Not the End of the World as We Know It
By Olaf Stampf
How bad is climate change really? Are catastrophic floods and terrible droughts headed our way? Despite widespread fears of a greenhouse hell, the latest computer simulations are delivering far less dramatic predictions about tomorrowâ€™s climate.
Svante Arrhenius, the father of the greenhouse effect, would be called a heretic today. Far from issuing the sort of dire predictions about climate change which are common nowadays, the Swedish physicist dared to predict a paradise on earth for humans when he announced, in April 1896, that temperatures were rising â€” and that it would be a blessing for all.
Arrhenius, who later won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, calculated that the release of carbon dioxide â€” or carbonic acid as it was then known â€” through burning coal, oil and natural gas would lead to a significant rise in temperatures worldwide. But, he argued, â€œby the influence of the increasing percentage of carbonic acid in the atmosphere, we may hope to enjoy ages with more equable and better climates,â€ potentially making poor harvests and famine a thing of the past.
Arrhenius was merely expressing a view that was firmly entrenched in the collective consciousness of the day: warm times are good times; cold times are bad.
During the so-called Medieval Warm Period between about 900 and 1300 A.D., for example, the Vikings raised livestock on Greenland and sailed to North America. New cities were built all across Europe, and the continentâ€™s population grew from 30 million to 80 million.
The consequences of the colder temperatures that plunged civilization into the so-called Little Ice Age for several centuries after 1300 were devastating. Summers were rainy, winters cold, and in many places temperatures were too low for grain crops to mature. Famines and epidemics raged, and average life expectancy dropped by 10 years. In Germany, thousands of villages were abandoned and entire stretches of land depopulated.
The shock produced by the cold was as deep-seated it was long-lasting. When temperatures plunged unexpectedly once again in the 1960s, many meteorologists were quick to warn people about the coming of a new ice age â€” supposedly triggered by man-made air pollution. Hardly anyone at the time believed a warming trend could pose a threat.
It was not until the rise of the environmental movement in the 1980s that everything suddenly changed. From then on it was almost a foregone conclusion that global warming could only be perceived as a disaster for the earthâ€™s climate. Environmentalists, adopting a strategy typical of the Catholic Church, have been warning us about the horrors of greenhouse gas hell ever since â€” painting it as a punishment for the sin of meddling with creation. What was conveniently ignored, however, is that humanity has been reshaping the planet for a very long time, first by clearing forests and plowing fields, and later by building roads, cities and factories.
In the age of climate change, it has become a popular social pastime to scour the weather forecast for omens of doom. Has it ever been as hot in April as it is this year? Is this lack of rain normal? Could all this mean that the end is nigh?
But how bad is climate change really? Will global warming trigger plagues of Biblical proportions? Can we look forward to endless droughts and catastrophic floods?
Or will Arrhenius end up being right after all? Could rising temperatures lead to higher crop yields and more tourism in many places? In other words, is humanity actually creating new paradises?
The truth is probably somewhere between these two extremes. Climate change will undoubtedly have losers â€” but it will also have winners. There will be a reshuffling of climate zones on earth. And there is something else that we can already say with certainty: The end of the world isnâ€™t coming any time soon.
Largely unnoticed by the public, climate researchers are currently embroiled in their own struggle over who owns the truth. While some have always seen themselves as environmental activists aiming to shake humanity out of its complacency, others argue for a calmer and more rational approach to the unavoidable.
One member of the levelheaded camp is Hans von Storch, 57, a prominent climate researcher who is director of the Institute for Coastal Research at the GKSS Research Center in Geesthacht in northern Germany. â€œWe have to take away peopleâ€™s fear of climate change,â€ Storch told DER SPIEGEL in a recent interview. â€œUnfortunately many scientists see themselves too much as priests whose job it is to preach moralistic sermons to people.â€
I found this article very interesting. What is your take on global warming?