Commentary

What will convince climate-change skeptics?

May 1, 2014 

Belief in global climate change is, to some degree, a matter of faith (as is disbelief in climate change). We read the reports and choose which experts to trust.

It helps, of course, that there are so many more scientists who are convinced that climate change is real than those who aren’t. But the average person isn’t doing the atmospheric tests or gauging how much of the polar ice cap has melted or analyzing the acidity of the oceans.

We look to the scientists, the ones gathering that data, to tell us what’s going on.

I have wondered, therefore, what it would take to really persuade the skeptics on climate change when they can always find a few scientists somewhere willing to dispute the fact that humans play a role in climate change. As long as the argument amounts to “my expert vs. your expert,” it’s a stalemate.

Truly convincing the scoffers might require something more tangible. And by that I mean something even more tangible than the crazy winter the nation just endured.

How about this: Beef prices are skyrocketing.

Texas, as many would guess, is the nation’s largest producer of beef. Unfortunately, Texas is entering its fourth straight year of drought.

Because of the drought, growing food for cattle has become more difficult. And, as a result, ranchers not only in Texas but also Oklahoma and other beef-producing states have been forced to thin their herds.

And, with fewer cattle going to market, beef prices have risen dramatically. The Texas Beef Council reports that the average retail price of fresh beef has climbed to $5.28 a pound, up by 5.4 percent from this time last year, the highest level in almost three decades.

On average, the Beef Council said, a calf that sold for $500 three years ago now goes for $750. That might be good news for ranchers but not so good for retailers and customers.

And, if people cut back on buying beef because of the high prices, even the ranchers will feel the pain.

Andrew Harig, director of government relations for the Food Marketing Institute, told The Texas Tribune that the problem is not limited to the Lone Star State nor to beef. He notes that in addition to the drought in Texas, sparse rainfall in Brazil is driving up the prices of coffee, soybeans and sugar.

California also is experiencing a record drought lasting more than three years. Extreme drought now covers 67 percent of the state.

The federal government began monitoring drought levels in 2000, and the latest report shows that the area covered by drought in California is nearly double what was recorded in the 2007 drought, which previously had the highest percentage of extreme drought.

Worse, 9 percent of the state is suffering “exceptional drought,” the worst possible category. This is the first time since monitoring began that any part of California has experienced exceptional drought.

California has been subjected to long-lasting droughts in its ancient past. Scientists believe, for example, that over the past 1,000 years, California has occasionally experienced droughts that lasted 10 to 20 years.

But experts say the increased carbon dioxide in the air is a wild card that makes the duration of the current drought hard to predict. The state, they say, is in the midst of an “experiment.”

Already, however, the 2013-14 rainfall season, based on tree-ring data, is shaping up to be the driest in 434 years, say experts at The University of California at Berkeley.

California, of course, is a huge supplier of citrus, produce and (gasp!) wine. Prices on all those commodities could rise.

So, I’m wondering if we will see more believers in climate change if our pocketbooks are directly affected. One reason some skeptics have been reluctant to embrace efforts to reduce climate change is because of the presumed cost of tactics such as cap-and-trade, carbon taxes, higher fuel-efficiency standards for vehicles, etc.

But what if we get to the point where we can’t afford a nice steak dinner with a salad and a glass or two of wine? I think we might find a lot more people enlisting in the war on global warming.

James Werrell, Herald opinion page editor, can be reached at 329-4081 or, by email, at jwerrell@heraldonline.com.

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