The debate over what’s been called global warming continues to simmer on a back burner; replaced of late by rancorous debate on other issues like health care and Russian influence of elections. Views on the “warming” debate range from complete rejection that it’s even happening to deep fear that it’s going to be the end of life as we know it pretty soon. There’s a tremendous amount of science out there to suggest that warming is real, but even scientists aren’t completely in agreement, especially when trying to place the blame for the current rise in global temperatures on human causes.
I, personally, don’t like the term global warming, even if average temperatures around the world are getting warmer. I’d rather call it climate change. It’s a broader term that includes a host of other factors that help us measure a changing climate. Climate change isn’t new, either. Climate has never been completely stable and has trended this way and that over the ages. It’s generally accepted that there was an ice age, or ice ages. Jungles and forests have become deserts. Records show that the planet has been warmer in the past than it is now. Weather changes from day to day and season to season. For most spots on the planet, it’s been warmer, colder, wetter, or drier at some point than it is now or has been for the past century. Climate has never stopped changing, but usually changes at a rate that most life forms can adapt to.
Climate change is inevitable, whether human-caused or not. It’s the rate of change that should be of greatest concern. Life, particularly human life, has proven to be quite flexible in dealing with climate change in the past. That’s not to say that it was easy for our ancient ancestors to survive the ice age, but they did it. Many other life forms haven’t been so adaptable and have disappeared when habitat changes as a result of climate change exceeded their ability to change with it. All that’s left of them is fossilized remains. Recent measurements seem to indicate that change is accelerating at a rate that some life forms can’t adjust to quickly enough, and that the world is on the brink of (or already into) another mass extinction event. Plant and animal species die out when they can no longer find habitat that supports their needs.
A large part of habitat loss is due to humans altering natural environments to meet the needs of an ever-increasing human population. Habitat is also being lost due to plain old human greed and exploitation of natural resources for personal gain at a rate far in excess of need. Yet another part of habitat loss may be caused by climate change when some species of plants and animals can’t adapt to changes that are facing them. Rising sea levels turn coastal marshes into open ocean. Rising temperatures drive alpine plants and animals ever higher until some of them literally peak out and have no place to go. Rising temperatures also allow insect pests to move northward into areas that have no natural resistance to them.
It’s going to be warm today, and downright hot into the week ahead. Is it global warming or climate change? It’s impossible to say on any given day. Even if current weather is being influenced by climate change, what should we do about it? My personal view is that we should use resources in as sustainable a manner as possible to support true needs, and not as we may want them at any given moment. We should use less when we can, and recycle more. The vast majority of species can’t control their own habitat like we do. We should make space (habitat) for plants and animals that are along on this ride with us. We should clean up our messes (and there are many). We should tread as lightly on the Earth as possible. Change is inevitable, whether human-caused or not. If we do these things, we’ll make the best of it.
Steve Lekwa is a former director of Story County Conservation.