Last night I clicked over to CNN and to my surprise and indeed, utter shock, found a global warming story in the lead. You can guess which one: It was about the disintegration of another Antarctic ice shelf. In 2002 we lost the Larsen B; this time, it's the massive Wilkins shelf that has lost a scarily large chunk. I don't know enough about ice dynamics to tell you whether we will actually lose more of the Wilkins shelf soon apparently experts say it should hang on, at least for the present. But in any case, this incident has already triggered dramatic public attention to climate change.
But now contrast this with another story about climate change impacts that recently popped into the news the one about frogs. You see, tropical frog species have been disappearing, and some scientific research has suggested that global warming deserves a lot of the blame. More specifically, a warming climate had been postulated to have brought about infectious disease outbreaks which were in turn killing off frogs.
But as New York Times reporter Andrew Revkin notes, new research now calls these prior findings into question. The alleged scientific pathway linking frog declines to climate change turns out to be exceedingly complicated: It all appears to hinge on whether global warming is or isn't influencing a fungus that is in turn killing off frog species. In short, messy stuff. Or as a researcher quoted in Revkin's recent New York Times story on the subject notes: "There is so much we still do not know!
I bring these two stories into conjunction for the obvious reason that I think there's a lesson in it. In one case the impact of climate change is both dramatic and straightforward; in the other it's murky and questionable. Global warming melts ice that's plain and simple. But what it does to diseases, or weather phenomena ... that's less so.
So when we talk about climate impacts, shouldn't we highlight the safely obvious and dramatic ones? Rising temperatures, melting ice, rising sea level ... you can't really get around that stuff. The causal change is simple. It's basic thermodynamics. It's happening all around us, and it isn't going to stop.
And what's more, this is where the most unequivocally dangerous climate impacts lie if we melt enough ice to get dramatic sea level rise, we can put our coastal cities at risk and irreversibly change the planet. There is no worse consequence of global warming than that, at least that I've heard of.
None of which is to say that frogs are unimportant any more than hurricanes and tornadoes, two major weather phenomena that have been linked to climate change but also with high levels of uncertainty, are unimportant or that climate change doesn't threaten them. But at a time when we need to communicate clearly and unequivocally about the climate issue, isn't the choice obvious? Shouldn't we stick with what we know and not get into the mess of what we don't especially when climate change deniers and skeptics are constantly trying to find any possible scientific angle of attack?
I guess what I am doing here is cautioning global warming advocates to stick with the strong and unassailable stories, rather than the weak and murky ones, whenever possible. Global warming is a serious problem, which is why we've got to talk about it in the strongest, and safest, way possible.
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