Ahh, climate change. Global warming. Surely, this is going to be one of my most controversial pieces, but it’s a topic I’m passionate about for several reasons. First, climate change best encapsulates my goals and hopes for this weekly column: it’s hugely important, affecting literally every human on earth, it’s one of the most misunderstood science issues, it’s in the news all the time, and it’s very interesting.
Secondly, climate change demonstrates a great point about science that I think about all the time. Science has become this amorphous term that doesn’t really mean anything at all. People, as humans do, have co-opted the term “science” – and similarly, the word “facts” has been distorted, too – to mean whatever they want it to mean whenever they’re trying to push their own narrative. Climate change shows that. Climate change has become a partisan issue when the science surrounding is it not. What this piece will demonstrate is that I believe it’s okay to have biases when you’re writing about science. The science itself that I reference will be factual, but the message from it and what we choose to do with it are where the biases are more clearly shown. Much like the vaccines piece or the GMOs piece, there is science and there is what we choose to do with the info; regarding vaccines, the conclusion is clear: they are shown to be safe, and whatever risk that exists, is not worth the risk of not getting vaccinations. I’ll present the science surrounding climate change, then discuss what needs to be done to correct the damage that’s been done.
And, for the moment you’ve all been waiting for… the science!
First, let’s identify what climate change actually is and what the term means. Both phrases, “climate change” and “global warming,” have been uttered so many times, they’ve reached the point where they don’t even sound like real phrases, a phenomenon called semantic satiation (you know like how when you say a word a bunch and then it doesn’t even sound real?).
When the phrase climate change is thrown around, it’s implied to mean “unnatural human-induced climate change” or “anthropogenic global warming.” Of course the Earth has always undergone fluctuations in its climate; this is called climate oscillation. This doesn’t change the fact that it’s possible to determine that the Earth, due to human activity, is warming in a way that doesn’t correlate with natural climate oscillations. The typical talking point of climate change deniers is to bring up climate oscillations, but that’s a disingenuous, bad-faith, and illogical way of trying to dismiss what the vast majority of scientists believe is happening.
Also, let me make this clear from the jump: climate and weather are unequivocally not the same things. One of the most annoying comments someone can make regarding discussions about climate change is “why should I trust scientists about climate change if the weather guy said there was a 30% chance of rain today but it’s sunny?!” This article from NASA does a great job explaining the difference, but essentially here is what the difference is: “weather is what conditions of the atmosphere are over a short period of time, and climate is how the atmosphere ‘behaves’ over relatively long periods of time.” Predicting exactly what is going to happen in four days based on limited data is much different than using decades or centuries worth of data and intricate models to project what is going to happen in the future.
So in this post, I’ll first describe why the Earth is warming, what the future looks like if we don’t do something, how it’s evident that climate change is already affecting our world as we know it, then I’ll discuss the rebuttals and arguments against climate change, and I’ll conclude by offering what will basically amount to a defense of the scientific process and the scientific community against what I believe to be unfair attacks.
Why the Earth is Warming
NASA has a superb hub for climate change information that discusses evidence, causes, effects, and more. I encourage you to click this link and explore their site and look at the fantastic graphics and information available.
Straight from NASA’s climate change “causes” site:
Most climate scientists agree the main cause of the current global warming trend is human expansion of the "greenhouse effect" — warming that results when the atmosphere traps heat radiating from Earth toward space.
Certain gases in the atmosphere block heat from escaping. Long-lived gases that remain semi-permanently in the atmosphere and do not respond physically or chemically to changes in temperature are described as "forcing" climate change. Gases, such as water vapor, which respond physically or chemically to changes in temperature are seen as "feedbacks."
The gases that contribute to this greenhouse effect are water vapor, nitrous oxide, carbon dioxide, methane, and chlorofluorocarbons (the infamous compounds that were in hairspray).
On Earth, human activities are changing the natural greenhouse. Over the last century the burning of fossil fuels like coal and oil has increased the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2). This happens because the coal or oil burning process combines carbon with oxygen in the air to make CO2. To a lesser extent, the clearing of land for agriculture, industry, and other human activities has increased concentrations of greenhouse gases.
Basically, what all of these block quotes are saying, is that the Earth stays warm naturally through the greenhouse effect, which means heat from the sun is absorbed by naturally occurring greenhouse gases within Earth’s atmosphere. This is fine and good, until something happens that causes the atmosphere to retain more heat than it would be expected to retain naturally. The result of our – uh, how do I put this casually – decadent and careless usage of fossil fuels has caused the atmosphere to have much, much higher concentrations of greenhouse gases. When the concentrations of greenhouse gases are higher, more heat is retained in the atmosphere, leading the Earth to be warmed more than it should be. This is how it’s possible to deduce humans are responsible for this rapid heating; we are aware that burning fossil fuels produces greenhouse gases, and we can reasonably deduce that those higher than natural concentrations of greenhouse gases are causing the Earth to retain more heat, and the fact that the Earth is heating up only serves to be the metaphorical canary in a coal mine (that’s clever because not only does it work as a good metaphor here, it has the additional layer of being a reference to coal).
