Who Needs Florida, Anyway?

Scientists need to help us prevent climate change, not adapt to it

One of the articles in Global Climate Change (IC#22)
Originally published in Summer 1989 on page 18
Copyright (c)1989, 1997 by Context Institute

The urgency of climate change calls for leadership from some unusual quarters. Environmental author and columnist Dana Meadows comments here on the role scientists – a group generally not known for activism – need to play in averting global climate change. Her writing has been appearing regularly in IN CONTEXT, and she also writes a weekly column called "The Global Citizen." Contact the editors of your local papers and ask them to carry it, or write directly to Dana at PO Box 58, Daniels Rd., Plainfield, NH 03781.

"The accelerating overheating of the earth has already begun," says a Toles cartoon showing a semi-alert Ordinary Guy in his armchair watching the TV news.

The announcer continues, "Leading scientists warn that the pollution-caused runaway greenhouse effect is happening faster than previously believed. The earth will bake, our farmlands turn to desert, our forests die, and our coasts flood from rising seas. All life on the planet could be extinguished within 500 years.

"The administration has just announced a comprehensive 499-year study of the problem."

That joke is too close to the truth to be funny. The greenhouse effect is now detectable in the warming of the atmosphere and the rising of the seas. It is a slow, insidious threat to human civilization and to all ecosystems. The global response so far has been plenty of study and no action.

It’s easy enough to blame the inaction on Ordinary Folks who sit comatose before their TV sets or on dithering governments that handle enormous problems by studying them to death. But in this case I think some of the blame must be directed to the scientists who are doing the studies.

It’s not that their science is inadequate. To the contrary, they are doing an amazing job of penetrating the complex interactions of atmospheric chemistry, global carbon flows, ocean-air interactions, historical climate patterns.

It’s not that they minimize the problem. In meetings about the greenhouse effect, the word "staggering" comes up often. The scientists describe what will happen in terms almost as dire as those of the cartoonist: "change in monsoon patterns, desertification of much arable land, sharp rises in sea level, extensive shoreline retreat, increased hurricane activity, massive saltwater intrusion into fresh water supplies, destruction of wildlife habitats, and impairment of port facilities."

But for all their brilliant research and dramatic descriptions of the problem, the scientists are inhibiting the world’s ability to respond, because of their strangely unscientific assumption about that response. They have, essentially, written us off.

The last time I got involved in a discussion with my technical colleagues about the greenhouse effect, they were talking, in their usual detached way, about the flooding of low-lying coastal areas. Rising seas are now claiming 65 acres a year in Massachusetts, they were saying. Nantucket will lose 1000 acres in the next 30 years. Between flooding and salt-water infiltration of groundwater, we could eventually lose such areas as Cape Cod, Florida, and Bangladesh.

I found it impossible to stay detached. Cape Cod! Florida! Bangladesh! One hundred million people live in Bangladesh! What’s going to happen to them? Are they going to migrate to India? Will they resettle on what remains of America after we’ve lost Florida (and the Jersey coast and the Texas coast and Long Island)?

My colleagues tried to calm me by talking about human adaptability. People adjust to tremendous climate changes from winter to summer, they said. People move from New England to Arizona and do just fine. We’ll have at least a hundred years to move the Bangladeshis. We can get along without Long Island.

Their studies, their reports, their conversations are almost entirely about adaptation. How can we breed grain crops to grow in the desertified Midwest? How can we set up gene banks to preserve the millions of wild species that will not be able to migrate? "Preparing for Climate Change" is the title of a recent conference; it is also the pervasive theme of nearly all research on this subject.

Why prepare for climate change? Why not PREVENT it?

This global warming is caused by human beings burning fossil fuels, cutting down forests, depleting soil humus, releasing CFCs, and otherwise disturbing the balance of gases that make up the Earth’s atmosphere. Though it is too late now to avoid some warming, vast disruptions could be prevented, if we simply quit trashing the planet. And every one of the measures we should take to prevent the greenhouse effect – conserve energy, plant trees, build soil humus, stop polluting – is worth doing for its own sake anyway.

