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Signs of Hope—and Despair—on Climate Change

Oct. 12, 2014 by | Comments (18)
The People's Climate March, Sept. 21, 2014, in New York City was attended by nearly  half a million people

The People’s Climate March, Sept. 21, 2014, in New York City was attended by nearly half a million people. (Image by Thomas Good, courtesy Wikimedia Commons. Used under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license)

This past several weeks have been an interesting mix of highs and lows on the battle over science and climate change. On Sept. 21, there was the largest march ever in the U.S. (almost half a million people) in New York to urge the UN to act further on climate change. The march was purely symbolic, because the actions in the UN were limited, but it is certainly encouraging to see this kind of popular support in the streets for an issue which has often been perceived as too abstract and long-term for most people to be concerned about.

As a sad irony, almost the same week as the march, the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology (run by a majority of science deniers, most of whom are both climate deniers and creationists) held hearings on the EPA’s new rules on carbon emissions, where they grilled the President’s science advisor, Dr. John Holdren. As Jon Stewart hilariously lampooned on The Daily Show  that week (“a hearing that they apparently held in 1971”), the climate deniers on that “Science” committee made complete fools of themselves, and said things so astoundingly stupid that even a studio audience could see right through them. As Stewart put it on the September 22, 2014 episode, “the hearing’s Sisyphus…John Holdren” was “charged with the impossible task of pushing a million pounds of idiot up a mountain.” (Clip viewable here in Canada.)

First up was Rep. Steve Stockman of Texas, who babbled on about “global wobble”. As any student who takes a basic geology class could tell him, the “global wobble” (the Croll-Milankovitch cycles of orbital variation) only have effects on long time scales of 21,000-100,000 years, and are irrelevant to really rapid changes on decade-long time scale. Then Rep. Dana Rohrabacher of my own state rambled on about a red herring about health issues caused by excess carbon dioxide. Holdren pointed out the issue is not our breathing carbon dioxide, but how it affects global climate.

But the most bizarre exchange occurred with Rep. Larry Bucshon of Indiana, who rambled about public comments doubting climate change—and Holdren pointed out he should look at the scientific literature, not the internet or other sites. To this, Bucshon replied that he didn’t believe the scientists—or as Stewart mocked, “I do not believe the scientists, because it is their profession, not their hobby.”  Stewart then pointed out that Bucshon’s biggest campaign donors are all energy companies. (There are a number of ties between the House Science Committee and the energy industry.) But Bucshon really opened himself up to ridicule when he pointed to his glass of ice water and claimed that when the ice melted it would not overflow, and thus he couldn’t imagine how sea level would rise when the ice melted! As Stewart said, “How far back in the elementary school core curriculum do we have to go to get the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology caught up? Do we have to bring out the papier mache and baking soda so you can make a f*cking volcano?” He then brilliantly lampooned the idea with his own glass of ice water—and pointed out that the ice on the land will make the water overflow the glass (while splashing the ice into his glass and making a big wet mess).

Such staggering ignorance of science from the members of Congress who deny climate change or evolution is not new. We have seen it in virtually every statement they make (like Rep. Paul Broun’s “evolution is lies from the pits of Hell”), and in most of their previous hearings. After all, none of them are scientists. But what they should be doing is getting their information about science from reliable scientific sources, not from hired guns in the pay of the anti-science lobby. What is more alarming is that these appallingly ignorant science deniers are running the committee with the greatest oversight of science in our government! There is already a lot of interference by these same Congressmen in the way NSF funding decisions are handled, where they substitute their ignorance of science (and their chance to score political points for ridiculing research they don’t understand) for the carefully considered peer reviews of scientists who are qualified to decide the scholarly merits of proposals. Yet not one of them seems to know as much science as my fourth grader, let alone my college students. And none of their staffers, who presumably gave them these lame questions to ask, knew enough science, either!

This is not the first time that long debunked or appallingly stupid arguments have been used by the climate denier lobby to mislead the scientifically ignorant public. Just a few years ago, the Competitive Enterprise Institute ran a series of shockingly misleading ads that insult the intelligence of any educated person, concluding with the tag line “Carbon dioxide: they call it pollution, we call it life.” Anyone who knows the basic science of earth’s atmosphere can spot the deceptions in this ad. Sure, plants take in carbon dioxide that animals exhale, as they have for millions of years. But the whole point of the global warming evidence (as shown from ice cores) is that the delicate natural balance of carbon dioxide has been thrown out of whack by our production of too much of it, way in excess of what plants or the oceans can handle.

