The Apple Falls Down: Perspectives on Global Warming

On April 11, 2012, I presented an 11+ minute talk on global warming to the Ashburn Toastmasters Club. I recorded the video using video equipment borrowed from RubyNation and then edited it using Final Cut Pro. The final video is now available on YouTube, but it’s also embedded below for your convenience.

 

If you would prefer to just scan the content of the video, a transcript appears below:


 

I read something online that made me very angry. There’s a company out thereā€¦an organization called the Heartland Institute. They go around collecting money from conservatives, and from local companies … and they give that money to school systems to meet the educational needs that each school has.

I don’t have a problem with that. The problem I have is that they have an agenda.

Their agenda is to reduce the coverage of global warming, and to make it seem less important.

They do this by inserting words into the curriculum. Phrases like “the Earth is allegedly warming.” Or “some scientists think the Earth is warming.” Or my favorite – “the theory of global warming.”

This makes me angry because I’ve done some research, and I feel that global warming is probably the largest crisis the human species has ever faced.

It doesn’t look like much now, but it’s going to get a lot worse. And when I see an organization like the Heartland Institute actively taking actions that I think could hamper our capability to fight against global warming, it makes me very angry.

Now, I understand that global warming is a pretty complicated issue. It’s hard to wrap your head around global warming. Especially since there’s no smoking gun.

You can look at New Orleans after Katrina and say “My God! We’ve got to do something! People are going to die if we don’t help them!”

But right now, all we have is a couple of Pacific Islands that have disappeared. And a couple thousand natives have been displaced.

There’s no smoking gun right now.

It’s also clear to me that global warming is not going to go away. There’s no magic solution to it. And any solution we do have is going to come smack-dab from that tumultuous area where science intersects with politics.

So what I’d like to do tonight, I’d like to talk to you about global warming, and politics, and science, and apple trees, and maybe even the Titanic. And I’m going to try to do all this in something less than 30 minutes or so.

Politics

First, there’s one story that, to me, captures the essence of politics. Ronald Reagan, when he was a governor of California, took a stance on an issue. It doesn’t really matter what the issue was anymore, but he was so confident in his stance that he announced to his opponents and to his constituents that “My feet are set in concrete on this issue. I will not change my mind.”

As you might expect, a political battle ensued, and over the next couple of months … he lost.

He ended up in a situation where he needed to reverse the stance he’d taken. But that would have meant ceding victory to his opponents. He didn’t really want to do that.

So he held a press conference. In the early stages of a press conference, there’s always a little bit of fiddling with the equipment. And so he’s fiddling with the microphone, and this crackling sound goes out over the sound system. And people are looking at him … he’s the governor of California … they’re looking at him like: “My God! Is he deranged? What is he doing?”

And he stands there confidently, and says, “Ladies and gentlemen, the sound you just heard was concrete cracking around my feet. I have decided to reverse my opinion on this issue.”

That was all the media talked about for the next two weeks. His opponents, they weren’t even given an interview. Simply by virtue of showmanship, he may have lost that battle but he won the war against his opponents.

It doesn’t matter whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican or a Libertarian or anything else, that story to me is the essence of politics.

Politics is about showmanship, spin control, the perception of the truth (not necessarily the actual truth).

Science

Now, over here, we have science. In science, I’m not saying that the scientific field doesn’t have its politics, and there’s certainly feuding professors and things like that. But at the end of the day, science is about finding the truth.

And no matter what kind of noise comes from the scientific community, at some point … the truth will come out.

If there’s one thing, for me, that represents the essence of science, I’d like you to consider the lowly apple tree.

I’d like you to imagine for a minute that there’s an apple tree right here. Nice green leaves. Luscious red apples. After a moment, one of those apples falls to the ground.

Now, we all know that apples fall down out of trees. Our ancestors knew that. The Roman Empire knew that apples fell out of trees. Our caveman ancestors knew that apples fall down out of trees.

But it wasn’t until 1687, when a guy named Isaac Newton came along, with his Theory of Gravity and his Three Laws of Motion, that anybody could explain why apples fell down out of trees.

And then about 250 years later, a guy named Einstein comes along and says, “Well, you’re right for most situations, but for those situations that your theory can’t explain, I have my Theory of Relativity that explains those edge cases.”

So it took more than 250 years for the scientific community to really come to grips with why an apple falls out of a tree.

But the fact that an apple falls down … that’s a fact. Theories are explanations of why something happens. But the apple falling down, that is a fact.

Global Warming

Let’s consider global warming for a moment. Global warming is much like an apple falling out of a tree.

In the twentieth century, the sea level rose 20 inches. That can be measured. That’s a fact.

At the end of the twentieth century, the rate at which the sea level rose began to increase. That is measurable. That is a fact.

You can go to Antarctica, and you can measure how fast the ice is melting. It’s melting faster and faster. You can measure that. Those are facts.

