Monday, April 24, 2006

Boiling Frogs and Drowning Bears

Yesterday's New York Times Week in Review included a lead op-ed that does a nice job of explaining the state of certainty vs. speculation on climate change, in layman's terms. It highlights the difficulties involved in sifting through our observations of current weather and weather events--such as melting polar ice and multiple major hurricane strikes in the US Gulf Coast--and attributing them to climate change or randomness. In the process, the author points out some of the risks of alarmism, a position that is likely to be controversial. In my view, he's right to worry that some of the ways we are trying to get the public's attention could backfire, by relegating global warming to to the "CNN cycle" of news and hype, followed by exhausted indifference.

I was also pleased to see Mr. Revkin promoting the importance of adaptation, not just as a survival strategy, but as a way of making an extraordinarily abstract and potentially remote-seeming issue more tangible and immediate. Adaptation to climate change deserves as much attention as mitigation, because it's not clear we can react quickly enough, on a large enough scale, to prevent major consequences from the lagged effect of changes that are already "dialed in."

The article also includes the findings of a recent opinion poll placing environmental issues far down the list of concerns for Americans, and climate change well down the list within environmental concerns. I'm not sure it's irrational, though, for people to worry more about immediate problems such as war and terrorism. Instead, I think it's encouraging that well over half of respondents saw climate change as both real and a source of concern. Campaigns such as the Ad Council's new tv spots on climate change should continue to shift public awareness in that direction.

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