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Posted at 11:00 AM ET, 01/20/2008

Freedman: Ground Truth

By Andrew Freedman

"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...

By Andrew Freedman  | January 20, 2008; 11:00 AM ET
Categories:  Books, Climate Change, Freedman, Science  
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How to convince humankind to adopt a long-term view is a longstanding question. We are inherently short-sighted, and also cautious, occasionally failing to act for fear of deleterious unintended side effects. In the absence of any answers, we can at least continue to raise these questions and point out that time is slipping away.

Posted by: ~sg | January 20, 2008 12:46 PM | Report abuse

22 in McLean. That's perfect proof that Global Warming doesn't exist. :-)

Posted by: mcleaNed | January 20, 2008 12:56 PM | Report abuse

20 here in Lake Ridge... warming is also supposed to make the weather more extreme, which could work on both sides of the spectrum...very hot in the summer, very cold in the winter :)

Posted by: weatherdudeVA | January 20, 2008 1:04 PM | Report abuse

Isn't it supposed to be very hot in the summer and very cold in the winter :)

Posted by: Anonymous | January 20, 2008 1:13 PM | Report abuse

If people need a little help with their imaginations, the book Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet, previously published in the UK, will be released in the US on Tuesday.

Posted by: Steve, Capital Weather Gang | January 20, 2008 1:15 PM | Report abuse

The big, and I mean, BIG, problem with the whole idea of "global-warming", and with those who endorse it, is that it is being preached as doomsday by the very SAME people who, decades ago, preached that we were on the verge of a new "Ice Age". I well remember "Earth Day" in 1970 (I graduated that year), when we were all being warned that we were making the atmosphere one giant refrigerator with all our human activities. It was, to put it bluntly, a form of brainwashing.....repaced now by an equally effective, but contrary form of warming. I do not oppose the global warming stories just for the sake of opposing them, or for political reasons......that, of course, would be foolish and stubborn. The real problem is that both the Ice-Age alarmism of 30-40 years ago and the global-warming alarmism of today lack any REAL credibility.......Gore's Nobel Prize notwithstanding. In fact, that in itself proves that the once well-respected Prize has become little more politics than real science.

Posted by: Mike | January 20, 2008 7:23 PM | Report abuse

The Earth is going through its normal temperature in my opinioun . 20 years from now it could be cooler than normal and we will blame people for that. But if you can get yourself a Nobel Peace Prize I say go for it....... Go TARHEELS!!

Posted by: HEELS | January 20, 2008 8:17 PM | Report abuse

What about the folks who (like HEELS) who point out that today's current Global Warming trend is only part of the natural studies.

I have heard that not only is Earth experiencing a warming trend but so are other planets in our solar system and that what we are experiencing is less impacted by human actions and more by the natural cycle of climate and the solar system at large?

Don't flame me, I don't claim to be the expert and only ask the question because I'm genuinely curious...

Posted by: HaymarketDave | January 20, 2008 8:27 PM | Report abuse

For most of Earth's history, the planet has been warmer than at any time before the appearance of humans, with much more submerged land surface. The entirety of human existence has taken place during a geologic period in which planetary temperatures have been lower than those typically experienced by the Earth. We can expect global temps to increase again, displacing sub-climates and submerging land surfaces. I don't care if it's caused by humans or Milankovitch cycles...since it will impact humans, we should try to understand climate change and how to respond.

Posted by: ~sg | January 20, 2008 9:14 PM | Report abuse

Honestly - I doubt climate change scientists thought trying to negotiate a global treaty in Kyoto would just be a fun way to kill some time. Even without pictures, I was able to imagine how much fun it is to fight with Congress and governments across the globe to get really costly legislation and emission standards pushed through.

It's not exactly a tedious chore you only got around to doing because there's a writers' strike and nothing good on TV.

They've read the odd history book too and run a couple (of thousand) models regarding the reasons and influences of previous warming periods. You don't get Nobel Prizes for making guesses - the IPCC had some pretty serious research to back their assertions up.

And while the idea of a penguin driving a forklift is more than a little appealing to me (would they have to join a union?), I would rather they kept iceberg hopping and fishing a little longer.

Posted by: Emma | January 20, 2008 9:55 PM | Report abuse

I don't understand why so many people are against the whole man-made global warming theory. I don't care what party you root for, what political agenda you idolize, whether you believe as rush Limbaugh believes that trees were put here to make homes and baseball bats, or whether you're for all organic all the time. The fact is, we should ALL want clean air and clean water. Why are there so many people out there who protect pollution and poison in our air and water - while they criticize those who just want things to be healthier. Let's put aside this global warming thing and just figure out a way to clean things up. Not just for the future, but just so we have something healthier to breathe and drink. It just seems like common sense to me.

Posted by: NeedAir | January 20, 2008 10:01 PM | Report abuse

Haymarket Dave, you ask a very good question. While the climate has changed throughout history, sometimes very rapidly and dramatically, most climate scientists believe the recent warming trend is primarily human-driven. The recent IPCC report stated this with greater certainty than ever before, and the peer reviewed scientific literature is devoid of studies showing that recent warming is solely due to natural cycles.

Posted by: Andrew Freedman, Capital Weather Gang | January 20, 2008 10:09 PM | Report abuse

Mike: The claim of a scientific consensus regarding global cooling is an urban legend. There never was a significant portion of the scientific community who supported this claim. It is not helpful, and only gives ignorant people ammunition to spread more ignorance.

See, for example:

Posted by: jtf | January 20, 2008 10:23 PM | Report abuse

How about an article about the global cooling myth one day, Andrew? AGH! People.

Posted by: jtf | January 20, 2008 10:39 PM | Report abuse

Really, I'd rather err on the side of caution, and go with the people who actually have studied these things most closely, not with Joe Blow from Manassas who wants to keep driving his Hummer around.

Posted by: Mark | January 20, 2008 11:01 PM | Report abuse

I have to agree with Mike. I was at NC State in the mid 1970s and there was a great deal of talk about global cooling, the return of glaciation, and the fear that shorter growing seasons and glaciation would lead to world-wide famines. There were MANY scientists who advanced this theory.

Posted by: Curmudgeon | January 21, 2008 12:40 AM | Report abuse

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