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Some leading scientists, led by James Hansen, head of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, fear that the first two catastrophes are already approaching. The Arctic ice cap is dangerously thin and largely disappears during the summers. Instead of white sheets of ice and snow reflecting the sun’s rays back into space, stretches of dark ocean appear, absorbing heat and warming the water. Once the icecap is melted, it won’t return. The Arctic Ocean will become a huge global heating element.
As for the Amazon rainforest, it normally plays a crucial role as a so-called carbon sink, absorbing billions of tons per year of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere by human activity and thus slowing the warming process. It’s currently on pace to reverse that role. In 2005 and 2010, severe droughts killed millions of trees, whose decay released billions of tons of carbon, adding to warming instead of reducing it. Scientists expect this to become the norm as droughts become a permanent fact of life in the region.
The thawing of the Siberian permafrost is a different story. Eons worth of decaying plant life lie under the frozen soil. A thaw would release hundreds of billions of tons of carbon in the form of carbon dioxide and methane — equivalent to an entire century’s worth of fossil-fuel emissions. It’s still avoidable, but no one knows for how long.
Once under way, these processes amplify each other. In addition to deadly heat waves, floods, disrupted growing seasons and species extinctions, scientists predict that melting glaciers will raise sea levels as much as 23 feet by 2100, forcing hundreds of millions of coastal dwellers to flee inland.
To complete the picture, one more bit of research is worth recalling. While 97% of the world’s climate scientists and every major scientific organization are in agreement over the causes and likely consequences of global warming, the American public is divided on the matter. A 2011 University of New Hampshire study found that political beliefs generally determine one’s reading of the facts rather than vice versa. Presenting new information does little or nothing to sway listeners.
Public skepticism is reinforced by television weather forecasters, the main source of weather and climate information for most Americans. Four out of five forecasters question the science of climate change, according to a recent study at George Mason University. This is partly because the systems they study — short-term predictions of local weather events — are notoriously unreliable. Few are familiar with the far more complex systems of climate research, which have proved remarkably — and depressingly — accurate so far. Forecasters filter climate news with the same biases and resistance as the general population, but with the added bias of assuming they know better.
And so, our choices in November. Fairness usually dictates that we weigh each candidate’s merits and deficiencies against the various issues we consider important. We might, for example, weigh the parties’ views on Israel and on the teaching of evolution and decide that Israel’s problems are so great that ninth-grade biology will have to suffer for a few years. As the saying goes, it isn’t the end of the world.
This year, though, that’s exactly what’s at stake.
Contact J.J. Goldberg at email@example.com