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Bos/My Turn: A cold, harsh message

Everyone talks about the weather, but no one does anything about it. — Mark Twain

We’re getting off pretty easy here in Franklin County compared to the freezing weather in the Midwest and the South. It’s been warmer in Siberia than in Chicago. It’s been warmer in Anchorage, Alaska, than in Atlanta, Ga. An email from my Holland-based niece tells me it’s warmer in Amsterdam than in Albany. This past week, 68 percent of the continental U.S. has been covered by a wave of arctic temperatures that normally don’t travel below Northern Canada.

The reason for all this, we’re told in a Recorder editorial, is a “polar vortex,” which is causing arctic temperatures to be pushed south. The fact is that polar vortex is always present in the Arctic, but strengthens in the winter and grows weaker in the summer. The vortex itself is a natural occurrence, but, as Carl Gibson wrote in an op-ed piece for Nation of Change, “occasionally the jet stream pushes it farther south than normal. And as the arctic grows warmer at a rapid rate, cold snaps like the one sweeping half the country will become more frequent. The jet stream pushing the polar vortex south in the winter may be more than just a fluke if rapid climate change continues.”

The extreme cold snap covering 68 percent of the country is a direct result of the fast melting arctic ice making the jet stream more unpredictable. In 2012 alone, ice sheets equivalent to the state of Texas melted, setting an all-time record for the fastest-melting polar ice in recorded history. In August 2012, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) National Climatic Data Center reported that arctic ice melted at a rate of 35,400 miles per day!

Researchers are calling the melt ”astonishing” and “urgent.” One prominent scientist, Cambridge University’s Peter Wadhams, is now projecting that summer sea ice in the Arctic may entirely disappear in the next four years — calling the implications “terrible.”

If this pattern continues, sea levels are expected to rise by 23 feet by 2020. And such a rapid change in sea levels will not only cause cities built at sea level, like Miami, to be completely uninhabitable, but will cause an exodus of millions of climate refugees from coastal cities all over the world. And freak weather events like Hurricane Sandy rocking New York City will happen even more frequently. If we in Franklin County think this current cold snap is bad, wait until it goes on for an entire winter ... and happens every year.

Denying human-caused climate change is a matter of opinion and not fact. Last fall, Los Angeles Times letters editor Paul Thornton said the Times will no longer consider publishing letters to the editor denying climate change.

This decision, of course, raised a storm of objections from climate deniers and conservative bloggers. In an Oct. 8, 2013 column, Thornton stated that “I do my best to keep errors of fact off the letters page.” Citing the most recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — which offered a 95-percent level of confidence that people are contributing to global warming — Thornton argued that continuing to deny human involvement in climate change “is not stating an opinion, it’s asserting a factual inaccuracy.”

Todd Gitlin, professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University, said in an interview with The Yale Forum that it can be dangerous to censor dissenting opinions.

“Flat-out statements of untruth, I think, don’t deserve protection,” said Gitlin. “And in fact, I think the (L.A. Times) policy is healthy — if they tailor it properly, that is, if it’s properly discriminating — I think it should actually be emulated by the other papers.”

“Obviously, free expression is the default position” Gitlin asserted. “I mean, one should bend over backward to open it up,” he said. “Expression of opinion needs to be safeguarded and cherished — but that’s not the same thing as making up facts.”

So why not evaluate letters on a case-by-case basis rather than issuing a ban?

Gitlin noted that all bans require case-by-case interpretation unless they’re as simple as “Do not use the phrase ‘so-called climate change’” or “Do not say scientists are divided on the causes of climate change.”

“For more complex statements, some case-by-case reasoning is required,” he said. “But the general principle should be: No denial of facts.”

For example, Gitlin said he would ban letters claiming that creationism is a science, but not letters claiming that creationism is true because the Bible says so.

Climate change deniers are finally falling through the cracks of credibility. Even scientists funded by the Koch Brothers to refute the climate science making the case for man-made climate change admit that climate change is real, and that it has been accelerating since the industrial age. Major corporations are in strategic planning mode with respect to how climate change will affect their bottom line.

We should all consider the recent cold snap as a harsh message from our planet to get real about climate change. And that means changing the way we’ve been accustomed to living.

John Bos lives in Shelburne Falls and may be contacted at john01370@gmail.com.

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