Scientific Viewpoints And Scale

Although the human cause of global warming had been presented years before it was accepted as a scientific theory, it was not taken seriously at first due to its scale. At the beginning of the 20th century, many scientists did not think that humans could have a significant effect on the world's environment; they believed any human contribution would be small. Many scientists were researching solar activity (sunspots), ocean circulation, and changes in the Earth's axis, orbit, and tilt. It was generally accepted that any effects caused by humans would be minuscule in comparison with the forces of nature.

Scientists also did not worry much about CO2 levels, because they believed that the Earth's oceans would act naturally as a giant carbon sink, absorbing whatever amount of CO2 was added to the atmosphere. There was a consensus that the ocean would effectively absorb all the pollution people could possibly add to the environment.

Another obstacle that has slowed the acceptance of global warming as an urgent issue is the range of scientific viewpoints on the subject. Scientists often do not work in absolutes; they reason in probabilities.

This way, there is always room for change if something new is discovered. They are more comfortable in couching their conclusions in case somebody does more research and discovers something new that disqualifies, discounts, or modifies in some way the previously accepted assessment. This way, if something new is discovered and the end results change, they do not lose credibility. Thus, the 2,500 climate scientists involved in the IPCC research process give their conclusions as a probability calculation rather than a definitive certainty.

Scientists also have differing viewpoints on how they perceive nature and the way it responds to change. One viewpoint is that nature is very predictable and stable and, whatever inputs it receives, it will regain its balance. Followers of this scenario would not be concerned with increases of fossil fuel emissions or other human-induced causes of global warming. They would assume the system will adjust.

A second viewpoint is the exact opposite of the one just presented. In this scenario, nature is highly vulnerable to human impacts, and humans must take great care because unhealthy behavior could destroy it.

These are the extremes. A third viewpoint combines the two. Here, nature is looked upon as resilient and able—most of the time—to tolerate human impacts. This only works to a point, however. If the limits of the natural system are exceeded, the natural system may not be able to recover. In the case of global warming, the Earth may be able to tolerate a certain amount of CO2 being added to the atmosphere, oceans, soil, and organisms and still be able to adjust and exchange adequately in the carbon cycle. Eventually though it will reach a saturation point and will not be able to maintain an equilibrium. The sink will get too full and will start overflowing; a point of no return.

A last viewpoint, a belief in nature as chaos, completely unpredictable, subscribes to the belief that managing it in any way is pointless. The problem with this theory is that humans take no responsibility for their environment.

Scientists with all of these views determine how global warming is handled. It has been difficult to reach a consensus. There is no prior civilization's written record to compare it to; it is not known what outcomes will be. Human beings today are the guinea pigs taking part in an Earth-sized laboratory experiment. As more information is collected and studied, most scientists agree that humans are changing the environment, adding to the greenhouse effect.

The tables on pages 127, 129, and 130 list scientists' varying viewpoints and illustrate why the global warming issue is so controversial.

Other than scientists, viewpoints can be based on culture, economics, and convenience. Developing countries have a much different outlook than developed countries. Economics comes into play where energy is involved. Developing countries, such as Brazil, Peru, Niger, and Sudan, burn wood for fuel; developed countries burn fossil fuels. Developing countries do not see the problem of global warming as critical as a developed country because they do not feel they have contributed to it and they have more urgent issues, such as war or famine.

Commitment and sacrifice are always more difficult than convenience. To some, it is easier to continue with the status quo than to change habits and practice energy conservation. This outlook is one of the hardest to change. No matter the reason, each of us will have an effect on the future of global warming in every country all over the world.

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