Early in June, I drove our Toyota Sienna 600 miles roundtrip on a baseball trip with some buddies. Last week, our family drove 700 miles to vacation on Madeline Island. My wife drives to New Ulm to work four or five times a week. In our family, we're up to five drivers and six vehicles. Middle kid just flew to Spain.
This spring I put in crops using diesel-powered equipment. We applied a moderate amount of fertilizer. I am writing this on a computer using electricity, while there are two air conditioners running in our house. And I like hamburgers.
There. I have contributed to all of the leading causes of carbon dioxide emission. Outside of our "fleet" of cars, none of this would be considered terribly excessive for a family around here. You could write up your own list, hamburgers are optional.
Do I feel like I am contributing to coming global catastrophe on a scale we can't imagine? I have to admit, that was pretty far from my mind as I sat with a Leinenkugel by a campfire overlooking Lake Superior last week. But back here, in the real world, I do think about it a lot. As a news-junkie, I can't help but think about it.
A strong majority of scientists now accept that the Earth is warming and that human activity is the primary cause of that effect. There's a strong consensus. I respect that, and will side with them if you ask my opinion.
At the same time, there remain skeptics. Some are skeptical that the planet is warming at all. Some are skeptical that our driving and eating hamburgers are the cause. I live in a place where quite a few are doubtful about global warming claims. Maybe half my friends are. Intelligent people do stand on both sides. George Will refers to "global warming alarmists." Is George Will being duped?
A problem in sorting this all out is that almost everything I read or listen to comes laden with political intent. Most commentators on this issue have an ax to grind. Not only to grind, but to bury in their opponents heads. Everybody has an agenda. To make matters worse, most activists hint strongly that the other side is "stupid" for lack of a better word, that they are "nave."
It is a serious issue, one that cries out for a balanced debate. On one side are liberals who would institute a costly carbon tax on the American economy. On the other side are conservatives who chant "Drill, baby, drill." There are a lot of cocksure people on both sides. As often happens, I find myself in the Great Confused Middle; I want to do the right thing, but I'm annoyed by both sides.
There are two phenomena it seems that harm the argument for global warming, that drive lay people toward the skeptics. The first is the track record of environmental "alarmists," to borrow Will's title. I'm so old as to remember warnings of global cooling in the seventies. Then, in college we talked a lot about the upcoming population explosion, how millions would be starving in a couple decades. And we all knew that oil would run out sometime in the 1990's.
Well, none of those things happened. There is hunger, but it is a distribution/political problem. We have more oil than ever. On the way to 2013, humans figured out a lot of useful things, much as they always have.
The other thing that drives me nuts is using today's weather as proof of anything. I'm not a climatologist. But I'm a farmer, and I pay a LOT of attention to the weather. And nothing that has happened in this place in my years is extraordinary. Hot, cold, dry, wet were all here in the past. In broad terms, the Northern Corn Belt has become a couple inches wetter on average in my lifetime. Then 2011 and 2012 turn out dry. In broad terms, the springs have been earlier. Then we go and get a spring like 2013.
I'm not violent, but I may hit the next person who says a cold stretch we are having disproves global warming or a hot stretch proves global warming. I do suspect plowing the entire prairie and growing 90 million acres of corn have affected the microclimate of this region, but that is an issue separate.
I also fear that the debate on global warming can take up all the room in our small attention spans. We can read about glaciers melting in Iceland. But we can look out our window and see most of an entire continent that our ancestors clear-cut, plowed, and drained. We've come a ways in reducing pollutants and restoring habitat in my lifetime. But there is much more to be done right here and right now, far from any glacier.
Here in the Great Confused Middle, we should not use our confusion as an excuse for apathy or inaction. If we set aside the politics, the way we should conduct our lives isn't much different regardless of our position on CO2 emissions. Of course we should be conservative in our use of resources. Of course we should not be wasteful. We should tread as lightly on the planet as possible.
In Psalm 24, we are told, "The earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof." There is a moral element to this. We shouldn't need an "alarmist" to tell us to take care of the Earth. This is our grandchildren's home, and their grandchildren's. That's enough reason right there to turn down the temp in winter and up in the summer, to recycle, to plant a tree.