Monday, April 7, 2008

Slowly Boiled Frog

Finally got around to watch the famous 2006 documentary film Inconvenient Truth about the tireless campaign for awareness of global warming by Al Gore, former Vice President 1993-2000, used-to-be-next-president 2001, and Nobel Peace Prize co-recipient 2007. Al Gore did an excellent job of articulating the complex issues in laymen’s terms and the needs for immediate actions. He also used the popular metaphor of slowly boiled frog to warn us the likely destruction due to ignorance and complacency. Before I blog on, let me first go and turn off the excess lighting in the house!

Being a born skeptic with a superficial impression from limited exposure of this subject, I was not sure exactly what to make out of it for a long time. Do I really need to do something differently now? Or since I consider myself a pretty decent resident of planet earth, what more do I need to do before others? Ok, the average world temperature seems to be increasing but how bad is it and so what? Didn’t it happen more than once long long time ago before any of us was born? How and why is it different this time? Um… may be it would be nice if temperature of my area goes up a little in the winter... Ok, the sea level is rising, but by how much and what is the big deal? Would it affect me who live 15 miles from the shore? Is that ALL?

What caught my attention in the film was the measurements and data that tell us there IS something different this time: we are witnessing an extremely rapid deterioration of critical indicators of our climate in hockey stick shape curves when plotted as a function of time. What is most alarming is that the underlying feedbacks and interactions of contributing factors are such that the deterioration is accelerating at a much faster than constant rate. One example, the North Pole icecap is experiencing accelerated meltdown and now some new estimates suggest it may disappear completely by 2040, i.e. in my life time! You may not care about polar bears but you should known that the icecap is the main “air conditioner” of planet earth and is what keeps ocean streams going and lower latitude areas cool! This observation and new understanding by scientists suggests that the previous models and projections are likely to underestimate significantly how soon “the shits will hit the fan”.

More worrisome news: some had projected that, based on the population currently living in low elevation coastal areas, regions like Bangladesh, Pakistan and India alone could be seeing over 100 million people be displaced due to rising sea level by end of this century. Other estimates had put hundreds of millions to 1 billion people across the world be displaced in next few decades (will you or some of your family members be one of them?) Considering what 2005 Hurricane Katrina (which by the way became a category 5 hurricane partly due to global warming) had done to this country that displaced about 1+ million people, shouldn’t we be worried now? Further, significant shortage of food and fresh water supply are expected due to increased drought conditions and melting snowcaps of high mountains that currently provide the fresh water to about 1/6 of the earth population, even if you ignore the population growth and resulting additional demand for resources.

The good news is there are many entities and learned people who have been concerned and studied the global warming problems for quite sometime. United Nation (UN) established in 1988 a scientific body - The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to evaluate the risk of climate change caused by human activity (note the carefully chosen neutral term of the study objective). It has compiled and issued 4 assessment reports since 1990 (the last one was issued in 2007). Along with Al Gore, IPCC was a co-recipient of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize for its contributions on this issue. The bigger yet challenge however is to get countries and people together to take corrective and preventive actions.

The biggest hurdle is an economic one: it is intuitively that with today’s most popular energy sources and technology, there is a strong correlation between the per capita energy consumption (which can be considered as a measure of wealth) and per capita carbon dioxide emission (which is the dominating part of greenhouse gas emission). Further, the latter, when aggregated in total, is almost perfectly correlated with the average earth temperature. Thus it is not surprising that, according to the IPCC’s 2007 assessment, per capita carbon dioxide emissions of India, China, European Union and USA are roughly at 2, 5, 10 and 20 tons, respectively. With continued development on the current trajectory, one can expect the parity of per capita emissions will decrease (which is good) but the total emission, the product of per capita emission and total population, will increase dramatically (which is bad) and thus a disastrous outcome for ALL.

Politically, U.S. government has been alone in the international community on what should be the “fair share” of reduction of greenhouse gases. In fact, the Bush government has not nor intended to seek ratification of the Kyoto Protocol first created in 1997. Public opinion wise, it is not clear to me if Americans’ awareness and understanding is there yet. One of the multiple choice survey questions in the June 2005 report of PIPE (Program on International Policy Attitudes) was: “ There is a controversy over what the countries of the world, including the US, should do about the problem of global warming. Please tell me which statement comes closest to your own point of vie: a)Until we are sure that global warming is really a problem, we should not take any steps that would have economic cost, b)the problem of global warming should be addressed, but its effects will be gradual, so we can deal with the problem gradually by taking steps that are low in cost, c)global warming is a serious and pressing problem . We should begin taking steps now even if this involves significant cost." This question was also asked in ’04 and ’98 and the results from the surveys were: 21%/42%/34% in ’05 vs. 15%/44%/39% in ’98. I would submit it indicates further polarization of people’s opinion on how urgent the issue is! One more data point about how informed people are: the same report found that 43% of respondents assumed incorrectly that Bush government is in favor of participating in the Kyoto Treaty!

This is exactly a slowly boiled frog scenario. Hopefully we the human are more intelligent and capable of predicting the futures. We don’t have to be stuck with the same old thing and painful trade (of good life vs. environment) if we work hard on alternative technologies and life styles soon enough. There are a lot of ways one can help addressing the threat of global warming, see e.g. Wikipedia’s entry on Mitigation of global warming. At the policy level, we can press our representatives and government to craft legislations and adopt policies that lead to better environment. At individual level, we can get more educated and learn how to sustain and not to abuse our environment. We can distinguish quality from excess of life. We can vote with our wallet to encourage greener and energy efficient goods. Last but not the least, we can eat more healthy - less meat and more vegetables; Livestock's Long Shadow, a 2006 U.N. report, noted that 18% of the greenhouse gas emission can be attributed to livestock sector!

For those who refuse to believe in science and do not want to act before it is too late, my advise to them is to please keep your mouth shut and stop arguing. That alone will decrease their contribution of carbon dioxide emission (through exhale).

My favorite Chinese language tidbit is about the word "crisis" which in Chinese is My favorite Chinese language tidbit is about the word “crisis” which in Chinese is 危機 (wei ji). The first character (wei) means danger and the next one (ji) means opportunity. Yes, we better not let earth be turned into a planet like Mars today. We must capture this opportunity and create a quality habitat for generations to come.

Talk to you soon!

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