Global warming is an unfortunate fact
Friday, December 3, 2010 - 12:24 pm

To the Editor:

I agree completely with Ms. Weitzmann’s assertion (in her letter published in the Nov. 17-23 issue of North Country This Week) that we Americans waste far too much money buying unneeded and useless junk.

However, I need to point out several inaccuracies in her comments about global warming. Many of the misconceptions she put forth are widely held, which is unfortunate.

Global warming is a fact, and most if not all of it is caused by human activity, beginning with the advent of agriculture around 5,000 years ago. I am sorry if you don’t believe this, but it’s still true. You may choose to not believe in gravity, but you are still impacted by its effects.

However, the insinuation voiced in Ms. Weitzmann’s letter that human-induced global warming (HIGW) might destroy the planet is incorrect. Best estimates of the impact of HIGW suggest that average global temperatures may rise between 2-5 degrees centigrade over the next 50 years or so. While that is a significant increase, it still represents an average global temperature lower than some of the peak average temperatures that our planet has weathered—and, in fact, thrived in—over its history. During the Cretaceous, for example, most research points to average global temperatures 8-10 degrees C warmer than at present. So there is no reason to assume that HIGW will imperil the planet or the life it contains.

One of the ironies of HIGW is that its effects will be beneficial to life on Earth in general. Why? Because of the way that the temperature increase is likely to be distributed over the planet. Although this is a great simplification, as a general rule the colder the current average temperature, the more the temperature is likely to increase in the future due to HIGW. The currently warmest areas of the Earth will see average temperatures increase the least. The Arctic, the Antarctic and the permafrost regions of the highest mountains are among the least biologically productive regions on the planet. The overall range of these regions will contract, while the range of the more biologically friendly regions—tropical, sub-tropical and temperate zones—will expand. So why should we be concerned about global warming? There are several reasons. One is that weather fluctuations and storm severity will both increase. Another area of concern is changing air circulation patterns.

Right now there are two bands of deserts around the globe, each approximately 18-28 degrees above or below the equator. As the planet warms up these desert zones are likely to increase in latitude, moving further north in the Northern Hemisphere and further south in the Southern Hemisphere. Although this is by no means a certainty, it is possible that these desert zones will shift into areas that are now used to produce much of the world’s food. Will this future shift be offset by making newly arable lands in areas currently too cold to grow food in? Possibly, but I’m not ready to bet the farm on it.

Finally, and perhaps most compellingly, HIGW will lead to a worldwide increase in sea levels, and thus loss of land along coastlines. Hundreds of millions of people live in these low-lying areas; many of them depend upon the seas for their livelihoods. Increasing sea levels and storm severity will lead to more frequent catastrophic flooding; many densely populated areas will become unlivable, and entire island nations may disappear from the surface. The result may be massive social, political and economic dislocation. Another unfortunate irony of HIGW is that while the richest countries enjoy a disproportionate share of the benefits of greenhouse gas production, the poorest countries will suffer a disproportionate share of the consequences.

There are many legitimate reasons why we should try to move from a consumerist to a sustainable lifestyle—resource depletion, habitat destruction, uneven distribution of resources among them, and I agree with Ms. Weitzmann that this is an important and admirable goal. But I don’t believe that HIGW is the most compelling argument in favor of that goal. By working to reduce the amount of HIGW, we are not saving the planet; rather, we are merely saving ourselves. We do the Earth a disservice when we assert that our behavior can destroy it. As far as the Earth is concerned, we are utterly insignificant. True, we need to learn how to live sustainably or we will suffer the disruptive and dangerous consequences, but the Earth couldn’t care less either way; it will still be here brimming with life long after we have passed, even if our disappearance is a result of our own greed or foolishness.

Glenn Simonelli