Saturday, April 4, 2009

FIRESIDE CHAT: Global Warming (b)


The more general answer involves species other than humans, which should be of concern to people for reasons beyond our dependence on them for ecological services that contribute to our survival and the quality of our existence. As climate changes, habitats migrate or disappear. As New York get warmer, its cold-loving birch trees will die (mine have already), and their habitat boundary will migrate north. As northern areas warm, the range of cold-loving birches will also migrate vertically, restricting birches to mountainsides. This example of habitat migration can be repeated many times, each time substituting the name of a different species whose habitat locally will no longer be suitable as global warming progresses. Organisms that cannot migrate, such as plants, will die in place (their survival as a species will depend upon seed dispersal to a receptive habitat). Populations that cannot invade and colonize new habitats quickly enough will die. Many species will go extinct.

Despite global acceptance that these consequences of global warming will occur, the bigger picture of a planet that will survive notwithstanding the stress often is emphasized, especially in academia. In my long experience, academia is a place that rewards perspectives in proportion to their breadth. If I say billions of people will die because of global warming, some academic someplace in academia will say "but the planet will survive these natural cycles." I think survival of life as we know it on our planet is at risk and, recognizing the risk, we are likely to respond adaptively to preserve many if not most members of our species and some if not most of our planet's ecosystems. Given the inertia of global warming, we already are committed to significant further warming no matter what we do. I don't know if we still can save arctic or coral reef ecosystems, but we can and probably will save many others.

As expressed in the title of the 1936 Charlie Chaplin silent movie, we are living in "Modern Times." Does art imitate life; does life imitate art? Is current global warming unremarkable in the history of our planet? In the 2004 movie "I Robot" (adapted from Isaac Asimov's series of nine short stories about 'positronic robots') Dr. Alfred Lanning cautions: "You must ask the right question." Is unremarkable global warming in the history of our planet remarkable for us? That is the right question. The right answer is: “You better believe it is.”

Copyright © 2009 by The Center for Health Risk Assessment and Management, a Division of RAM TRAC Corporation