Thursday, May 22, 2014

Global Warming: The Three Societies

Thursday, May 22, 2014
4:19 p.m.

"Cosmos" has always been a fantastic show, but it, and its host, Neil deGrasse Tyson, seem to have gained even more popularity recently. The thing I love about Mr. Tyson is that he's not only a fantastic science educator, but he's not afraid to call out those who don't believe in the scientific method. Additionally, he clearly sees how at odds science and politics are when it comes to global warming, and he's determined to bring that to the attention of the public. Science and politics aren't synonymous; you can't disprove something determined by science with massive lobbies from oil companies. Or at least that's what we would like believe. Unfortunately, it turns out you can, and much of the American public has been conned, one way or another, into believing that global warming is all but a scam put forth by Al Gore to make him rich. It is true that scientific skepticism is good, and we should inform ourselves of what is taking place in the climatological community instead of blindly believing what our news stations tell us. There is a stark difference, however, between skepticism and denial. At this point, any skepticism with regards to global warming is generally related to the magnitude of the warming due not only to the physics behind making the atmosphere more opaque to infrared radiation but also due to the effects that this warming will have on the formation on different climatic conditions around the world. For example, it is unknown whether global warming could lead to a large increase in low-level clouds off the Pacific Coast of South America, but if it does, the result could be a significant cooling for the entire planet. Not enough to equalize the increase in heat under global warming, but definitely enough to mitigate it.

With that being said, let's get down to the meat of this post. There are three main societies with respect to global warming: the alarmists, the enlightened, and the deniers. These categories should not be treated as fixed and isolated spheres but simply as positions on a sliding continuum. Anyway, let's get started with the alarmists.

The Alarmists:

The alarmists are generally well-meaning, but they are ill-informed about the nuances of climate-change. And this is not entirely their fault. Our news stations make their money off of sensationalist stories; a story saying how Hurricane Sandy was just a precursor to the increased amount and severity of storms we'd see in the future due to global warming is going to get more readers than one saying that Hurricane Sandy was likely not related to global warming and is just another strong storm to hit the East Coast like the ones countless generations before us have experienced. Hurricane Sandy was only a category 1 storm when it landed; it just happened to make a direct hit on the biggest city in the country.

I get these emails from . I tolerate them and signed up for the newsletters because I thought they had some interesting information from time-to-time, but honestly, most of the articles there are alarmist. A perfect example is one that was recently posted by Bill McKibben of Rolling Stone magazine on Wednesday, May 21. Rolling Stone already has bad enough tastes in music (they gave Toto's best album 2 out of 5 stars!!!), and it is clear from this article that although McKibben's intentions are good, he doesn't know the science behind global warming. My favorite quote from that article is that "it's very clear that the fossil-fuel industry has five times as much carbon in its reserves as it would take to break the planet." Moreover, "on current trajectories, the industry will burn it." So, essentially, "breaking the planet" looks inevitable at this point. But how the heck would you even begin to fix such a thing? If I was Earth, my strategy would be to take my silicate remains to Venus. I honestly don't know if she could do anything, but at least I'd be graced by her beauty for some psychological consolation. Maybe I could ask her out. And if I'm really lucky, I could take her back to my place in the habitable zone.

Don't you hate it when that happens?

That's another thing. The alarmists like to paint problems but not solutions. Or, if they do paint solutions, the solutions just aren't practical. I'm a very environmentally-minded guy, but I do not support Greenpeace, and the reason I do not support them is because they do not support nuclear power. We need to work on making nuclear safer, but there is no way you can power a country with solar panels. And with river flows decreasing due to lower summer snowpack, hydroelectricity is becoming harder to come by as well.

In short, the alarmists are well meaning, but they owe it to themselves to educate themselves on the science behind global warming. I actually blame most of the alarmism circulating around on the liberal media who exaggerate stories that the scientists put out so that they can make more striking headlines. It's an unethical thing to do, and it needs to be stopped. Moreover, the alarmism contributes to the denial when these false claims of doom don't come true. Thankfully, when it comes to climate change, you don't need alarmist claims to convince others that global warming is true; you just need to look at the evidence. And that's where the enlightened come in.

The Enlightened:

There are no climate Buddhas so far, so nobody is truly enlightened when it comes to climate change. For now, this is a title we can only strive for. However, many people are very knowledgeable, learned, educated, and informed. I'm proud to say that all the college professors that I know fall into this department. Don't equate educated with a degree in this sense though... it does not take a Ph.D to be a credible source of information on climate change.

The types of people who fall into this group don't fall victim to the sensationalism of news stories; rather, they spend their time researching climate via more scientific means, such as IPCC (International Panel on Climate Change) reports or reputable sources, such as Cliff Mass' blog. Cliff's blog is one of the best sources of information for explaining climate change to the general population, and I can't recommend it highly enough. Another website I highly recommend is the EPA Climate Change Science page. Those seeking the path to enlightenment know, or, in many cases, know that they don't know, not only what is happening in the atmosphere but why it is happening.

