The September National Geographic had a huge series of articles on global warming that I’m only now getting around to reading. Needless to say, the magazine paints a bleak picture of where we are, and where we’re headed. To me, there have always been three questions about global warming:

  1. Is global warming a real phenomenon? (In other words, is it getting hotter?)
  2. Does human activity contribute significantly to global warming?
  3. Is there something we can do about it?

I’ve felt like #1 was true for years, but I never really had a whole lot of confidence in that belief. Now I do. I would at this point the idea that the earth is getting warmer is no longer subject to reasonable peculation. It’s true. So that moves us to #2. These days, it seems like most global warming doubters circle the wagons on this question and argue that while the earth is getting warmer, it’s just a part of cyclical climate change and human activity doesn’t contribute significantly. There was an article in the February 2004 National Geographic that convinced me that those people are wrong. It explained in simple terms how the carbon cycle works, and how burning massive amounts of fossil fuels disrupts that cycle by filling the atmosphere with greenhouse gasses (mainly carbon dioxide). Before I read this article, I would say that there’s room for disagreement on the human contribution to global warming. I no longer think so. If you don’t think that human activity is a huge contributing factor when it comes to climate change, you’re in denial.

That, of course, leads to the biggest question, #3. Clearly, in a theoretical sense, humans can do something about global warming. Americans doing something about it would be a big start. When you look at the amount of resources consumed by the average American compared to people of any other nation in the world, we’ve got a big lead. We’re the masters of burning fossil fuels. There’s no way the world could sustain a population of 6 billion people living the way Americans live. Given that, I’m forced to question the ethics of the American lifestyle, and I do believe that when consumption of resources by Americans peaks (this year, 5 years from now, or 50 years from now), that will be it. No group of people will ever consume resources the way Americans have again. That being said, I don’t think that we or anyone else will really change until there’s a disaster of truly epic proportions. Human beings suck at being proactive, and are even worse when it comes to assessing risk and contingency planning. So at this point I don’t believe that the human race will make the massive changes required to contain our contribution to global warming. But I’d love to be surprised.

The final question, then, is what we as individuals can do to limit our own exposure to risk from global warming. Given that scientists cannot reliably predict the pace of change or the results of that change, the final question is the toughest. I’m still thinking about that one.