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Global warming and morality

Rachel Novick | Friday, November 5, 2010

In his Viewpoint yesterday on “Science, Politics, and Global Warming,” Ed Larkin argued that while the theory of evolution is obviously true to a casual observer at the zoo, global warming is not evident to non-scientists. Therefore, those who call on society to make dramatic changes to avert its impacts are unreasonable. 

   I disagree that global warming is less evident than evolution.  Global warming is actually more evident because it is happening on a much shorter time scale than evolution, and the process can therefore be observed. 
   While the basic tenets of natural selection make sense logically, a non-scientist cannot, in fact, adequately assess their validity.  We rely on evolutionary biologists who utilize extensive fossil and molecular data as well as complex statistical models.
   The basics of global warming also make sense logically.  People have known that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas since the mid-nineteenth century (Tyndall 1861). High school chemistry tells us that when we add carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, a big chunk of it is absorbed by the oceans, making them more acidic.  The oceans are currently 30 percent more acidic than in pre-industrial times, and by mid-century, much of the world’s oceans are expected to be inhospitable to corals and shelled organisms that support the food chain for the fish we eat (Orr et al. 2009).
   The details are what we turn to climatologists for, because Larkin is correct that climate modeling is complex and difficult.  It is due to that difficulty that climate model predictions have a significant range of possible outcomes.  What is scary is that even the lower limit of the predicted range of impacts would result in insufficient drinking water for hundreds of millions of people and the loss of large and heavily populated coastal areas (Parry et al. 2007).
   The current “sureness” of the scientific community regarding the seriousness of global warming is not something to criticize.  Scientists have been extremely cautious in reaching conclusions in this area, and have only reached their current level of certainty through decades of research by thousands of individuals.  Much of what Larkin described as “doomsday predictions” is simply peer-reviewed publication of rigorous research. 
   So who should be making moral decisions about the results of scientists’ research?  According to Pope Benedict, “preservation of the environment, promotion of sustainable development and particular attention to climate change are matters of grave concern for the entire human family.” In other words, the responsibility belongs to everyone: scientist and layman, religious and secular, young and old.
   Notre Dame’s annual Dorm Energy Competition started on Monday and will continue the entire month of November.  This is an opportunity for us to make a small but concrete difference as a campus community and to demonstrate that we share Pope Benedict’s concern.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer. 
   Rachel Novick is the Education and Outreach Programs Manager in Notre Dame’s Office of Sustainability.  She holds a Ph.D. in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology from Yale University. She can be contacted at [email protected]