My colleagues sigh when I pop off like that. People will never change, they say. Increased use of fossil fuel is inevitable. Deforestation is unstoppable.

They are assuming that we can move whole cities, nations, and agricultural economies, but we can’t use energy more efficiently, switch to solar energy sources, or reforest the earth. We can respond to a catastrophe, but we haven’t the wisdom to prevent it.

They have no scientific basis for that assumption. And they have a moral responsibility, it seems to me, to frame their studies not around their own cynical resignation, but around the real choice between adaptation and prevention.

I’d like to hear from the world’s scientists about better ways of conserving energy, of tapping solar energy sources, of reforesting the uplands instead of relocating the coastal cities. I’d like to see an objective calculation of the full costs and benefits of adapting to this climate change versus preventing it. For the price of writing off Florida, we could probably buy a lot of solar collectors.

The scientists’ job is to describe all the choices, as fully, clearly, and objectively as they can. It’s not up to them to choose. That’s the job of all of us.

An Appeal To Scientists

by Ambassador Stephen Lewis

Excerpted from a speech delivered by Ambassador Stephen Lewis at the 2nd International Conference on Climate Change, held in Washington, DC, in October 1988. The speech brought the audience of scientists cheering to its feet. Ambassador Lewis was until recently Canada’s representative to the United Nations.

There’s something that I want to put to you as strongly as possible, as scientists in this room assembled. It is truly important, given this sense which you all have of [the climate crisis], that you move from analysis to advocacy. That is the true measure of a scientific community which is mobilized in defense of a cause. It is not without precedent, I remind you.

I remind you that numbers of scientists all over the world who understood the full horror of the potential use of atomic weaponry formed a group in solidarity under the auspices of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, and fought vigorously, intelligently, indefatigably to get arms control policies in place and to shift away from the insanity of the arms race.

Let me remind you as well of the physicians who suddenly decided some years ago that the greatest single public health hazard in this world would be a nuclear war. They formed the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War. East and West collaborated, lobbied tenaciously and relentlessly, and undoubtedly had some effect on the policies of the Eastern bloc and NATO countries in understanding that the arms race had to be stalled and that one had to inch the world’s way back to rationality.

What we need now for the environment, in a similar fashion, is a grand coalition – of scientists and environmentalists and non-governmental organizations and the policymakers who care to be involved – to save this Earth and humankind. I recognize it’s not particularly your profession to be in the front lines of advocacy. You’re scientists, but there does come a moment in life when the scientific knowledge must be mobilized into the advocate’s activities.

You know better than anyone else what the implications are for ecological integrity and ecological diversity when the forests of Madagascar disappear. You understand better than anyone else the consequences for the world as the Brazilian forests are under assault. You understand better than most the ominous warnings in the succession of natural tragedies visited on the country of Bangladesh, and the moral imperative inherent in dealing with the human consequences of those tragedies.

You understand better than most the march of the deserts in the Sahel, and the way in which these deserts continue to encroach on human survival. You grasp all of the implications – the way most of mortal kind does not grasp them – of the consequences of the heat waves for the American and Canadian Midwest. You chronicle the consequences of the holes in the ozone layer, and its implication for human health and well-being. You understand the imperative policy options. This room is the repository of that wisdom and that knowledge.

And so my appeal to you today is that you combine science and advocacy, that you become both analysts and protagonists. By all means, don’t give up the case. That is the nature of the professional imperative. But then move from the dispassionate observation to passionate intervention. And do it with the collaboration of as many groups as possible, because one is talking, as did the scientists who opposed nuclear war, about the preservation of the planet. I don’t pretend that you’re the last best hope for human kind, but perhaps, collectively, you’re the strongest voice for mobilizing change. We surely haven’t come this far in human civilization to see it atrophy before our very eyes. I salute you, and I throw the gauntlet to you.

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