David K. Smith, 16 April 2018

Global warming, as a term, is misunderstood by 99% of humans. First, this isn't surprising. And second, this isn't surprising. When a congressman brings a snowball into a congressional session, drops it on the floor, and declares "global warming" to be a myth, it's really, really sad. It basically explains why virtually no one understands it.

Global warming is not about the entire earth suddenly experiencing a massive, record-breaking heatwave overnight. For a time, the term "climate change" was recommended as a more appropriate (read: more politically correct) replacement, but it too is misleading, and it certainly creates a false impression of insignificance.

Worse, there's no simple way to explain it, and worse still, most people would simply reject it, especially those who've just experienced a record-breaking winter, with blizzards in April. In my case, things are even more dismal: there are only a handful of people who read my essays, and among them it's a good bet that most or all already understand—or at least accept—global warming.

But just in case anyone has doubts, here's what's actually happening.

Specifically, on the simplest level, global warming is the increase in average global temperature of only a fraction of a degree. Why is this of any consequence? Because global climate is a very sensitive system—so sensitive that tiny fluctuations of the average global temperature result in significant changes in weather patterns.

Our global climate has changed by tiny amounts many times in the past. Such changes have been a result of outside influences, such as asteroid impacts, or by minor natural internal fluctuations; for example, some have resulted in ice ages over the millennia. However, these changes take place over the course of thousands of years, and to the best of our collective scientific knowledge, there's never been a shift in average global temperature as acute (rapid) as the one we've been tracking since the dawn of the industrial revolution—that point in time when mankind started burning fossil fuels at an ever-increasing rate.

This is all very well documented, and no climate change denier has yet made a convincing argument to the contrary. Yes, there are a (very) few accredited scientists who claim it's a hoax. Be aware, however, that their assertions are nearly always politically- or economically-motivated. This, too, is well documented.

So, why would a change in average global temperature of just a degree or less have such catastrophic effects? Because, as I've already mentioned, the global climate is a very sensitive system: it's a delicate balance that's been maintained far longer than we as a species have existed. Nearly every facet of our climate is intimately integrated: we now know that global warming has affected everything from the deepest ocean currents to the very upper limits of our atmosphere.

And these effects have been predicted for decades. In the early 1970s, climatologists began to notice the change, and since then our understanding as increased many-fold. Indeed, most of our predictive climate models have been either very close to current observed conditions, or (and here's where things start to look really bad) too conservative: real-life conditions are beginning to exceed worst-case scenarios; in other words, things are probably much worse than we think.

How does global warming manifest itself? Most often by intensifying weather events. More hurricanes. Colder winters (yes!), followed by much hotter summers. Areas of the planet are now experiencing drought conditions that never have before. The permafrost is no longer "perma." Record low levels of ice have been documented at the poles. Glacial melting is happening faster than nearly all predictions. This is now supported by a quarter-century of hard data.

All of this information is available for anyone to collect, study and scrutinize for themselves. Deniers are having an increasingly harder time justifying their denials, because their "data" is minimal and spurious. But the very fact that deniers exist quite possibly spells our doom: unless everyone on the planet unites to counteract global warming right now, our fate is sealed.

The problem is latency: Global warming is a result of a couple hundred years of burning fossil fuel; any countermeasure will take at least as long to have any effect, if not longer. And our best data now suggests that even if we acted right now, it's too late; by the time our efforts kick in, we'd be past the "tipping point"—that point in time when global warming becomes an unstoppable, runaway problem that could make the planet uninhabitable in the span of only a few hundred years. All of those post-apocalyptic sci-fi movies would pale by comparison to the reality we likely face.

And the deniers will continue to deny. After all, most of these changes happen across the span of generations; few if any people will perceive such changes in their lifetimes. However, it is possible for some of us to see the effects: I've noticed precipitous declines in wildlife populations, and it isn't all due to encroachment. And I'm watching the decline of hardwood in my area in real time, which has been attributed to global warming. It's there for us to see, if we'd only open our minds wider than our eyes.

Why am I so doom-and-gloom? Because I understand the science well enough to realize what's actually happening. I also understand human nature, and the uphill battle we face trying to convince all of those puny brains out there what they're doing to their one and only home—the Earth. Escape to another planet? Hah! First, I don't see that as feasible—there are simply far too many technical hurdles to overcome in the time we have left; and second, it's a patent admission that we're all just ignorant, irresponsible idiots. Why don't we at least try fix what we have, rather than just move on and leave it to rot? Besides, based on our history, we'll just do the same thing all over again.

Just because we can read and write (well, some of us, anyway) and make microprocessors and miracle drugs is not evidence that we're really the slightest bit enlightened. We're little more than ants stepping on our own anthill.


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