Climate Change Sirens

I’m still reeling about our climate crisis/ emergency. We hear the urgency confirmed over and again by experts. Threats imagined far over the horizon that we thought we’d never see in our lifetime are now in plain sight (fires, inundations, etc.). This is probably the biggest shock in my life, and certainly the most momentous.

I am grappling for metaphors of how this makes me feel. I have an old memory of a day walking on the ‘downs,’ the rolling grassy hills in southern England. I headed toward a thin blue-gray line of English Channel on the horizon. The coast was far off but after an hour I had drawn close enough to see choppy waves and white caps. I was eager to watch the tide rolling over the beach and sanderlings snatching a landed morsel by pattering bravely ahead of its foamy front. Still striding on I didn’t realize I was getting close to the cliff edge. There were no cues. I stepped back with a deep breath when I almost stumbled on the precipice and giddily gazed down 300- sheer feet of crumbling white chalk.

Cliffs at English Channel
Seven Sisters, East Sussex

Likewise, I feel panic about global warming, although my metaphor fails to account for how we can’t step back to resume life as usual, forgetting the brink, as I did after heading back from the downs.

I am now casting around for other memories. When did I become conscious of climate change, and when was I persuaded it was anthropogenic? I ask because people draw a line in the sand at different dates, and some still refuse to. If climate denial is a symptom of a ‘post-truth’ society, it is ironic because science marches with ever greater confidence.

When I checked the history of the greenhouse effect, I found it was known in the Victorian age. Later in the century the Swedish scientist Arrhenius (vaguely remembered from school chemistry) estimated a doubling of atmospheric CO2 would increase average global temperatures by 5°C, not a bad estimate considering the primordial state of atmospheric science. Some 30 years later, a British scientist celebrated the prospect of warming by CO2 emissions because that would improve the dreary national climate! Smog was the greater concern then, although it is evanescent compared to greenhouse gasses.

The winter of 1962-63 was so severe my igloo in our London garden didn’t melt for six weeks. No subsequent year has been so relentlessly cold. In the 1970s there was talk of planetary cooling and a new Ice Age. No more! It was a statistical blip that briefly fooled us about rising trends, like losing sight of the sea for a moment after stumbling in a rabbit burrow on the downs.

By the 1980s there was serious talk about global warming, and I became a believer. I even published my convictions in a Church of Scotland magazine in 1989, the year before the first report of the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change. My only satisfaction was the invitation to speak at Women’s Guild meetings at which I showed a home-made model of the greenhouse effect. It was moving to meet  elderly women in the audience who worried about our human legacy for the planet; they were streaks ahead of their clergy. I can’t boast of being a pioneering activist because my lifestyle hardly changed. I thought there was plenty of time for society to adjust to a warmer world. No more!

Al Gore did a wonderful service with An Inconvenient Truth. As atmospheric science hardens, most projections in the 2006 film have been confirmed, except the timescale was not pessimistic enough. Probes to measure gases in polar ice recording the fossil atmosphere and in mud cores of ancient lakes to identify prehistoric tree pollen reveal the climate has occasionally changed abruptly in geological history. Instead of centuries or millennia, it can flip from one equilibrium state to another in a matter of decades. This is a tipping point, like a cliff that looks solid one day but tumbles into the sea the next, treacherous to the unwary stroller who thinks the edge is stable and still some way off, until he steps into air.

Next post: Where have all the birds gone?

About Roger Gosden

British-born scientist specializing in reproduction & embryology. Career as professor & research director spanned from Cambridge to Cornell's Weill Medical College in NYC. Married to Lucinda Veeck Gosden, embryologist for the first successful IVF team in America. Retired early to Williamsburg, Virginia, to write and recover from 'nature deficit disorder'. Currently a visiting scholar at William & Mary.
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