environment Politics: glacial melt scientific literacy
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While the United States is among the countries at greatest risk, neither it nor any other wealthy country has made tracking and understanding the changes in the ice a strategic national priority.
The consequence is that researchers lack elementary information. They have been unable even to measure the water temperature near some of the most important ice on the planet, much less to figure out if that water is warming over time. Vital satellites have not been replaced in a timely way, so that American scientists are losing some of their capability to watch the ice from space.
The missing information makes it impossible for scientists to be sure how serious the situation is.
“As a scientist, you have to stick to what you know and what the evidence suggests,” said Gordon Hamilton, one of the researchers in the helicopter. “But the things I’ve seen in Greenland in the last five years are alarming. We see these ice sheets changing literally overnight.”
As a scientifically aware layperson, I wish to point out that when these people use words like “alarming” it means something very different from the day-to-day interpretation we put on the word. “Alarming” is what an exobiologist would say if Chthulu appeared over a city in all His blood-curdling glory.
Gather ye rosebuds while ye may, kids. It’s been fun.
Perhaps the greatest failing of our national discussion is our systemic reliance on magical thinking; American politicians honestly seem to believe that if we don’t acknowledge something, it doesn’t exist. Thus the inevitable default choice: do nothing and hope for the best. Later, we hear, “Nobody anticipated…” Nobody, we’re told, anticipated the breach of New Orleans’ levees; the hijacked airplanes and collapsing towers; the missing Iraqi WMDs. Those who did were ignored, because believing in magic is easier than dealing with facts. Now we learn that our capacity to measure ice depletion in the Poles has been degraded by funding cuts, making it impossible for anyone to anticipate the effects of glacial melt until it’s too late to respond effectively. In the coming years, the catastrophes of climate change may finally teach us that facts are ignored at our peril. Alas for our species, Earth is unmoved by our magic.