a President Obama be able to persuade the body politic of the importance of the issue in the face of the inevitable political distortions of the meaning of short- and intermediate-term global temperature trends?

Or would we be better off in the long run if the short- and intermediate-term trends were in the opposite direction, and if warming were as clearly signaled in the next few years of global average temperatures as it has in the past two decades?

For those interested in a wide range of recent books on this topic, see the Science Shelf book review archive collection of weather and climate books.

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