One of the more interesting environmental blogs I read is Shifting Baselines: a fisheries focused site that concentrates on how our changing expectations about life in the sea conceal from us the gradual emergence of long-term changes. A couple of other shifting baselines have caught my attention recently. They have to do with the long term trends of Arctic sea ice depletion and increasing oil scarcity. In both cases, exceptional shifts in the recent past have given way to what look like temporary reprieves.
Last summer’s Arctic sea ice minimum was a major record-breaker. It sparked serious thinking about whether the Arctic summer could be ice-free within a decade. This summer’s melt now seems likely to be less severe. Does this mean our level of worry should diminish, or is this simply oscillation around a worrying downward trend? It certainly gives ammunition to those who would like to deny that there is a trend at all. In the long run, it probably doesn’t matter enormously whether the Arctic melts in ten years or thirty. Where it may matter considerably is insofar as awareness of Arctic melting either prompts the emergence of strong climatic policies or provides fodder for those who want to continue to delay.
The same might be said about the recent slip in the price of gasoline. That being said, the nature of the causal factors at work there seems more straightforward. Prices do not seem to be falling because supply constraints have been lifted. Rather, they are falling because people are cutting back on usage: both as a result of general economic weakness and as a result of high energy prices themselves. High gasoline prices are something of a double-edged sword for environmentalists. On the one hand, they do help to encourage investments in efficiency. On the other, they encourage the development of truly filthy alternative sources of fuel (like the oil sands), encourage the development of false solutions (like corn ethanol), as well as making it more challenging politically to support sound environmental policies.
Whether it is ice or energy under consideration, the general lesson of shifting baselines is pertinent. We need to see past short term trends and our focus on how the recent past and the present compare, looking onwards to fundamental forces and long-term developments. Of course, when it comes to systems as massive and complex as the global climatic and economic systems, doing so is enormously difficult.