Saturday, May 21, 2022

Who Cares about Global Warming?

Though most of my students approach global warming with an academic seriousness, they do not seem to really care about it. And, semester by semester, they do not take it with academic seriousness either. And, in society in general, people have stopped caring about global warming, at least in the United States.

The global warming problem has not gone away; in fact, it has been happing faster even than the most pessimistic predictions. Even worse, the effects of global warming interact with one another, with potentially catastrophic results.

One example is the collapse of sea ice shelves. This occurred in March 2022 in Antarctica. The usual “conservative” response is to ignore sea ice. They say, when ice melts in water, the water level remains unchanged; thus, melting sea ice will not alter sea level. This is true, as far as it goes. But the sea ice shelves hold back the flowing shelves of land ice. When a sea ice shelf collapses, the land ice shelves are now free to slide down into the ocean. The land ice, when it slides into the sea or just melts, does raise the sea level. A land ice shelf sliding into the sea could cause a massive oceanic wave which would spread thousands of miles before it peters out and would have a measurable effect on sea level. How significant is this? The devil is in the details.

Perhaps the worst problem is that people, in general, do not seem to believe there is such a thing as evidence. They simply ignore anything they do not want to believe. Scientific evidence, legal evidence, any kind of evidence. The problem, then, is to get people to care. And how can you do that?

I heard an interview of an Icelandic scientist who has taken a different approach to publicizing global warming than what most scientists and educators, including myself, have taken. (I cannot find a link to this interview and do not remember the scientist’s name.) He pointed out that the heartfelt pleas of Greta Thunberg have reached more people, particularly young people, than the popular or scholarly publications of thousands of scientists. He said that humans, in general, care more about the people they love than about academic abstractions, no matter how dramatic they may be. He has tried something that I decided to immediately incorporate into my general botany final exam. Here is my version of it:

“What are three scientific predictions (from a valid scientific website) about what global warming will be like in 2100? Imagine someone whom you will know in the future (child, grandchild, etc.) who will be alive in the year 2100. Imagine that person asking you why our generation did not do more than we are doing to prevent global warming. How would you answer him or her? (Be realistic. Avoid a wildly nightmare scenario, like the man who asked me during a presentation if the Earth would become as hot as Venus. That can’t happen.)

There was a separate interview, on the same news program, of a cattle rancher who is well aware that cattle are among the major contributors to global warming, but he has a plan about how to come close to carbon-neutral cattle ranching. I decided to incorporate a question into my exam based on this also. Here is my version of it:

“One of the biggest contributors to global warming is the production and consumption of beef. What are some of these impacts? Indicate at least two. A cattle rancher said, on a radio interview, that ‘It’s not the cow, but the how,’ which means that he had a plan to make his cattle production operation produce less carbon. Indicate at least two things that he was probably planning to do to meet this goal.”

I hope that these ideas may be useful to some of my scientific and educational readers.

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