Climate Change

“Climate change is a defining issue for our time.” – Geological Society of London

Global warming is real and to deny it is to overlook a serious problem. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reported that, “Scientific evidence for warming of the climate system is unequivocal.” The problem arises in confusing the authentic and well supported evidence from the misinformation and hyperbole surrounding such an important topic.

First, do not confuse global warming with human-caused global warming, as these are related but not identical. It is very likely that humans are responsible for part of the increase in temperature, but the science is a little more nuanced. The IPCC stated in 2007:

“The observed widespread warming of the atmosphere and ocean, together with ice mass loss, support the conclusion that it is extremely unlikely that global climate change of the past fifty years can be explained without external forcing, and very likely that it is not due to known natural causes alone.”

In scientific terms, this means there is a 5% chance the changes are natural and a 90% chance that humans are responsible for some of it. This uncertainty essentially stems from the inability to accurately predict the role of cloud cover. Regardless, the probabilities are compelling and the need for meaningful action is more than prudent.

Evidence

The evidence for climate change is clear and compelling. You should investigate it for yourself at:

climate.nasa.gov/evidence/climatecrisis.net/the_evidence.phpskepticalscience.com/argument.phpghgonline.org/evidence.htm

by Mila ZinkovaThere are several key observations that I would highlight:

  1. Sea level has risen nearly 7 inches in the past century
  2. Global temperature has risen since record keeping began in 1880
  3. The top 700 meters of ocean has warmed 0.302 degrees Fahrenheit since 1969
  4. The Greenland ice sheet is shrinking at more than 150 cubic kilometers/year
  5. The extent and thickness of Arctic sea ice has declined rapidly over the last several decades
  6. Glaciers are retreating — including in the Alps, Himalayas, Andes, Rockies, Alaska and Africa
  7. Record high temperatures have been increasing and record lows decreasing since 1950
  8. The carbon dioxide content of the Earth’s oceans is increasing about 2 billion tons per year

Distortion & Misunderstanding

Here are a few pieces of misunderstood evidence or misinformation that should be clarified.

(1.) The 2006 study that showed Antarctic ice melting at an alarming rate actually contradicted a 2001 IPCC report that global warming would increase the ice shelf size. This is because global warming causes evaporation of sea water leading to more water vapor becoming snow over Antarctica. Since the continent is mostly still well below freezing it should add to the ice. The contradiction does not mean global warming is wrong, it just proves local weather can deviate from the model. The Antarctic ice melting, unlike Greenland, does not support climate change predictions.

(2.) The claim that the number of hurricanes and the cost of hurricane damage has increased are not substantiated. The first mistake is attributed to improvements in detection and measurement, while the same or fewer category 4 & 5 hurricanes actually reach land. The second mistake is attributed to not accounting for inflation and the increased number of people living near the coast. Further, much of recent hurricane activity can be attributed to local weather effects. This does not mean, however, that there have not been more extreme high and low temperatures.

(3.) What about polar bears? In 2002, the US Geological Survey in the Arctic Refuge Coastal plain reported the polar bear population was near historic highs. A British judge reviewed the evidence concluding, “The only scientific study that either side brought before me can find is one which indicates that four polar bears have recently been found drowned because of a storm.” The fact remains that the Arctic habitat is changing for polar bears as the ice melts, but this is a distinct case of appealing to emotion not fact.

(4.) The number of strong to violent tornadoes in the US has not been increasing as claimed. Since 1950, the number of has actually been slowly declining. This is another case of using the total number of detected storms, which can be attributed to improved detection.

(5.) A similar case exists for the number of wildfires, which has been decreasing not increasing. However, the number of acres burned is increasing which could be as a result of policies to allow wildfires to burn themselves out.

(6.) The carbon dioxide history chart is another great source of confusion. The chart was famously used in An Inconvenient Truth to demonstrate the relationship between CO2 levels and temperatures. The problem is that the temperature changes were not driven by carbon dioxide, but by other natural factors like the orbit and axis of the earth. The levels of CO2 actually lags the temperature changes by around 800 years because as the climate warms gas escapes from the less soluble warm seawater. This does not mean CO2 can cause a greenhouse effect, it only means the chart should not be misinterpreted to prove causation.

This graph, based on the comparison of atmospheric samples contained in ice cores and more recent direct measurements, provides evidence for atmospheric CO2 rise. (Source: NOAA)

Now, all this is somewhat excusable, or at least understandable, from politicians intent on swaying public opinion. Yet, when people feel misled or taken advantage of, they can overreact and disregard the valid evidence and trends. Do not fall victim to this trap. Climate change is very real and relevant to our lives.

Solutions

The natural question is then, “what should we do about it?” Richard A. Muller in Physics for Future Presidents suggests several options for meaningful action including:

  • strong programs in energy efficiency and conservation
  • raising the Corporate Average Fuel Economy requirements
  • support efforts for clean coal
  • encourage the development of nuclear power
  • see that China and India receive carbon credits for clean coal and nuclear plants
  • encourage technical developments in solar and wind technologies
  • cancel subsidies on corn ethanol and put biofuel emphasis on more efficient crops
  • encourage developments in efficiency lighting
  • focus on insulation and “cool roofs” to stave off energy costs
  • focus on technologies the developing world can afford

A key observation is that market forces can and will help solve the CO2 emission problem. For example, labeling refrigerators with annual operating costs led to dramatic consumer and company preferences for energy efficiency. The same forces can be enacted with smart carbon credits, fuel economy standards, and other policies that allow efficiency to become a viable economic policy.

The higher concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere cannot be suddenly reversed. The best we can do it limit worsening the problem like we did with CFCs. Alternative energy sources and smart economics will rely, however, upon an informed public that is well-informed about the problem and available solutions. To find more information about US policy and solutions check out:

epa.gov/climatechange/policy/whitehouse.gov/issues/energy-and-environment | unfccc.int/2860.phpworldbank.org/climatechange/

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