Freedman: Ground Truth
"Seeing is believing" is a saying that can mean a great deal in life. It is typically used in conversation to refer to something strange that happened that no one would have believed could happen until it actually happened, like a window-washer falling 47 stories and surviving or a penguin driving a forklift (hasn't happened yet).
But the saying also refers to an emotional connection between the sense of sight and the strength of a belief. For many people, global climate change may fall into a category of "soft" belief. It scientifically makes sense, but because it exists beyond our field of vision it's hard to be completely convinced of its existence, and therefore of the necessity of addressing it.
Thus when it comes to grappling with the climate change challenge -- the mother of all atmospheric science issues -- the notion that on an emotional level something must be seen in order to be believed becomes problematic.
How can someone truly wrap their head around the notion that human activities are causing global temperatures to warm, with all of the ensuing effects, when on a daily basis in their community they may not be able to discern any changes at all? This isn't to say that the climate of Washington, D.C., for example, has been unaffected by global warming, but rather that the manifestations of climate change are not yet glaringly apparent in the everyday life of a Washingtonian. After all, it's freezing in the D.C. area right now.
One can read hundreds of scientific studies about the effects of increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases on the environment, including sweeping changes in human and natural systems, but the reality of climate change won't be driven home unless it can be witnessed firsthand. Yet because of the lag time in the climate system, once it can be witnessed everywhere it will be too late to avert the worst-case scenarios.
There is a solid body of scientific evidence that shows that major changes in world energy generation and use must get underway soon in order to significantly reduce the risk of potentially devastating climate change. In light of this, the perception problem looks far from trivial because it plays a part in inhibiting the formation of political will to address the issue.
What's been needed is "ground truth" that shows people that climate change is not something to be concerned about decades from now but, rather, is already taking place. Such firsthand observations are becoming more common now, and their importance should not be underestimated. In order to more fully understand the value of providing on-the-ground observations of climate change, I spoke with the globe-trotting photojournalist Gary Braasch, author of the recent book "Earth Under Fire: How Global Warming is Changing the World."
Braasch has spent much of the past seven years following scientists to the ends of the earth to document the environmental shifts that are taking place due to rising temperatures. In doing so, he's been motivated by the need to bring the climate change story home for people in a way that words alone cannot. The book contains Braasch's photos taken from the Arctic and Antarctic circles and points in between, as well as his detailed prose.
"Pictures are not science; they can, however, provide direct evidence that global warming is happening now, all over the world," Braasch wrote.
In an interview earlier this month, Braasch told me his global warming documentary project evolved on its own from talking to scientists about what they were witnessing in the environment in the late 1990s. "I didn't see many photographs about what was really happening about climate change," he said. Using money from his other environmental photography assignments, he traveled the world with different scientific teams, serving as a sort of embedded reporter and witness to climate change field research.
At the heart of his project, he said, was the division between observations of global climate change in the world today and the predictions for future changes. He said he tried to make "a connection with reality" for people that would transform the story into something other than a theory or an abstract bunch of numbers.
The work of Al Gore and others has raised public awareness of climate change, Braasch said, but people still need to see what's happening and get a read on who is providing the data showing that the climate is changing. In this way, Braasch said, pictures of each scientist at work provides "a touch with them that they're a real person, they're not evil, they're doing their job just like everyone else is."
For Braasch, at least, seeing global climate change at work has helped his views transform along with the scientific evidence. His hope is that it will do the same for others.
Or maybe some won't be convinced until they see a desperate penguin driving a forklift in an ice-manufacturing plant. Don't believe me? Just wait and see...
| January 20, 2008; 11:00 AM ET
Categories: Books, Climate Change, Freedman, Science
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