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Waiting for Our Best Selves: Our 90 Percent Problem

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Mitt Romney, famously, had a "47 percent" problem. The latest climate change denial myth has an even bigger problem -- a "90 percent" problem. The myth goes something like this: "The Earth's surface temperatures have remained flat for the past 16 years, therefore we have stopped warming. Nothing to see here, please continue to burn fossil fuels as you see fit."

This assertion shares something in common with all declarations that our planet is not warming due to greenhouse gas emissions; it is wrong. What is true, however, is that the rate of surface warming has been slower over the past 16 years compared to the surface warming of the three previous decades.

In our curious zeal to deny and/or ignore the unfolding emergency of climate change, in which we are undeniably and, perhaps, irrevocably pushing ourselves out of the climate zone suited for the flourishing of our species, it is not surprising that the slowdown in surface warming has been seized upon and trumpeted as a justification to proceed with business-as-usual.

But here's the real problem with the myth that it is not that bad: It may actually be worse. The key phrase in this particular denial myth is "surface warming" because it ignores the most significant heat-absorbing component of our biosphere: the oceans. Varying according to decades-long natural cycles, the oceans absorb up to 90 percent of the heat that the Earth receives from the Sun. Scientists, of course, have noticed the slowdown in surface warming and have been studying the situation. This is what scientists do. Improving technology has allowed them to measure the heat content of the oceans -- especially the deeper oceans -- with increasing accuracy. Multiple studies, including Balmaseda, Trenberth, and Källén (2013), have discovered that, in the past decade, the depths below 700 meters are warming more quickly than at any time in the past 50 years.

An additional surface cooling factor, according to Dr. James Hansen, is the massive amounts of heat-deflecting sulfate aerosols being pumped out by China and other developing countries since 2000. This 'Faustian bargain' is temporary -- industrializing nations are now taking action to reduce sulfate emissions to prevent (additional) catastrophic air pollution and, in any case, these aerosals only remain in the atmosphere for a several year period.

We have, in a sense, due to natural cycles and explosive industrial expansion, been getting a temporary reprieve from the surface heating -- but it is coming. We don't know exactly when, but it is coming and when it does, it is likely to arrive hard and fast. With the relatively paltry 0.8 C surface warming to date, we have already seen the beginnings of the great disruption that we seem so intent on courting. When the massive heat build-up does begin to cycle out of the oceans -- it could happen this year or the next or some years down the road -- the droughts and floods and superstorms that have already begun to occur with greater intensity will ratchet up as well. For a bit of extra spice, the formerly massive and heat-reflecting arctic sea ice is fast melting away before our eyes. The newly freed-up and dark sea water will gladly soak up strong doses of extra energy.

What are we doing with our temporary reprieve? While the climate emergency -- still in its relatively early and theoretically (mostly) preventable stages -- develops, we choose to wait.

President Obama is waiting. Yes, he has taken some steps toward reducing the carbon footprint of our country. He has raised gas mileage standards and encouraged investments in non-carbon energy. But he is also reported to be on the verge of approving the Keystone XL Pipeline (technically it is a State Department decision, but the president is clearly The Decider in this case). He continues to trumpet exploitation of our fossil fuel resources -- "all of the above". Though he has finally dared to mention the consequences of climate chaos and disruption for future generations, as the leader of the most powerful country in the world, his actions belie the nature of the emergency. He has not come close to stepping up to the bully pulpit. President Obama is waiting.

Congress is certainly waiting. The House of Representatives just named Rep. Chris Stewart as the new chairman of the subcommittee responsible for climate change issues. (Go to forecastthefacts.org/ to register your displeasure-tell them David sent you!) Rep. Stewart has stated that he is unconvinced that anthropogenic climate change is "based upon sound science". From an ironic point of view, if, for instance, his appointment was part of a Saturday Night Live sketch, this might elicit a chuckle. From the point of view of our children's and grandchildren's well-being, it is certainly a travesty. It is a sham and it is a shame. Congress is waiting.

China and India are waiting. Alhough the United States is, by a significant margin, the greatest historical emitter of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses, China has recently passed the U.S. as the greatest annual carbon contributor, and they have passed at a gallop; producing 28 percent of the planet's total emissions in 2012 compared to 16 percent for the United States. India and China have a combined nine hundred coal-fire plants in construction, in the name of an economic "progress" that will, perversely, lead to many times its cost in climate-induced damages not very far down the road. China and India are waiting.

The species of Homo Sapiens is waiting. We are waiting because we still don't yet quite believe it. The signs are there, but for most of us they are simply not strong enough yet. The fact that scientists have, from the beginning, stated that the Arctic is the "canary in the coal mine of climate change" and the fact that the Arctic sea ice -- all of it! -- is simply vanishing before our eyes, is clearly not enough to concern us. Scientists are scrambling to chart the rippling effects- from Superstorm Sandy to the crippling Texas drought to the blizzard conditions in England. "Ha ha, ho ho", some doubters respond, "How could melting ice way up there effect the weather down here in so many different ways? And I thought it was Global Warming, what does that have to do with snow and ice in England?" Well, guess what? An enormous planetary feature such as an entire sea if ice cannot be suddenly yanked away without initiating significant and widespread consequences. Apparently, the difference in temperature between the Arctic and the middle latitudes has been holding our consistent, dependable and enormous "weather streams"- such as the Jet Stream -- in place. Now that the temperature gradient is shrinking along with the ice, the streams are shifting and chaotic weather results. The word's climate system is complex and interdependent. Who knew? The scientists knew.

We are still at the first level of disruption. We are the smoker whose chest tightens with the onset of emphysema, but the pull of the nicotine is still far stronger than his discomfort. We are the newly diagnosed diabetic who is told to drastically cut down on sugar intake. But his cravings still outweigh the relatively mild early symptoms of the disease and so he reaches for another pastry. Homo Sapiens -- literally 'one who knows' -- is acting as if it does not know at all. We are waiting.

Too many of us are still too comfortable. As ridiculous as it seems, what we are waiting for is this: We are waiting for it to get worse. How bad does it have to get? We don't know yet. It is an experiment of sorts. Meanwhile, our "best selves" must wait Our ingenuity in the face of challenge must wait. Our creativity in the face of complexity must wait. Our courage in the face of danger must wait. Our compassion in the face of suffering must wait. Our ability to unify in times of crisis must wait.

We are only at the first level of disruption. That we have a "90 percent" problem, that massive positive feedbacks can be tipped off suddenly and unexpectedly, that carbon dioxide, once in the atmosphere, remains for hundreds of years, and, above all, that it may or may not be too late to become our "best selves" once the next level of disruption arrives; these things do not seem to matter enough yet. Why is this the situation? Well, this is hard to say. There are many explanations. But, in the end, apparently, it is just how we are wired. Meanwhile... we wait.

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