“The future ain’t what it used to be.”

—Yogi Berra


If you’ve been reading this series of opinion columns, you have known for quite a while what my view is: I think climate change is a very serious threat — and not just to Bangladesh or Africa but to us here in Missouri. I am not a scientist by any means, but I have been researching this issue for many months now. I have tried to catch my own biases — and they are substantial — in order to reduce their impact. I am not 100 percent certain of the truth, but I am confident that the danger is very likely real and imminent and that in fact it will affect me in my lifetime — I am 69. And then I think of my children and my grandchildren, who are likely to live until near the end of the century.

Since virtually all the top climatologists are confident that climate change endangers our future, I believe that it is wildly irresponsible for people to claim that climate change is bunk. People who casually speak out against climate change without having really examined the variety of evidence and the variety of expert opinion on the subject are endangering all of us.

Do you know how scientists gain respect and establish their reputations? It’s mostly from the papers they publish on their research. Work published in the best journals is extremely well-tested material.

As a result, scientists tend to be conservative and cautious in their work, careful not to overstate their conclusions because there are so many other scientists competing with them and out to cast light on their errors. In spite of that, the overwhelming consensus among the scientists who study climate change is that we are heading for an environmental catastrophe. Since I am not capable of understanding the technical papers published by the top scientists in the world on the subject, I must trust the collective wisdom of these experts.

Climate change is real, it is human-induced, and its catastrophic effects are coming soon. We must act decisively and quickly. We’re driving in heavy fog in a car with bad brakes and we know there’s a cliff ahead somewhere. I’m scared about climate change, and not least because so many Americans do not believe it is a real problem. In the past year, the number of Americans who became skeptics about climate change actually increased about 10 percent.

We must ask ourselves these questions about the sources we have used: Are they speaking about their own field of study? Are they trained and are they well established? Well known or obscure? What about bias? Does the source have a vested interest in the outcome (for example, gaining money) or is the source likely to be an objective scientist (that is, focused on gaining respect among other scientists)? Does the source have a history of solid, well-respected work?

The biggest project aiming to determine the facts about the climate future was completed in 2007 by the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change. This group of some 2,000 climate scientists from many countries published a report that was considered definitive. It persuaded some of the hard-core deniers of the truth. For example, the Bush administration shifted direction and warned of America’s oil addiction.

Perhaps the most respected scientific organization in the world is the National Academy of Sciences. In 2005, the NAS along with the science bodies of other countries issued an official statement claiming that “the threat of climate change is clear and increasing.” They urged countries to act now, pointing out that to wait would only make it both more expensive to reverse the damage and would make the results more damaging. Its research arm, the National Research Council, warned that the geological record shows that “climate in the past has undergone changes far more rapid and extreme than we had previously imagined — in periods as short as a decade.” Extreme changes in a decade!

The American Association For the Advancement of Science, another of the most prestigious scientific bodies, issued a position statement in 2006 stating that the pace of climate change has increased in recent years and that “the intensification of droughts, heat waves, floods, wildfires and severe storms” are “early warning signs of even more devastating damage to come, some of which will be irreversible.”

Intelligence agencies and the Pentagon are not sources we would likely associate with concern for climate change. However, in 2008 under President Bush, all 16 U.S. intelligence agencies, including the CIA, the FBI and the National Security Agency, jointly produced a report that warned that “the economic and environmental pressures of climate change are likely to push already fragile nations over the edge, leading to more wars, which in turn will create millions of refugees and frequent humanitarian crises. The U.S. military would be strained as it was increasingly drawn in to such conflicts, reducing our national security readiness posture.” The report also warns of threats at home such as more “wildfires, storm surges, water shortages.”

Following that, in 2009 the Pentagon issued a report describing the impact that climate change would likely have on national security. In South Asia, the Middle East and Africa, it said, food and water shortages and severe flooding in the next 20 to 30 years might lead to crises that could call for U.S. humanitarian relief or for military intervention. The Pentagon report concludes that climate change poses a serious security threat to the United States. We should listen to them.

Elliott Denniston is a retired Missouri Southern State University professor. He lives west of Webb City.

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