Climate Enginieering

Workers cover a glacier with oversized plastic sheets on the peak of Germany's highest mountain, Zugspitze (9,700 feet), in southern Germany, on May 10, 2011. The sheets are meant to keep the glacier from melting during the summer months. It's one proposed geoengineering tactic in the fight against climate change: reflecting sunlight back into space or cooling the planet by sucking heat-trapping CO2 from the air.

Turns out a trip to Switzerland (where I am vacationing) should be required for anyone in south Louisiana (where I live) who still harbors doubts about the science of climate change, what to do about it — and how soon.

A trip here would present Louisiana’s climate change skeptics with evidence of the dire projections made by the scientists they often doubt.

Now, I’m not here to ridicule those skeptics. As one scientist-turned-politician told me when I urged him to educate his constituents on the dire projections, even if it might hurt their businesses now: “My voters aren’t worried about what might or might not happen in 40 years, they’re worried about paying next month’s mortgage.”

I understand projections based on science can be a hard sell. They come wrapped up in strange equations, symbols, formulas and a language not just beyond our grasp but — perhaps more importantly — beyond our intellectual desire.

So many people tend to regard the findings of science as something to be taken on faith — like religion. Which is one reason you often hear the statement: “I don’t believe in climate change.” Of course, even the pope agrees that science is not a belief system like a faith, such as believing that Christ is the son of God; it’s a system based on facts collected over time, tested and retested and found to be true.

Indeed, climate science should be one of the most accepted because its 150 years of evidence — actual measurements — is there for anyone to see: the steady and increasing rate of sea level rise; higher temperatures; more frequent record rainfalls; longer droughts; larger and longer wildfires — all of which were projected 20 years ago.

But climate science has an opening for skeptics written in its name: Climate is what happens over decades, not weeks or months or even a few years. It is like a slow-moving cancer; its victims don’t see or feel it until irreparable and perhaps fatal damage is done.

That means the changes it causes, even over a year, typically take place in small increments — centimeters, millimeters and tiny fractions of a degree. They usually are impossible for the human eye to register; their measurements require instruments used by scientists who then extrapolate their meanings into strange formulas and computer models. And even then, some of those changes are not always in the same direction — not always up or down.

Which brings us to the reason many people oppose the actions scientists say are needed now to prevent terrible consequences later: They don’t want to change their incomes or invest in a new way of life when the evidence is hard to see, and that future hard to imagine

Which is why they should come to Switzerland.

You see the Swiss are now living one of those slow-motion climate change endgames: The demise of their glaciers and snowfields.

The native Swiss I met here on trails winding past the glaciers or between snowfields draped across knife-edge summits all told same story: “You should have been here 30 years ago, 20 years ago — or even just 10!”

One day I stood in a green valley a mile from the current snout of the Morteratsch Glacier, one of the country’s largest. “Ten years ago, I stood here with my son and walked on the end of the glacier,” said Jane Crofts, a teacher at The English School in Zurich. “The speed of the change has been stunning.”

This took many decades to become obvious, just as the rising seas are projected to take as many as four decades to swallow most of south Louisiana below I-10. But if we wait another 20 or even 10 years until the impacts are obvious, it will be too late to address the causes and prevent disaster.

That’s what the scientists tell us. But you don’t have to trust science.

Just ask the Swiss.


Bob Marshall, a Pulitzer Prize-winning Louisiana environmental journalist, can be reached at at bmarshallenviro@gmail.com.