A Heads Up: Smoking is to Cancer as Greenhouse Gas Emissions are to Climate Risks

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On March 5, Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead signed the state’s budget into law.  The bill has a footnote that prohibits the Department of Education from spending any funds to check or revise the state’s science standards.

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The reason this footnote was added to the Wyoming budget is because it satisfied some members of the legislature and citizens who believe in objectivity and neutrality in science education! To get to the point, they are opposed to the teaching of “unproven theories,” most notably with those topics in science that deal with climate change and evolution.  Phil Plait, who writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog, provides an excellent discussion of why some in Wyoming are denying global warming, and don’t want educators to teach about it.

I won’t take on evolution here, as I’ve done that in recent posts.

But let’s look at climate change.

According to some in Wyoming (and in most any state you might want to mention), if we teach climate change, or more specifically if make a link between human activity such as greenhouse gas emissions and climate change, then we are teaching children that some of the state’s key industries are harmful to the earth.  Some Wyoming citizens add that we shouldn’t teach about global warming because it is not settled science.

Ah, settled science.

The term settled science was used by the tobacco industry when they were fighting against scientists who had shown conclusively that there was a link between the consumption of tobacco products and cancer.

Now, we see the term settled science being used in the context of discussions of global warming.  The problem is that using the phrase, “the science isn’t settled” is an oxymoron. In discussions of any scientific theory, we are missing the point if we try to claim that someday the science will be settled.  It won’t.  It will never be.

But there is evidence that can be used to support or refute a scientific theory.  We should be looking for evidence of climate change, and then ask if the evidence supports the idea that greenhouse gasses might be contributing to the rise in earth’s temperature.  We should be asking if there is evidence to support human-caused climate change.

What We Know

On March 19, the American Association for the Advancement in Science (AAAS) published a report entitled What We Know: The Reality, Risks and Response to Climate Change. The report provides evidence that climate scientists (97%) do agree that climate change is happening, here and now.  There is also evidence in the report that we at risk of pushing the climate system toward “abrupt, unpredictable, and potentially irreversible changes with highly damaging impacts.”  The report also says that the sooner we act, the lower the risk and cost.

How confident are writers of the report about the link between human activity and climate change.  In the following passage, the writers ask to think about the link between smoking and cancer.

The science linking human activities to climate change is analogous to the science linking smoking to lung and cardiovascular diseases. Physicians, cardiovascular scientists, public health experts and others all agree smoking causes cancer.  And this consensus among the health community has convinced most Americans that the health risks from smoking are real.

A similar consensus now exists among climate scientists, a consensus that maintains climate change is happening, and human activity is the cause.  The National Academy of Sciences, for example, says that “the Earth system is warming and that much of this warming is very likely due to human activities.

Extreme Earth

The report cites evidence that climate change is happening now, and explains that extreme weather is no longer an abstract concept.  How can any of us ignore the extreme weather that we have seen over the past few years.  And, indeed, it is reported that two out of three Americans said weather in the U.S. has been worse over the past several years.  And I can assure you, because I travel to England several times per year, that the British people would clearly agree with Americans on severe weather risks.

In Extreme Earth, an eBook published in 2012, the importance of understanding extreme weather is explored, and related to teaching.  As you will see ahead, there is a lot of evidence to support the connection between human activity and climate change.  But, there are those who work to obscure the evidence.  It was put this way in Extreme Earth:

In a Science Progress article, Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway suggest that the science of climate change has been distorted, and at the same time science is evoked as a defense. They describe how a handful of scientists obscured the truth, not only about climate change, but issues related to tobacco and to the government’s “star wars” strategic defense system. As they point out, the climate change deniers use the same “play book” that big tobacco firms used to try to convince the public that smoking tobacco did not cause cancer.  (Hassard, Jack (2012-07-09). Extreme Earth: The Importance of the Geosciences in Science Teaching (Kindle Locations 128-132). Kindle Edition.)

Extreme earth events are piling up.  People around the world live in areas where these extreme events are common place.  Here is a list I compiled from the AAAS report.  If you live in Wyoming, why would enable your legislators to deny these facts, and pass a bill that prevents educators from doing their professional work.

  • The CO2 level of 280 parts-per-million was stable for thousands of years, but in the last 150 years has increased to 400 ppm.
  • Sea ice has been shrinking and according to researchers, the rate of loss is accelerating.
  • Ice sheets and glaciers are melting at increasing levels and contributing to sea-level rise.
  • Oceans are acidifying due to the absorption of CO2 from smokestacks and tailpipes.
  • The earth has gotten warmer.
  • Plants and animals have moved toward the poles.
  • In some cases, species are moving up mountain sides and marine species are moving deeper and to higher latitudes.
  • Sea level rise has accelerated, and to the researchers, this is affecting storm surges by making them higher and bringing salt water into aquifers.
  • Floods, heat waves and drought patterns have changed and increased in intensity.
  • Wildfires have increased, especially in the western U.S.
  • Effects on health and well-being can be traced to changes in climate, including droughts, floods, heat, severe storms.  The CDC has studied effects of climate change on infectious diseases.  Also, since life cycles and the distribution of disease carrying insects has changed, increasing the chances for these diseases affecting human society.

The AAAS report suggests that its paper is not to explain the disconnect between the science of climate change and the public perception of climate change.  Instead they provide American citizens with information about climate change.

That said, the report will probably not seem on the top ten list of what to read over the weekend for people who support the action of the Gov. of Wyoming who signed a bill preventing educators from making decisions about the nature of science in the school curriculum. The report will probably creat more controversy. I suppose ignorance is bliss.

What do you think?  Tobacco causes cancer.  Do you think human activity contributes to climate change?

Photo: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Creative Commons Attribution.  Hot shot firefighters prepare to cut a fire line near Colorado Springs to help battle several fires in the area in June, 2012. 

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