I’m headed north on Amtrak’s Auto Train having just left the Sunshine State for my home in Massachusetts. As I work on this month’s column, I’m feeling very grateful that I’m not in my car driving the 855 miles the train will cover before it arrives in Virginia in the morning, though there’s still another 450 to go before I reach home.
This train can carry as many as 600 passengers and 300 cars, but since it’s February, we only have 180 people and just 112 cars. I’m clearly headed in the wrong direction, especially knowing as I do that there’s a forecast of snow waiting for me at home. But home is where I’m headed.
Riding on this moving train has me thinking about how things work and how little I know about that. For example, I don’t really know how those two big locomotives that are pulling this train cause its powerful forward movement. I know there’s an engine involved that forces the metal wheels to turn, but other than that I haven’t a clue. And the fact is I don’t need to know; I just trust that the engineers who designed it and the ones who are driving it know what they’re doing.
And that’s how it is, isn’t it? We rely on a whole lot of technology whose inner workings are beyond our understanding or even our desire to know. What about airplanes and how little we know about them: how they manage to lift off into the air, stay there, and then land back safely on the ground. I don’t know how that works, and I bet many of you don’t, either. But we believe in the technology and the people who make it work. We don’t question the science behind this incredible machine; we just get on board and buckle up. And even though people and machines aren’t perfect, we know that most likely they will get us where we want to go.
I just reached for my smartphone to check what city we’re passing through and thought about how important these phones are in our lives. Because I was a programmer in a former life and continue to be a lover of all things computer, I have some knowledge of how it works, but I’m much more the exception than the norm.
That phone is our constant companion, packed with tools to help us navigate our modern world. With it you can find out anything just by connecting to the internet. But, honestly, do you have any idea what’s going on inside that little box? Any idea how it is that you can communicate with anyone you choose wherever they are, no strings attached? Do you even understand what the internet is?
But you don’t need to know what’s happening under the hood. You just trust that someone else does, some scientist and engineer, and they put that know-how to work. That smartphone is the result of years of effort by those scientists and engineers to squeeze a room-sized computer into something that now fits in your pocket.
And even though you don’t know how it works, you believe in it. You accept that there are smarter people than you in the world, people who have studied and dedicated their lives to science, and then used what they’ve learned to improve yours.
It just occurred to me that the same is true when we have a medical problem. When we get sick, we go to the expert, our medical provider. And based on their education and experience they attempt to diagnose our problem and then to treat it. Then we do what they tell us to do, whether that’s go for more tests or take medication or have surgery, because their knowledge is based on scientific research. When it comes to our bodies, we sure do believe in science, no question. Pass that pill bottle, please.
By now you know where I’m heading with all this. It’s the science behind climate change. Why is this particular field of scientific research any less believable than the one telling you that you need your gall bladder out?
According to NASA, “97 percent or more of actively publishing climate scientists agree: Climate-warming trends over the past century are extremely likely due to human activities.” The effects of climate change are everywhere, as evidenced by melting glaciers, rising oceans, heat waves, intensifying storms, devastating wildfires and much more.
Our president thinks this is bunk and says so whenever he has the chance.
Just a few weeks ago when a large part of the country was hit by a record-breaking cold snap, dragging temps down into the negative double digits, our self-described genius president tweeted: “What the hell is going on with Global Waming? Please come back fast, we need you!”
Yes, the most powerful man in the world tweeted to one and all, first that he’s uneducated on this subject as on so many others, and second, he can’t spell a simple word like warming.
Maybe if he listened to his own scientists, he would know that weather and climate are not the same thing. NOAA could tell him that “Weather is what you see outside on any particular day,” but “when we are talking about climate change, we are talking about changes in long-term averages of daily weather. In most places, weather can change from minute-to-minute, hour-to-hour, day-to-day, and season-to-season. Climate, however, is the average of weather over time and space.”
So, is it just ignorance that causes the president to spew these falsehoods regarding the threats of climate change? Or is it simple greed? After all, there is still a whole lot of money to be made by digging and pumping fossil fuel out of the earth. The president lives in some altered reality where these threats to our planet and its people just don’t exist.
Regardless of the president’s rhetoric, it seems that big oil is paying attention to science or at least to the markets. The British oil giant BP recently bought a $200 million stake in Europe’s biggest solar developer. Yes, it’s miniscule, but it’s a start. There is money to be made in renewable technology; it’s a burgeoning, growing industry. Will the president take notice? Not likely.
It’s winter in Massachusetts. I know it will be cold when I get there. But that’s weather for you — you never know what you’re going to get. With climate, on the other hand, we know just what we’re going to get if we don’t immediately change our fossil fuel-burning habits.
Karen Gardner, of Haydenville, a retired computer programmer, is a bird watcher, nature photographer and ukulele player. She can be reached at email@example.com.