Arctic sea ice graph from NSIDC

The recent loss of Arctic sea ice. 2012 was an unusually bad year, so climate deniers point to the 2013 minimum and claim that the ice is increasing again. (Courtesy National Snow and Ice Data Center).

Phil Plait, in his blog, pointed to a few more myths about climate that have been active lately, despite the fact that they are easily debunked by anyone with a basic education in the topic. Like creationists, climate deniers use these falsehoods over and over again, no matter how many times they are corrected. For example, the plot of loss of Arctic sea ice (shown above) demonstrates that the ice is relentlessly decreasing as the ice cap melts at an unprecedented rate. But the climate deniers cherry pick the minimum from 2013 and say “it wasn’t as bad as 2012, so the ice isn’t really melting”! As the plot shows, the overall trend is clearly downward, and 2013 is part of the seasonal variation adding noise to the system. But picking 2012 as a baseline is deceptive, because 2012 was an extraordinarily bad year for Arctic sea ice, so that any year afterward (such as 2013) won’t seem as bad by comparison. This is comparable to the false statement “no warming since 1998” or “global warming pause since 1998”, which cherry-picks the unusually warm El Niño year of 1998 to make the next few years look like they are less warm, even though it has been warming (especially in the oceans and in the Arctic, which are missing from the global temperature plot) quite dramatically. In both cases, you can’t talk about short-term noise from seasonal fluctuations—you have to look at the trend averaged over many years to reach valid scientific conclusions. And in both cases, the overall trend is relentlessly in one direction, with no sign of let up or “pause.”

Or they use the deceptive claim that global warming isn’t happening because Antarctic sea ice is expanding. But Antarctic sea ice fluctuates rapidly over the seasons and years due to many complex causes, and is not a good indicator of climate change. By far, the more important information is Antarctic land ice, which makes up over 90% of the ice in the South Pole. And the land ice is shrinking dramatically (over 159 billion tons melted in a year, far outstripping any increase in sea ice), just as 95% of all the glaciers on land are doing, and the ice on Greenland is doing. Once again, this is cherry-picking one tiny exception to the overwhelming trend and claiming that if they aren’t all doing the same thing, then climate change is a myth. But real scientists know better than this. Real data are complex, and there are always a few exceptions in every data set. But if 95% of glaciers are melting (and the exceptions are all peculiar cases that have been explained), you cannot say that “global warming is not happening because they aren’t 100% melting”!

The melting of the Antarctic land ice. (Courtesy NASA).

The melting of the Antarctic land ice. (Courtesy NASA).

As Phil Plait concludes:

So what does this all mean? Ice loss is an obvious indicator of a warming planet. Both poles are melting, so there you go. And it’s a bigger problem than just rising sea levels (which is a very, very big problem): Northern sea ice has been shown to affect overall weather patterns. Those bone-chilling cold snaps the U.S. East Coast has seen recently, heat waves in Alaska, and more are quite possibly connected to a weakening boreal jet stream due to warmer waters in the Arctic. Got it? We’re destabilizing the climate system of our entire planet. We don’t know what exactly will happen as waters warm, as ice melts, as temperatures rise over years and decades. But we do know it means big changes, and we depend on the climate the way it is to support the seven billion souls on Earth, and those who will come after. Monkeying around with our own planet is insane. Lying about it is even worse. We need to take global warming seriously, and we need to take action.

Donald Prothero

Dr. Donald Prothero taught college geology and paleontology for 35 years, at Caltech, Columbia, and Occidental, Knox, Vassar, Glendale, Mt. San Antonio, and Pierce Colleges. He earned his B.A. in geology and biology (highest honors, Phi Beta Kappa, College Award) from University of California Riverside in 1976, and his M.A. (1978), M.Phil. (1979), and Ph.D. (1982) in geological sciences from Columbia University. He is the author of over 35 books. Read Donald’s full bio or his other posts on this blog.

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