A Hard Test (fiction)

If tests teach anything, it should be integrity. It is not possible for the average global-warming test to do this.

Abigail, a fifth-grader, and her dad were sitting at the kitchen table. “Dad, my teacher told me about global warming.”

“Well, what did she say?”

“She said that our cars put greenhouse gases in the sky, and that this is killing people all over the planet. She said that the ocean is rising, and that a lot of places are going to go under water. She said that polar bears are dying, because the warmer air is melting their ice. Is this true, Dad?”

“Alright. First, I want to tell you that your teacher cares about nature, and she cares about people, and that is why she is talking to you about global warming. So, that’s a good thing. On the other hand, I disagree with most of what she told you about it, and I’ll tell you why.

“Somehow, about 30 years ago, a lot of the people who cared about pollution, were convinced that weather used to be nice most of the time and that human beings are making it dramatically less nice with our cars and factories, with carbon dioxide mostly.”

“That’s what Mrs. Pierce told us.”

“There are a few problems with this,” said her dad. “For one, weather has been nice sometimes and very cruel other times since the dawn of civilization. There were huge floods, fires, and droughts, since the beginning of recorded history. If you were to see some of the worst of this repeated again today, people would call it global warming, or climate change, or climate disruption, or some such. But these events have not increased. In many cases, disasters have decreased during the last 30 years, as carbon dioxide has continued to increase. For another thing, temperature has gone up and down throughout human history as well. The scientists whom I trust the most say that the temperature of the Earth today is no higher than it was a thousand years ago, or two thousand years ago.”

“What about sea levels?”

“Sea level has never been stable. People like to imagine that there is some magic level where the sea always stops, but it’s just not the case. When the Ice Age that we’re living in paused 11,000 years ago, sea level rose nearly 400 feet, and it has slowly risen, off and on, since then.”

“Wait a second, Dad. Did you say we’re living in an Ice Age? What does that mean? I don’t see snow outside our window during summer.”

“No, you don’t, honey, and that’s a good point. For the last three million years, ice and snow have dominated Earth’s weather, except in the tropics. But there are pauses, or timeouts, taken by the Ice Age. The timeouts are called interglacials, and we’re real lucky to be living in one. If we weren’t living in an interglacial, you would see snow outside our window a lot more often, sometimes in summer.”

“You said when the interglacial started, sea level rose 400 feet. How long did that take?”

“It took about a thousand years or so, but it was much more rapid rise than anything we’ve seen in the past few centuries. The main thing to remember is that at no point in Earth’s history has sea level been stable, neither during full Ice Age conditions, nor during interglacials. It’s not in the nature of water, or the sea, to remain stable in one place over long periods of time. So, human civilization has had to adjust to changing locations of the coast, and changing sea levels, basically forever. That said, people keep buying houses by the beach every day, and you and I probably won’t see the sea level rise enough to notice during our lifetime.”

“What about polar bears?”

“I am sorry to say that polar bears were hunted from aircraft starting in the 1950s and 1960s, and their numbers went down dramatically. Since hunting licenses became harder to obtain, their numbers have increased. They have lived through other periods of relatively warm weather during this interglacial, no problem.”

“But why would Mrs. Pierce tell us that all of this was happening, if it really wasn’t?”

“That part is complicated. A few things led to this. First, as soon as we had the ability to take pictures of storms, more people learned through those images how damaging weather can be. It wasn’t that the number of storms rose, it was that with digital cameras, videophones, television, and the Internet, a lot more people were taking a lot more pictures of weather at the same time. And some of what weather has always done is scary. It always was, and it always will be. If you look at enough scary pictures of weather, pretty soon you’ll be more scared of weather than you probably should be. Does that make sense?”

“Yeah, it does. Sort of like how you showed me that if I look for pink cars on the highway, pretty soon I’ll see a lot of them because it’s all I’m looking for.”

“Exactly! Second, as humankind has gotten more technologically advanced, we have also, unfortunately, made some parts of the world dirtier and less safe than they were before. On the other hand, usually when one country or another continues to develop economically, and technologically, the people start to notice when nature is not being treated right, and they ask for, and eventually receive, a more intelligent use of resources. For instance, in California, when I was a boy, if I played outside on a summer day I would usually get a sore throat and my lungs would hurt. That was mostly because of automobile exhaust. So, California, the first state in the country to do so, forced the people who make cars to use something called a catalytic converter. It was a wonderful thing. The carmakers fought it tooth and nail, but the people knew there was a better way, and they demanded it. Now, when you play outside where I grew up, even on a hot summer day, you usually don’t get a sore throat, or sore lungs.”

“That’s cool.”

“I agree, and so do my lungs. Anyway, there are many examples of the environment being cleaned up in this way. Most American rivers and lakes are cleaner today than they were when grandma and grampa were little, because people decided to stop polluting them – or to make those who were polluting them stop.”

“That’s cool, too.”

“Now, it just so happens that when people were starting to make some good changes when it comes to treating the environment better, a lot of scientists had become interested in the idea that carbon dioxide could change the planet in a bad way. It wasn’t a dumb idea they had, it just turned out to be – mostly – wrong. But people were so excited that nature was being treated better that they listened to the scientists who were warning them about global warming. In fact, they not only listened to them, but they gave them better jobs and better funding than other scientists who weren’t saying the same thing. After a while, the only scientists that anybody listened to when it came to global warming were the ones who were saying the scariest things. Nobody was trying to hurt anybody else, but a lot of hurt got done anyway.”

“Why, Dad?”

“Because when you spend money on one thing, you’re not spending it on another. So, ironically, people who cared about the environment a lot were spending money on carbon dioxide research and not spending it on cleaning up the environment. They were also distracting a lot of the people around the world from the kinds of pollution that give people cancer and make the rivers and lakes and air dirty.”

“That’s a bummer.”

“A big one,” said Abigail’s dad.

“I’m kind of nervous.”

“Why’s that, honey?”

“Well, I can tell that Mrs. Pierce really cares about global warming a lot. I don’t think she’s going to like it if I tell her that there are more important things to worry about.”

“You’re probably right about that.”

“So, what do I do?”

“Maybe when you’re at school you can speak Global Warming, and when you’re home we can just talk normal?”

“I don’t like the sound of that.”

“I don’t like the sound of it, either, but it’s the best I’ve got. Do you have any ideas?”

“What if I tell the truth? What if I say to Mrs. Pierce that I care about the environment, and I don’t want the polar bears to drown, but I just don’t agree that carbon dioxide is having a negative effect on the world, and I’d rather people focus on real pollution?”

“Well, if you say that, I’m going to support you one hundred percent. On the other hand, Mrs. Pierce might not support you one hundred percent. And Mrs. Pierce, when it comes to just about everything else, is a pretty wonderful teacher.”

“She really is.”

“So, maybe it’s a good idea not to get on her bad side. We don’t have to convince her that we’re right about this. We can just sort of live and let live.”

“That’d be great, dad, but I’ve got a test on this coming up in a week. She’s going to ask us to write down the things that global warming has caused.”

“That’s going to be a hard test.”

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About Harold Ambler

I am a lifelong environmentalist. I started my journalism career at The New Yorker, where I worked as a copy editor. Since then, my own work has appeared in The New York Daily News, The National Review Online, The Atlantic Wire, The Huffington Post, The Berkeley Daily Planet, The Providence Journal, Brown Alumni Monthly, The Narragansett Times, Rhode Island Monthly, and Providence Business News.
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