Global warming is not a theory. Global warming is a set of facts all pointing in the same direction.

Now, I guarantee you, just like apples falling out of trees, gravity and Special Relativity — scientists are going to be working out the whys of everything having to do with global warming for the next 500 years. Because global warming, you know — your global climate, is a lot more complicated than an apple falling out of a tree.

What’s It Mean For Us?

So, global warming is a fact. What does global warming mean for us?

Right now, it doesn’t mean that much. Sea level has risen about 20 inches. As I said, there’s a few Pacific islands that have been displaced. But scientists are predicting — and this is a moderately conservative estimate — but by 2050 the sea level’s going to rise by another 3 feet. By 2100, it’s going to rise by another 3 to 5 feet beyond that.

And you start considering the impact of that kind of sea level rise on our coastal areas and our resort areas. I mean, let’s not even talk about New Orleans, and Venice, the Netherlands, and Bangkok, which are either already under sea level or very close to it.

A lot of coastal areas are going to be affected. Those coastal areas are very heavily populated, so over the next 80 years or so, you’re going to see about a billion and a half people on the move, being displaced because of global warming.

And I’m only talking about the water effects right now. New Orleans is certainly going to have problems. New York is coastal – it’s actually going to have problems in another 80 years in the way that New Orleans does, with storms and storm surges. You can get storm effects going much further inland. You can get effects like the salinzation of formerly freshwater water supplies because salt water extends further into the mainland whenever a storm occurs.

And that’s just the water. We haven’t really talked about the environmental impacts.

Consider, for example, a coral reef. A coral reef is composed of numerous plants – small plants that represent the foundation of an entire ecosystem. There are animals that eat those plants. There are fish that eat those animals. And we eat some of those top-level fish and shellfish. Coral reefs require sunlight, and are adversely impacted by rising sea levels. So, with global warming, we can have die-backs in all kinds of species.

Also, with rising global temperatures, we can have things like the desertification of central areas of continents, which could impact the United States. So, if you thought the Dust Bowl of the 1930’s, which happened because of a multi-year drought — if you thought that was bad, consider what could happen with increased global temperatures.

So, from my perspective, when it comes to global warming, we’re almost like passengers on the Titanic. The ship has already hit the iceberg. We’re not seeing much in the way of effects yet. The ship is maybe tilting a little bit. But like the Titanic, if we don’t prepare for what’s coming, it’s going to get really ugly really fast. And preparation is going to be key.

Conclusion

And that brings me back to the Heartland Institute because I was very angry at them for hampering our efforts to educate children in what global warming is going to really mean for us. And by doing that, from my perspective, they are compromising, or potentially compromising, our capacity to respond to global warming in the future.

Because I believe, just as the so-called Greatest Generation was defined by World War II, I believe that the next 10 generations or so are going to be defined by how they deal with this global warming crisis.

So the first thing I want you to remember with global warming … the first step in anything like this … is to recognize that global warming is a real problem.

Right now, China and the United States are the top contributors of the green house gases that are generally considered to be instrumental in causing global warming. And in America, only 19% of people even perceive global warming as a problem. That means that to 81% of Americans, it’s just background noise.

So going forward, global warming … it’s a serious issue. It shouldn’t be background noise.

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A Little Inspiration: Ocean House

I’m always either designing things, mostly software programs in one of a couple different languages, or writing. When you spend a lot of time doing the same things, it’s easy to slip into a rut without realizing it. Something that I find useful to combat this is to look at interesting designs in other totally unrelated fields.

Ocean House

This is an architectural concept drawing for an “ocean house” that I found on the web (I have no idea where now, because I saved this image a long time ago). I like the image because it challenges the traditional ideas of what a house on the water should look like.

First, there are no wooden stilts in sight. Second, the house isn’t modeled after a sea shanty, a New England fisherman’s cottage, a native hut or anything else. It’s a large, square, two-story modern building rising out of the water, attached to shore by a wooden dock (probably the only traditional element in the image).

Even there, though, the house isn’t perfectly square. The frame is square, but the living quarters are offset diagonally from the frame, creating some interesting angles and shapes, including a triangular wooden deck. The overall effect creates an interesting and thought-provoking architectural design because it challenges the general concept of what a house on the water should look like.

Now, carry that idea of challenging traditional concepts over to the software realm. What concepts are embodied in a project? Can those concepts be bent or twisted in new ways to create something totally different? Can they be combined with something else to make something entirely new?

For example, when blogging became prevalent, the folks at Twitter came up with the novel idea of “micro-blogging” as a way to make blogging more accessible to people who didn’t have the time or inclination to maintain a full-scale blog.

That’s why I like looking at designs in other realms unrelated to software. It’s a way to inspire myself to come at problems from a different angle, to combine things in different ways or sometimes just to play the “what if” game when trying to conceptualize a new project.

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