Rachel Carson changed the world with a magazine article. Her “Silent Spring,” published over three consecutive issues of The New Yorker in 1962—and, later, as a book—opened eyes to the dangers of chemical pesticide use. People got worried and angry, governments took steps to control the problem, industry complied or faced consequences. By showing the natural world as a complex system that human technology can affect in unintended ways, Carson is widely credited with starting the environmental movement. In 1999, Time magazine named her one of the 100 most important people of the century.
Ahhh, things seemed so much simpler last century. The growth of environmentalism means there are now enough experts to disagree on the fundamental facts. Last week in this space, I mentioned a letter 60 scientists sent to prime minister Stephen Harper, urging him not to worry about global warming. Subsequently Harper got a letter from 90 more scientists, telling him global warming is a huge, human-caused problem that needs immediate attention. For their part, modern politicians see public opinion as an entity to be managed and shaped, separate from the business of governing. Notice Harper brazenly banning cameras from revealing military coffins, those grim reminders of Canada’s Afghanistan policy.
Luckily some of the old standards made it to the 21st century intact. The New Yorker published Elizabeth Kolbert’s “Climate of Man,” a major article about global warming, last year over three consecutive issues (April 25, May 2 and May 9, 2005). As part of her extensive research, Kolbert travelled to Alaska to hang out with scientists who are studying the rapidly thawing permafrost, and she camped out on the Greenland ice sheet with the researchers who are tracking its melting. Such first-hand observation uniquely contributes to her deep understanding of global warming—its effects, the state of thinking about its causes and cures—which she communicates to the reader in clear, engaging writing. (Kolbert expanded on the article for a recently released book titled, appropriately enough, Field Notes from a Catastrophe.)
Kolbert traces the study of global warming back to 1859, when British physicist John Tyndall discovered that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere helps heat the planet, by trapping some energy the earth gives off. It didn’t take long for scientists to ask if humans, who create large amounts of carbon dioxide by burning oil and coal, would add to the “natural greenhouse effect.” Studies continue today to tease out the details, but the big, unequivocal answer is yes, humans are quickly heating the planet to a dangerous level by using so much fossil fuel.
What to do about the warming is another question. The Kyoto Protocol gets a lot of attention from Kolbert, as does America’s refusal to sign the agreement. (Stephen Harper’s public wavering on the protocol is a more recent development.) Kyoto demands that industrialized nations cut back their carbon dioxide emissions, or pay money to buy “emissions credits” and/or invest in various “clean development” projects.
“Outside the US, the decision to exempt developing nations from Kyoto’s mandates was generally regarded as an adequate—if imperfect—solution,” Kolbert writes. “The point was to get the process started, and to persuade countries like China and India to sign on later.” As a Dutch politician told Kolbert, “We should show moral leadership by giving the example. That’s the only way we can ask something of these other countries.”
Kyoto maps out a road that the world has to get on quickly to avoid major ecological disaster. That road is narrow right now, and has potholes, but at least it’s going in the right direction. Following it is the best choice we have, and a far better example than walking away.
Credit where credit is due: Last week, Mirco Chen drew the “She’s From Away” comic that Mike Drake wrote. And cover subject Jon Epworth’s hair and makeup were done by Jon Murphy for Estee Lauder. For more from these local talents, see mircochen.blogspot.com and jonmurphymakeup.com.
Is climbing on board Kyoto the best climate change strategy? Email: firstname.lastname@example.org