The article invites comparison between reactor meltdown and global warming.
The partial meltdown at Three Mile Island resulted, as the article said, from: misused hardware (valves inappropriately open), unreliable instrumentation (valve indicator failing to indicate) and human stupidity (operators relying on the faulty indicator and ignoring other available information).
And, fortunately, we had protection--the massive containment building. Otherwise, had the accident been worse, the USA could have been wiped out in a Chernobyl-style debacle.
With global warming we have no protection, there is no containment building.
But we have faulty hardware--all that greenhouse-gas producing hardware, all those industrial meat-growing "farms," all that use of coal-oil-gas). And we have the unreliable instrumentation--it is only in the last ten to twenty years that people have been noticing the onrush of global warming. And, especially, we have human stupidity--among politicians, among industrialists, among media decision-makers and with our under-educated and under-informed public.
The time scale seems different. A nuclear reactor meltdown event takes places very quickly, whereas the build-up to global warming is slow. But this time scale is misleading.
The lead-up to global warming may be slow, but it is cumulative and fairly irreversible. Last year's greenhouse-gas contributions are still up there. They haven't gone away. some have been absorbed by the ocean, raising oceanic acidity levels with attendant perils for sea-life.
The reactor meltdown is prevented by an action taken in a few seconds. Close that valve, and the job is done. Close that valve, and there is no melt-down: The horrible future event is immediately forestalled.
The valve to shut-down global warming is well-known--just stop burning fossil fuels. But it is taking decades to accomplish, and the problem has been growing worse (although the worst effects are yet to be felt). The sense that the emergency is a gradual one has diminished most people's sense of emergency about global warming.
But here, too, the comparison with Three Mile Island may be more apt than it at first seems. There are many warming-caused events that scientists worry about that may be sudden in their onset and dreadful in their effects. Our knowledge is not sufficient, today, to predict them with "scientific certainty." For example, a polar-warming-caused shut-down of the oceanic conveyor, which might plunge Eastern North America and Western Europe into a sudden-onset ice-age.
Our lack of knowledge of the possible sudden effects of global warming is comparable to the Three-Mile Island operators' failure to know that the valve was open (although they, at least, had other information available to them, and so headed off disaster).
Mar 30 2009 - 8:57am