08 AugRaphael Sbarge: Jess Adkins Q&A Part 2

Raphael Sbarge, actor and founder of Green Wish, continues his Q&A with climatologist Jess Adkins. In part 2: What can we and our children expect from climate change?

Raphael: So what can we expect?

Jess: We can expect that from the two that I identified—we can already expect that it’s going to get warmer. But what will that warming mean? The two that I said I thought were most interesting to worry about as a parent or as just someone walking around on the planet were: The sea level will go up and;
That it will rain more where it already rains, and where less where it already doesn’t rain.

Raphael: Got it. So … what does that mean, again, just simply, like, for our kids? What does that mean for them?

Jess: Well, one thing that people talk about that they will have to deal with more than we do is that it will be much more variable on the planet; it will be stormier is another one that you hear. I think that what it means for corporations is that it’s much harder to plan (and I guess that could be for our kids, too). That if you’ve got this changing environment around you, it becomes much harder to plan, to know when to plant things, where to plant things, how much to insure something for, how much to insure against the future.

There are all sorts of doom-and-gloom kind of scenarios that one could put forward right now.

Raphael: I just heard on the radio yesterday that Iowa’s in the midst of a drought, and they’re trying to figure out what to do, but a couple years ago, of course, they had so much rain and they were doing so well. So this is the kind of pendulum swing that we’re going to be dealing with, I guess.

Jess: Right. People wanted to use Hurricane Katrina as another example of, “You see, this is sort of what’s coming,” in terms of climate change. It is very hard for us as a community, to go and point at any one of those really compelling news stories and say, “There it is. There’s the bellwether of coming climate change.” There was another one that got a lot of press, which is that the Arctic Sea ice is disappearing, we saw a couple years ago from good satellite data.

Raphael: Right, right.

Jess: It hasn’t gotten reported as much that that turned out to be a big anomaly. That, yes, indeed, there is a rate of Arctic Sea ice retreat, but it is nothing like that incredibly large one that we saw a couple years ago. That isn’t to say that the Arctic Sea ice isn’t actually shrinking back; it’s just that it’s very hard to point at any one particular event and say, “See!” In the same way people say, “It was cold yesterday, I don’t believe global warming”—that’s equally as absurd.

Raphael: Yes. Right, right. We do hear that, of course, all the time. “Hey, it’s raining now!” Yeah.

Jess: Right, exactly. And so that comes down a little bit to how scientists view this: There’s a big difference between weather and climate. Weather is that aspect that, in Boston it can change by 40 degrees Fahrenheit in 24 hours, and kind of does so every day, seems like, if you live there. That’s weather, right?

The fact that you, in the winter time in Boston want to go vacation in the Caribbean: That’s climate. That’s the, on average it’s warmer near the equator than it is at the poles—and that average is both over the whole space and over time. That’s what climate is: a temporal and spatial average of weather. And so when people point at extreme weather and say, “See, it’s global warming?” We have a very hard time making that physical link between those two.

Raphael: Got it. I want to go back and just sort of ask you again—I can’t not talk about this without going back to some of the politics, but I’m just curious just to ask: This is your opinion. To me, anyway, it seems that Americans are perhaps more polarized—more so than maybe even the rest of the world. Is that you’re impression as well, at this point? I know that to say “the rest of the world” is a generalization, but let’s just say the majority of the rest of Europe, and/or essentially many other countries, even China. What is your impression?

Jess: Is the question about are we more polarized than those, or is the question more that there’s more Americans willing to say global warming isn’t real than there are, say, Europeans?

Raphael: That. Yes.

Jess: It’s my impression that that’s true, that there’s more Americans—even on a percentage basis, just there are a lot more Americans—willing to deny global warming than there are, Europeans, let’s say. Yeah, it’s absolutely my impression that that’s true. … Why?

Raphael: Want to answer why?

Jess: Yeah, right! So, why? That’s a really cool question, and it may not be a very sort of physical sciences one. It gets into these interesting questions of who we think of ourselves of, as Americans.

Raphael: I’m asking you to be sort of a social scientist…

Jess: Yeah, absolutely. No, I love that, are you kidding? You know, there are a couple of neat answers about this. Some that I think are sociological, and some that I think are economic.

The one that I think lots of folks, sort of, already in their heart of hearts know about, the sociological one, is what is that American spirit, or that great American individual—the Marlboro Man, or the cowboy headed out West, or the pioneers making their way in a rugged land. We love to think about ourselves that way. We love to think about ourselves as, “I may not be rich now, but I’m going to be in the future.” It’s this fantastic spirit that we have of small businessmen in the country, willing to take risks and try to better themselves, which in turn actually betters the whole country.

That is a really fantastic thing. It also makes us very loathe to make group decisions that would be better for the whole if we made them correctly. So Americans who are in the lower classes of income and total family wealth vote against their own interest when it comes to tax law and things like this. There’s been lots said about this by people who know more about it than me, but it comes down to this notion that, “Some day, I’m going to be rich, too, and I so don’t want to end up being taxed.”

I lived over in Europe for a little bit on sabbatical—I think that there’s much less of a thread of that over in Europe; there’s a sense that decisions made as a group can better an individual. And it’s not a sense that really is in our very nature.

I think there’s an interesting economic one, too—this one actually makes me nervous. It’s, again, not something I know the details about, but to the degree that it’s right, it’s a real worry for the U.S. And that is that—and it’s a contrast to Europe—and that is that we haven’t really had to deal economically with scarcity in the U.S. This sort of first rule of why you might need to have economics is that there’s limited stuff, limited resources, and so there’s a competition for those resources. And up until recently, there’s always been a new oil find—you’ve always been able to go from Pennsylvania to Texas, to Alaska. There’s always been a next mountain that you could find minerals in. And we’re basically running out of that. It’s of course gone global, and it’s an interesting question of whether we’re running out of that globally, but certainly we’re running out of that nationally.

And we’re running up against this problem of, “Hey, we can’t just print more money. We have to actually deal in a scarce economic society.” And that might force us in directions that we haven’t typically thought. It’s harder to have the rugged individual attitude in a situation like that.

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