But the main thing that sets apart this group is that even though they believe in global warming, they aren't afraid to say that some climatic changes are not due to global warming. For example, while the alarmists are freaking out about how mankind's carbon emissions are solely responsible for the melting of Greenland's glaciers, some UW atmospheric scientists did a study and found that this melting is due nearly equally to anthropogenic forcing and natural variation. It is this accurate, unbiased information that will really convince the public that global warming is happening, not doomsday stories of "breaking the planet."

From the Seattle Times

It's not just climate change too. I remember when the Seattle Times did a large article about ocean acidification off of our coast and how it was destroying shellfish in our area, and, if I remember correctly, oyster larvae in particular. Carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere is also absorbed by the ocean and turns into carbonic acid when it reacts with water. The article said that this mechanism was responsible for the recent die-offs of oysters. However, Cliff Mass responded with a blog on the subject and informed me that this was actually not the case... that the sudden acidity increase was due to a period of strong upwelling off our coast bringing deep, nutrient-rich, oxygen-poor, acidic water to the surface. Professor Mass wasn't afraid to not only call out the Seattle Times on their inaccurate information; he wasn't afraid to tell the populace the truth about why the oysters died even though the information he gave could be potential fodder for any deniers of climate change or large-scale ocean acidification. We should all strive to have an enlightened, balanced view that looks at the science behind climate change without any predispositions to alarmism. I believe that's something we can do... it's just up to those who have the knowledge to educate those who don't.

One more thing... Al Gore is not an alarmist. He is an activist and educator. An Inconvenient Truth doesn't get everything right, but it gets most things right, and he presents reasonable scientific evidence with reasonable solutions.

The Deniers:

Global warming deniers are like frictionless pendulums built for exercising the conservation of momentum. If you present them with an argument for the validity of climate change, they'll shove a response right back in your face. If you only get into a small debate over global warming, their responses will be rather tame (the momentum of the pendulum will be rather small). However, if the debate starts to explode, the pendulum's momentum will approach dangerous levels where even a glancing blow could cause serious brain or bodily trauma.

The thing is, most of their responses are readily shot down. The most common one that I've heard of is that the Earth hasn't warmed in 15 years. And guess what? For the most part, they are actually right. But just because there is a small 15-year pause in warming that has been going on for the better part of a century does NOT mean that global warming does not exist. We have had pauses before; we had one mid-century between 1945 and 1980. These pauses are undoubtedly due to natural variability, and although the specific reasons behind them are unclear, we can at least hypothesize about why they may have occurred. For example, we were in the cool phase of the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO), a sea-surface-temperature oscillation that occurs over decade-long time scales in the Pacific, beginning during the mid 40s and ending around 1980, which was the exact same period as the hiatus in warming. We were in the "warm phase" between 1980 and 2000, and since 2000 we look to have been in the cool phase again. Our data records simply aren't long enough to make any definitive conclusions, but looking at the century or so of solid, measured data that we do have, there definitely seems to be a trend. So if a global warming denier says that the climate hasn't warmed in the past 15 years, you can say that it is probably due to the PDO having entered a cooler phase at the turn of the century that has offset some of the warming due to increasing greenhouse gas emissions, and add that if there were no increase in greenhouse gases, the climate would likely have cooled over the past 15 years.

Little increase in temperature from 1945-1980 and since 2000

PDO Anomalies: note how cool phases correspond with periods of no temperature increase

Whereas deniers will sometimes make true statements, many of the ill-informed ones (especially the Republican trolls who comment on KOMO news articles) say things that are patently false. They will say that there is no empirical evidence for global warming. They will say that the greenhouse effect doesn't exist. They will even say that 99% consensus is not "science," it is just a hypothetical assumption. I could go on and on with the things I've seen. If I didn't believe climate change was such a serious problem, I'd laugh, but these types of people infuriate me. Unlike the alarmists, they generally do NOT have an open mind and change their opinion when you provide them with evidence. 

In the corporate world, it's all about money and ignorance. There is actually a "scientific organization" called the Heartland Institute that is hired by certain companies to produce scientific articles attempting to disprove global warming. The panel of scientists is exclusively anti-climate-change. They recently published a report called the NIPCC (Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change) which focuses purely on denying the existence of climate change. It stands in stark contrast from the IPCC (International Panel on Climate Change), from which it got its name. The IPCC had over 500 lead authors, all unpaid volunteers. The NIPCC had 2, and both were paid heavy sums of money. Not surprisingly, it recently flunked a credibility test.

One thing that the alarmists constantly say is that "we're completely screwed." Some in the educated category say this as well. However, I must stress this: WE, here in the United States, are not completely screwed. Things will be hard, yes, especially for places like New Orleans. If push comes to shove, we may even need to leave those cities. But we will be far better off than places like Bangladesh. With rising sea levels, more intense tropical cyclones, and increasing population density, certain places in the world honestly are screwed. That's why it drives me crazy when I see these deniers thinking only of themselves and not making any effort to reduce carbon emissions.  Global warming could have massive consequences for some, and even though we all emit gratuitous amounts of carbon dioxide, we have the power to reduce our emissions and owe it to the rest of the world to do so. 


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