This paragraph at the end of that NASA article is necessary here:
In its Fifth Assessment Report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a group of 1,300 independent scientific experts from countries all over the world under the auspices of the United Nations, concluded there's a more than 95 percent probability that human activities over the past 50 years have warmed our planet.
The industrial activities that our modern civilization depends upon have raised atmospheric carbon dioxide levels from 280 parts per million to 400 parts per million in the last 150 years. The panel also concluded there's a better than 95 percent probability that human-produced greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide have caused much of the observed increase in Earth's temperatures over the past 50 years.
I think a thought experiment is appropriate here: if there was a 95% chance that your alcohol consumption was what caused your cirrhosis, leading you to get a liver transplant, are you going to continue drinking alcohol with your new liver hoping it was really the 5% chance it wasn’t your own doing? Don’t forget that we don’t have a second Earth to go to if we destroy this one (sorry, but I’m not putting my faith in Elon Musk’s billionaire pipe dream to civilize Mars).
The Evidence for and Effects of our Negligence
A quote from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change:
Scientific evidence for warming of the climate system is unequivocal.
A list of what’s already happening on Earth as a result of our negligence:
Global temperature rise
“The planet's average surface temperature has risen about 1.62 degrees Fahrenheit (0.9 degrees Celsius) since the late 19th century, a change driven largely by increased carbon dioxide and other human-made emissions into the atmosphere. Most of the warming occurred in the past 35 years, with the five warmest years on record taking place since 2010. Not only was 2016 the warmest year on record, but eight of the 12 months that make up the year — from January through September, with the exception of June — were the warmest on record for those respective months.”
“The oceans have absorbed much of this increased heat, with the top 700 meters (about 2,300 feet) of ocean showing warming of 0.302 degrees Fahrenheit since 1969.”
Shrinking ice sheets
“The rate of Antarctica ice mass loss has tripled in the last decade.”
“Glaciers are retreating almost everywhere around the world — including in the Alps, Himalayas, Andes, Rockies, Alaska and Africa.”
This is a compelling and genuinely frightening interactive that shows just how truly world-altering this is.
Decreased snow cover
“Satellite observations reveal that the amount of spring snow cover in the Northern Hemisphere has decreased over the past five decades and that the snow is melting earlier.”
Sea level rise
“Global sea level rose about 8 inches in the last century. The rate in the last two decades, however, is nearly double that of the last century.”
Declining Arctic sea ice
“Both the extent and thickness of Arctic sea ice has declined rapidly over the last several decades.”
“The number of record high temperature events in the United States has been increasing, while the number of record low temperature events has been decreasing, since 1950. The U.S. has also witnessed increasing numbers of intense rainfall events.”
It is likely that Hurricane Harvey was worse due to climate change and that natural disasters will only continue to get worse if we don’t do something to prevent the warming climate from warming further.
“Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, the acidity of surface ocean waters has increased by about 30 percent. This increase is the result of humans emitting more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and hence more being absorbed into the oceans. The amount of carbon dioxide absorbed by the upper layer of the oceans is increasing by about 2 billion tons per year.”
Climate Change Denialism Does Not Deserve Equal Time
As Michael Shermer discussed in this Scientific American piece, “Why Climate Skeptics Are Wrong,” climate change skeptics often seek to disprove the evidence by finding anomalies in the data, but never propose any cogent, coherent, conclusive theory for why the climate is heating in a way that legitimately dismisses the present evidence.
He eloquently described it as this:
Anthropogenic global warming doubters point to the occasional anomaly in a particular data set, as if one incongruity gainsays all the other lines of evidence. But that is not how consilience science works. For AGW skeptics to overturn the consensus, they would need to find flaws with all the lines of supportive evidence and show a consistent convergence of evidence toward a different theory that explains the data.
This is where biases come into play. I don’t believe in the journalistic principle of giving equal time to “both sides” of an issue. The evidence is unequivocal and available; there is no consistent alternative. Why must we pretend there is another side to this? The science is there. The scientific process requires scientists to come up with a hypothesis, then demonstrate evidence that supports or dismisses that hypothesis. Countless scientists have shown that humans are causing the Earth to heat up. Now, I am okay with having different ideas about how to solve this global crisis, but it’s pertinent that anybody that is offering up a solution must first agree that humans are hugely responsible and that a solution must include changing the way we are living and the ways we are destroying our planet.
The evidence for climate change is overwhelming. “97 percent or more of actively publishing climate scientists agree: Climate-warming trends over the past century are extremely likely due to human activities.”
We need to solve this issue immediately. It is no longer okay for us to hem and haw about “if this is really happening or not.” The evidence is there. I encourage you to research it further and come to your own conclusions, not from me, not from politicians, but from the experts that spent literally all of their time investigating this potentially catastrophic issue.
It is of vital importance that we solve climate change for many issues, but the most pertinent one might just the terrifying reality that the world's most vulnerable communities will be the ones that are most harmed by climate change.
Let's solve this together.