When Copernicus first advanced the idea of a heliocentric universe in the mid-16th century, the theologian and Christian reformer Martin Luther declared it to be heresy. Speaking for most of the western world at the time, Luther believed, in accordance with the literal interpretation of The Bible, that it was clear that the planets and moons encircled the globe and that the bodies of the stars were “fastened to the firmament like globes of fire.” According to Luther, men like Copernicus were guilty not only of blasphemy, but of vanity, as their ideas were so outlandish that they could have only been conceived to ruffle a few feathers in an attempt to seem clever and turn astronomy on its ear. Today, there are but a scant few holdouts from Martin Luther’s camp and the scientific merits of the heliocentric universe have triumphed over its geocentric predecessor. However, it took a couple of centuries for the evident wisdom of this worldview to prevail upon many scholars and a general public who remained opposed to scrapping a conception of the universe that had been common knowledge for millenia and in which everything revolved around their planet in favor of one that was not only new and unfamiliar, but also turned Earth into a mere satellite.
Humanity was able to take its sweet time in coming to believe in the heliocentricity of our universe, but we will not be afforded the same luxury when it comes to global warming. Fifty years ago, in his Special Message to the Congress on Conservation and Restoration of Natural Beauty, President Lyndon Baines Johnson became the first US President to warn the of the harmful consequences that would accompany its increasing consumption of fossil fuels. “This generation,” Johnson said, referring to the generation of our parents and grandparents, “has altered the composition of the atmosphere on a global scale through radioactive materials and a steady increase in carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels…The longer we wait to act, the greater the dangers and the larger the problem.” Later that year, the President’s Science Advisory Committee released a report that would more or less predict the state of our planet’s climate today, broadly outlining the effects that our fossil fuel consumption would have on everything from carbon dioxide levels and global temperatures to the melting of the polar ice caps and rising of sea levels. As far back as 1965 the threat of climate change was clear and it was menacing and yet, the main debate in Washington and in statehouses across the country today is not on the best ways to stymy it, but on who’s to blame for it and whether it exists at all.
Last week, Senator James Inhofe (R-OK) stood up in Congress and took a large snowball out of a plastic bag he had brought with him. Inhofe, who is the 7th most senior senator in the Republican Party, then proceeded to hold the snowball aloft before a scantly populated Senate floor as proof that global warming was a hoax. “You know what this is?” Inhofe asked. “It’s a snowball, from outside here. So it’s very, very cold out…very unseasonable…so here, Mr. President, catch this.” And with that, the Oklahoma Senator tossed the snowball to on of his underpaid, baby-faced congressional aides and continued on peddling his ignorant, climate change-denying drivel propless. Inhofe’s reasoning, that, since it’s cold and snowing in the place where I live at the end of February—a time when it’s often, but not always, not cold and snowing—global warming must be a sham, is the sort of myopic, pigheaded logic one would expect from a 10 year old. But James Inhofe is not a 10-year old. He is 80 year old man who was recently reinstated as the chairman of the Senate’s Committee on Environment & Public Works and whose chairmanship all but guarantees fossil fuel-friendly partisan gridlock in Congress for at least the next 2 years—gridlock we can ill afford, because mother nature’s about to drop the hammer.
Over the past 15 or 20 years, humanity has been lulled into a false sense of security regarding the potential impact of global warming. Starting around 1980, the surface air temperature of Earth began to rise at an unprecedented rate, increasing by 0.6ºC (1.1ºF) in less than 2 decades. Then, all of a sudden, the surface air temperature settled down, resulting in a“global warming hiatus” that has endured for the entirety of our young century. Climate scientists were puzzled as to the reason for the slackening of surface warming until recently, when a number of studies have pointed to the oceans as the root cause of the pause in warming. The fact of the matter is that what we interpreted as a lull in global warming was a much more complex version of the reasoning Senator Inhofe used in declaring climate change a hoax. On land, where humanity spends 99 percent of its time, things have stopped heating up, but in the oceans, temperatures have been rising at an alarming rate.
Climate scientists now believe that what we interpreted as a hiatus in global warming was actually a transfer of that warming from land to the oceans. Recent data gathered from hundreds of battery-powered “Argo Floats” that measure the temperature of sea water around the world show that roughly 90 percent of global warming is occurring in our oceans.Much of this warming has been taking place in the Pacific Ocean, where the negative phase of a climatic cycle known as the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO) has essentially served as a massive air conditioning unit for the world. During the PDO’s negative phase, strong Pacific trade winds suck warm surface waters down into the depths of the ocean, exchanging it for cooler water from below. This phenomenon, while effective in the short term for helping dampen global warming, doesn’t really cool the earth so much as it hides heat in the belly of the ocean where we can’t see or feel it, making it cease to exist according to men like Senator Inhofe.
The big problem with all of this is that, after more than 15 years of being in its negative phase, the Pacific Decadal Oscillation is about to change course. Sometime in the next 5 years or so, the Pacific trade winds will begin to calm down and all of the heat that the oceans have been storing will bubble up from the deep and be belched back to the surface where it will accelerate the rise in Surface Air Temperature during the PDO’s positive phase. All of the temperature records that we have been setting and the droughts we have been experiencing in the 21st century have come as the seas were doing everything in their power to mask the severity of the effects of our addiction to fossil fuels. Soon enough, the waters which have cooled the planet will turn against us and the salinated heat they have hidden will be exposed to the light of day.
When the Pacific Decadal Oscillation’s positive phase begins and our global warming hiatus ends, even a man as dense and ignorant as James Inhofe will know. This doesn’t mean that he’ll see the light and accept the unimpeachable scientific wisdom that human activities have been the primary cause of global warming, but it will—if he lives long enough—come to effect him at the immediate level of sensory perception where he operates. However, we cannot wait for Inhofe or the plethora of imbeciles like him in Congress to acknowledge the realities of climate change. A Senate which cannot pass a measure that does nothing save state for the record that human activity contributes to climate change, will not be able to meet the immediate and grave challenges presented by global warming, and that sentiment goes double for the House of Representatives. It is up to the people to fight for climate justice and insure that the oil-money lined pockets of our political representatives on both sides of the aisle don’t drill the world into a heated husk of its former self.The time for debate about global warming has long since passed and, just as the Earth is not the center of the universe, the Capitol Building is not the center of the battle to preserve the world around us from environmental ruin. If those folks refuse to acknowledge the reality of our situation, we’ll just have to go on without them.