Climate researchers call for action at Breck conference
By Adam Spencer
BRECKENRIDGE — For nearly 70 years, Americans breathed poisonous exhaust from leaded gasoline while a team of oil and auto industry-funded scientists maintained that millions of cars burning lead — a potent neurotoxin — was safe. When federal regulators finally started to phase out leaded gasoline in the 1970s, levels of the toxin found in Americans’ blood plummeted by 77 percent.
“The use of leaded gasoline very much mirrors the fight over climate change,” said Dr. Jim White, director of the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research and a geology and environmental science professor at the University of Colorado.
White argued, at the annual Glen Gerberg Weather and Climate Summit held in Breckenridge this week, that big oil’s arguments against the early warnings of lead’s health impacts (spills at the plants that produced the petroleum additive in the 1920s killed some workers and made others crazy) are very similar to the arguments used today to discredit human-caused climate change.
“It takes about 40 or 50 years for these arguments to play out, but almost always the early science that says this is a problem seems to win out,” White said.
But when more than 95 percent scientists agree that human produced CO2 emissions are causing extreme climate change, the time for calm debate is over, said James Balog, a Boulder-based photographer whose Extreme Ice Survey was featured in the Internationally-acclaimed, Sundance award-winning 2012 documentary Chasing Ice and who also spoke at the Weather and Climate Summit.
“When the lion is charging, you don’t stand there and have a reasoned debate with that lion. We have an immediate threat to life, limb and civilization confronting us right now and it’s time to start getting angry,” Balog said.
Hitting the wall
“We are hitting a wall when it comes to carbon,” White said, emphasizing the urgency. When scientists first raised climate concerns in the 1970s, CO2 in the atmosphere was under 340 parts per million (ppm). For the first time ever in human history CO2 levels reached 400 ppm last year.
Data from ice cores shows that for nearly 1 million years and perhaps as long as 15 million years, natural cycles have never brought CO2 levels above 290 ppm, explained Balog.
“Nature isn’t natural anymore,” Balog said. “We are creating our own Petri dish, our own scientific experiment and we don’t have any sense of what we’re doing or a plan for what we’re doing and we don’t know how it ends.”
Balog and White said the frontline troops in the war on climate change are ski towns like Breckenridge whose economy relies on a status quo of snow and low-elevation coastal areas that will submerge with rising sea levels like Norfolk, Virg. at 7 feet elevation, where dozens of students at Old Dominion University watched a live stream of the climate speakers’ town hall discussion Wednesday.
“Places like Breckenridge ought to be yelling and screaming very loud, saying ‘We need to think about this. We need to be adults about this,’” White said.
But getting people to think critically about the facts and realities of climate change has been an uphill battle, which is why the Extreme Ice Survey project has been so effective. Photographs of glaciers disappearing connect with the non-scientists of the world in a way that data and graphs can’t.
Balog’s team has captured more than a million frames from 41 time-lapse cameras that can withstand minus 35 degree Fahrenheit temperatures pointed at a few dozen of the world’s glaciers for the past eight years.
“Outside of East Antarctica almost all of the glaciers in the world are in retreat,” Balog said.
After watching the visual presentation of several years worth of glacier retreat at a conference in Aspen, one man quit his job at Shell Oil, Balog said.
One of the climactic points of Chasing Ice is the largest iceberg calving ever caught on film, at a glacier in Greenland. For scale, Balog explained that it would take 3,000 U.S. Capitol buildings to fill the volume of the iceberg that his team watched collapse in little more than an hour. It’s a relevant example since Chasing Ice has been screened at the White House and in U.S. Congress.
Through those Washington screenings and other encounters, Balog said he has learned that many of the media professionals and politicians who deny human-caused climate change publicly admit that they accept the science privately.
Without naming names, Balog said “very influential Fox (News) commentators say there is climate change but that their product is to be a climate-change denier.”
Balog said what our country has is a “perception problem.” For many decades, conventional wisdom accepted beliefs that now seem archaic: Slavery is necessary; child labor is acceptable; and women should not vote, Balog said. With climate change, the closely held belief is that “people can’t change the earth,” Balog said.
But Balog argues that believing isn’t necessary when the evidence is there, including his offering of visual evidence for extreme ice loss that he is leaving for future generations — including his own children.
“I don’t believe in climate change,” Balog likes to respond when asked. “I think that climate change is happening based on the evidence I understand.”