Winter 2012

Climate Roulette

Click to download the PDF
Click to download the PDF

I’m lousy at poker, but that doesn’t keep me from participating in the worldwide gamble we call climate change. It’s a game of chance with deadly consequences. With each passing year, we up the ante by adding more greenhouse gasses to the atmosphere and tipping the scales in favor of a drastically different future.

Some of the cards are already on the table: receding glaciers, rising sea levels, rampant forest pests, eroding coastlines, intense storms and spreading drought. By themselves, such trends are not the definitive signature of a changing climate. Taken together, however, they demonstrate that we are indeed living on a new planet, as author Bill McKibben argues. Here, the chances are diminishing that future generations will be able to grow enough food, keep people healthy, ensure public safety and enjoy our rich ecological heritage.

This issue of Terra shows what some Oregon scientists, foresters, farmers, public health officials and planners are doing to prepare. They face a moving target, because as they work, knowledge continues to evolve. Two recent examples from OSU suggest the scale of the challenge. A 2011 report in the journal Science by OSU professor Andreas Schmittner and colleagues concluded that the most drastic climate scenario posed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is less likely than had previously been judged. Contrary to some criticism, they did not rule out major consequences from small changes in climate.

Earlier, Alan Mix, one of Schmittner’s colleagues on the Science paper, co-authored a report in Nature Geoscience that throws cold water on a hypothesis involving the source of atmospheric carbon that ballooned after the last Ice Age. The evidence from a deep-ocean site about 70 miles off southwest Oregon was conclusive: The carbon came from some place other than the northeast Pacific, which scientists had considered the most likely location. The findings, said Mix, left them puzzled.

These might seem like arcane footnotes to arguments among specialists, but on them and other details rest our understanding of how the planet works. Much of that knowledge is in hand, but while scientists have reached wide agreement about the outlines of a changing climate, the picture is still coming into focus.

What do current trends mean for the rest of us? Here’s a view from writers and scientists assembled last fall by OSU’s Spring Creek Project for Ideas, Nature and the Written Word. In the Blue River Declaration, they wrote: “A truly adaptive civilization will align its ethics with the ways of the Earth. A civilization that ignores the deep constraints of its world will find itself in exactly the situation we face now, on the threshold of making the planet inhospitable to humankind and other species.”

If you like to gamble, you might think that nature is bluffing or that we’ve got the rules all wrong and we can go on changing the chemistry of the atmosphere and the oceans. With every passing year, it appears that nature is serious. We might not have every rule nailed down yet, but this is a game in which the losers are likely to be our children.

— Nick Houtman

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