Hedging our bets 
on carbon emissions

You don’t have to be an “environmentalist wacko” to have a deep regard for the only home we have — Earth.

Western Colorado is home to many people who self-identify with the term “steward of the land.” Whether they raise peaches, hunt elk or seek solitude hiking through the wilderness, these folks share a commitment to preserving the life-giving and soul-enhancing qualities of our beautiful corner of the world.

Tuesday was Earth Day, a good reminder of the positive steps leaders across the globe have taken to protect the air, water and land we all depend on for life.

Perhaps the biggest testament to our capacity to solve environmental problems is the speed with which we forget they existed. Remember acid rain? Or how about the hole in the ozone? In the 1970s scientists suspected that chlorofluorocarbons, common in refrigerants and aerosols, were creating a hole in the protective ozone layer of Earth’s atmosphere.

It wasn’t until 1985 that researchers could document the growing hole, but their efforts resulted in an international agreement to cut down on the use of CFCs. The ozone hole is no longer growing and it’s expected to return to pre-1980 levels by 2070, according to a Bloomberg journalists Tom Randall and Eric Roston.

“Environmental issues appear to follow certain patterns — the questioning of science, the questioning of proposed solutions and sometimes, the quiet disappearance of the problem when collective action works,” they wrote.

We’re witnessing the same dynamics at play (minus the quiet disappearance) with another atmospheric phenomenon: an increase in carbon levels. The term “global warming,” an imprecise and guesswork-laden label, has probably hindered its ascension as a chief public concern. “Global weirding” might be a better term, for it encapsulates the strange weather patterns that may emerge from Earth’s capacity to store more solar energy through the build-up of greenhouse gases. No one knows what effect this extra energy in our atmosphere will have.

The latest report by the U.N.‘s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reflects greater certainty among the vast majority of climate scientists — “the people who truly know and study these issues,” says New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman — “that if we don’t begin to take the steps needed to prevent ... what they call the doubling of CO2 in the atmosphere, that will lead to the kinds of rise in global average temperature that will put us into a much more unstable world.”

Unfortunately, there’s a great schism in this country regarding our faith in science. We published a story on Tuesday’s front page showing Americans tend to be selective about what they accept as scientific fact. The results “depress and upset” some of America’s top scientists including Nobel laureates.

Only 33 percent of those polled said they were “extremely confident” or “very confident” in the following statement, considered by scientists to be a scientific truth: “The average temperature of the world is rising, mostly because of man-made, heat-trapping greenhouse gases.”

We’re sympathetic to this skepticism.

On the other hand, just 4 percent of poll respondents doubt that smoking causes cancer.

It took decades for the public to regard smoking as a health threat. The powerful tobacco lobby had a lot to do with it, but the point is that over time, perceptions change, especially when backed by hard scientific evidence.

The problem is that by the time the science is settled about the real impacts of emitting so much carbon into the atmosphere, it may be too late to remedy.

So, we are left at this crossroads:

1. Do nothing. Then find out if the impacts are as bad as most scientists predict. Or ...

2. Address the issue now and thereby mitigate the risk.

The problem with option 1 is that we may have adapt to a new ecological reality. Seems extraordinarily risky to us.

That’s why we support risk avoidance or risk mitigation — balanced policies that seek to put off this “tipping point” for as long as possible. Count us among those who think the status quo, with measured safeguards for our environment, is preferable to adapting to a strange new world.

Seat belts, unleaded gasoline, smoking cessation and asbestos bans, it turns out, were prudent moves, too.


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