Dire predictions

A recent report issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a group of scientists convened by the United Nations to guide world leaders, is very grim. It describes a world of worsening food shortages and wildfires, a mass die-off of coral reefs as soon as 2040, and massive coastal flooding. Entire islands may disappear and major cities could become uninhabitable within the lifetimes of people who are already born.

It isn’t the first time that we have read dire predictions by scientists. Around the time I was beginning my college education, Stanford University Profession Paul Ehrlich and his wife, Anne Ehrlich published a book about expanding global population. The Population Bomb warned of mass starvation as early as the 1980’s. The book began with these words, “The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate . . .”

The book was unashamedly alarmist. It has been criticized for the inaccuracy of its predictions. The worst of its predictions didn’t come to pass. But it has also been lauded for raising the alarm that caused individuals and governments to make serious changes that have lessened the impact of increasing population.

The problem is that when the worst predictions don’t come to pass, people begin to be skeptical of those who are raising the alarm. It becomes like the story of the boy who cried “Wolf!” Raising a false alarm leaves people less likely to respond when a real threat appears.

There is general agreement among scientists, however, that dire warnings of the effects of human-caused global climate change are not overstated. Many species are in critical danger of extinction right now. Flooding and wildfires are increasing in severity and damage right now. Food shortages already exist and by 2050 he world will need to produce 60% more food than current levels.

The planet is around 1 degree Celsius than it was 160 years ago at the start of the industrial revolution. Scientists say that if we can keep global warming from rising by no more than an additional half a degree by the end of the century, it will be better for us, better for animals, and better for the entire planet. Their prediction, however, is that the world is on track for as much as 3 degrees of warming by the end of the century, with dire consequences.

We seem to play a kind of tug-o-war with dire predictions and making the changes necessary to protect our environment. We’ve seen it with the pollution of water. After decades of dumping raw sewage, industrial waste, chemicals and other pollutants into our nation’s rivers, many rivers were so polluted that people could not swim in them and could not eat the few fish that remained by the 1960’s. Famously, the Cuyahoga River which flows into Lake Erie, became so polluted that it caught fire in 1969. Of course the river itself wasn’t burning, but rather the pollutants that were floating on the water. Nonetheless the dramatic fire caught the attention of the nation and helped spur the environmental movement in the United States. The Clean Water Act of 1972 established the basic structure for regulating pollutant discharges into the waters of the United States.

Although some decried the restrictions put into place by the Environmental Protection Agency, there is no question that federal regulations helped not only to govern water pollution but also to restore and maintain the chemical, physical and biological integrity of our nation’s waterways. Without concerted federal efforts, drinking water shortages would already have severely limited the ability of our nation to provide basic survival to its citizens.

We pollute. Scientists raise the alarm. We work at cleaning up the pollution. Restrictions are put into place. The restrictions have a positive effect. We relax. We chafe at the restrictions. Restrictions are eased. Pollution increases. The cycle repeats.

At times it seems as if there is a virtual war between extremes. There are those who argue for unlimited expansion of manufacturing and other industrial activities. They often have large amounts of money for lobbying and influencing legislation. There are others who want to halt all industrial activities and return the planet to its status before humans began their activities. Most of us are somewhere in between these extremes, having enough practical vision to understand that humans are part of the environment and that our actions are part of the globe. While we need to be good stewards, it is unreasonable to pretend that we won’t have an effect on the world.

In those pendulum swings between the poles, we seem to be in a time of decreased regulation and decreased care for the planet. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has declared that no fish from Lake Elmo in Minneapolis should be eaten due to PFCs, primarily caused by the practices of 3M corporation. Warnings have also bee issued for Lake Harriet, Lake of the Isles, Lake Calhoun and Twin Lake. The beautiful urban lakes of Minneapolis may be wonderful for sailing and canoeing, but they are no longer places where people can safely swim.

The issues of our environment and our role in caring for this planet are complex. Our ever-increasing appetite for energy makes all of us participants in the causes of global warming. The decisions about what vehicles to drive, about how to heat our homes, and about which foods to eat all have an effect on the process of global warming. Decisions about what to include in public education and which textbooks to use in public schools have an impact on what information people have and how they respond.

We can hope that the scientists’ predictions are wrong and that our amazingly resilient planet will help to mitigate the impacts of our actions, but the potential effects on human life are so severe that such a course of action seems ill advised. Each of us needs to take a look at our personal decisions as well as the actions of large companies and decide what changes we are able to make. Our choices might make all the difference in the world.

Copyright (c) 2018 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!