Global warming is not always accepted as a foregone scientific conclusion. It still sparks political debate in some circles.
However just this month, scientists at Hawaii’s Mauna Loa observatory announced the Earth’s arrival at a serious climatological milestone. The average daily concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has surpassed 400 parts per million. That’s the highest concentration on record of the greenhouse gas – widely considered to be the most significant contributor to climate change.
And as Ira Flatow, the host of Science Friday, explains to WHQR’s Rachel Lewis Hilburn, this is not just a milestone. It’s a tipping point.
RLH: You moderated a discussion about nuclear power in America.
RLH: But this was back in 2009.
RLH: What’s happened since then? Is there a nuclear renaissance going on? Could there be?
IF: There could be. It takes a long time to get a nuclear power plant up and running and built. It takes over eight years to get them built. There are a lot of environmentalists who say, look, this is our best option. We have to do the Faustian bargain. There’ll be nuclear waste. There’ll be a possibility that it leaks out to terrorists. But what’s the other option, you know? We’ve now passed over a tipping point in the environment where there’s nothing we can do that would stop us from continuing to warm up.
RLH: Is there another milestone or is this it?
IF: No, there’ll be other milestones. But this is, you know… if we stopped emitting carbon today, the oceans are still going to get warmer. They’re still going to acidify. The climate’s still going to change because we still have this other – stuff is still going to stay in the atmosphere for a while.
I think we’re in a paradigm shift. It’s even hard for people who don’t believe in global warming to look at the evidence. There’s an old legal phrase: res ipsa loquitur -- the object speaks for itself. And the Earth is speaking for itself now. It’s saying look at the intensity of these storms. The heat in the atmosphere helps create that intensity. And it’s hard to deny that now.
RLH: In the state of North Carolina, science tends to get politicized.
RLH: Yes. [laughter] We’re negotiating about…
IF: No kidding!
RLH: Does sea level rise exist?
RLH: Yes. So you’ve been following that.
IF: Yes, I have. I have. Yes.
RLH: How does that happen?
IF: You know, I’ve been trying to figure out when, exactly, was the moment when science – the whole climate thing – got politicized. And I recall being in Washington. I worked at NPR in Washington back in the 70s. And I remember when Jimmy Carter put solar panels on the White House. We had just come out of the Arab oil embargo. The President was into alternative energies and saving energy. And he said as an example to the country we’re going to put solar panels on the White House. And people were very happy to see that. And then when Ronald Reagan came in and he wanted to change direction, one of the things he did was take the solar panels off the White House. That’s my own little bias, but I think at that moment was created the politicization of the environmental movement.
RLH: Are you ever worried about taking a position on an issue and finding yourself in a political situation instead of a scientific discussion?
IF: Yes. I try not to get into a political situation. The closest I come to this… and if people want to, we will have a discussion. We’ll talk about the environment. I’m not a politician.
People will say to me, ‘What can we do? What do we do to change it?’ And I’ll say to them, ‘Look, depending on how you feel on either side of the issue, you have the right to vote.’
Because some of these people in office have no idea how science works.
I had an interesting discussion with Jane Lubchenco, who is the outgoing head of NOAA.
And I said to her, ‘You were a scientist for so many years. You’re still a scientist. Now you were brought into the White House – into the Administration. What was the most challenging part?’
And she said to me, ‘I’ll tell you one story. I was up on Capitol Hill. You know, NOAA controls the weather satellites and they die. We need to have new weather satellites. They wear out. And I was talking to a Congressman on the committee that would appropriate money for us. And I said we need appropriations for a new weather satellite.
And he looked at me and said ‘a new weather satellite?’ He said, ‘Why should I give you money for new weather satellites? I can get all the information I need from the Weather Channel.’
You can’t make this… you can’t make this stuff up…
Click on the links below for extended excerpts of the discussion with Ira Flatow.
Check out the full slideshow and video of Ira's recent visit to Wilmington for WHQR's Fundraiser.