Climate Change: Are We In Trouble?

This is a reblog from the Moyers & Company website. It’s an article written by John Light that I’ve reblogged here as a follow up the May 7th post entitled Extreme Earth: Coming to an Environment Near You.

The National Climate Assessment Says We’re in Trouble. This Chart Shows Why. (via Moyers & Company)

This animated chart from the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences shows the amount of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere. Note the spike? Measuring CO2 in parts per million (ppm), the chart shows, first, how the amount of the gas…

Continue reading “Climate Change: Are We In Trouble?”

Extreme Earth: Coming to An Environment Near You

The Earth’s climate has changed rapidly over the past fifty years, but when people talk about climate change, they frame it as a future threat.

David Popeik, in Scientific American guest blog, says that “climate report nails risk communication.”  He suggests that the National Climate Assessment that was released by the White House presented a powerful report that he hopes will play a role in the U.S. acting on climate change.  He writes:

Most climate change communication has framed the issue as a future threat. Future risks don’t worry us as much as threats that are imminent or current. The basic message of the National Climate Assessment, offered repeatedly through the entire report, is that climate change is not something we need to worry about tomorrow. It’s something to worry about now. “Climate change, once considered an issue for a distant future, has moved firmly into the present,” it reads.

In this post, I was to focus on the latest report about climate change, and how the report should be used to have people take seriously climate change.  I am convinced the earth is heating up (see Figure 1).  In one sense, we might say were living in a period of “extreme earth.”  This is not to say that there haven’t been other extreme (hot or cold) periods in the paleoclimate record.  But this extreme earth period was caused by the activities of humans.

Extreme Earth raises questions about the nature of science, especially as it relates to climate change. Global warming has been in the public eye for years now, as scientific panels and independent scientific research studies have suggested that the changes in earth’s weather and climate might, to some degree, be due to human activity, especially fossil fuel extraction and the burning of fuels resulting in a 25 – 30% increase in CO2 in the Earth’s atmosphere. Unfortunately the science of climate change has become politicized , and resulted in the what some say is a “head in the sand” approach to doing something about the changes going on all around us.  (see Hassard, Jack (2012). Extreme Earth: The Importance of the Geosciences in Science Teaching  Kindle Edition.)

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Figure 1. Temperature fluctuations from various sources over the past 1000 years. From Mann, et al 2008

Many of you are familiar with the environmental phrase, Think Globally, Act Locally.  We used it with middle and high school students as an important concept in the Global Thinking Project, which was headquartered at Georgia State University.

But, there is good reason to rephrase this statement, and put it this way: Think Locally, Act Locally.  In the Global Thinking Project, which was a hands-across-the-globe environmental science program, we engaged students in local problems (acid rain, ozone, soil erosion, water quality), but connected them with peers using the GTP telecommunications network and web resources.

The project helped students realize that studying their own environment was as important (maybe even more so), than connecting with problems in other parts of the world.  Don’t get me wrong, one of the attractive features of the GTP was bringing middle and high school students from different parts of the world together to share ideas, and solve problems.

But there is something missing about the issue of tackling the problem of global warming and the induced climate changing of which we are participants.

As Dr. Popeik says, climate change is now and it is affecting each of us at the local level.  If those of us that live in the Atlanta area think about extreme earth events that occurred in the recent past, we can list a few: the flooding of rivers and streams, a drought that cost many people their livelihoods, high temperature periods that were hazardous to many people’s lives, snow events that created chaos in Atlanta, Augusta and other communities, increased number of fire threats across the state, more tornadoes than have been reported in the recent past, and increased concern about hurricanes.

But perhaps one of the most serious problems that we face in the context of climate change, are those few deniers that distort climatology to support their political and economic views.  For example, some researchers have commented 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 was not associated with cancer. (see Oreskes and Conway, 2010).

In the field of science education, professional science teachers have had to deal with a subset of deniers who inhabit or hope to get elected to state legislative houses.  The Next Generation Science Standards, the latest published set of science standards in the U.S. have come under fire for the position and specific content related to climate change and global warming.  There is also the usual protest about teaching evolution, but for this article, we’ll limit it to climate change.

Several states have moved to block the use of the NGSS in their schools.  In Kentucky, a coal-producing state, the legislature blocked the NGSS, but the governor overruled them.  But it is the case in Wyoming where the issue of teaching climate change became a hot political issue.  Apparently some legislators objected to teaching “theories” and not ideas in science that had been proven.  But if we go deeper into the issue, we find that they oppose those theories that don’t fit with their world view.  In this case, supporters of the fossil fuel industry object to teaching any science that might put them in bad light.  In Wyoming, the NGSS was blocked by a footnote added to the state budget that prohibits the spending of any money on the review or revision of student content and performance standards for science.  Even their own!

 

Will data from the National Climate Assessment change people’s views of climate change.  Maybe, maybe not.  But those that oppose climate change science will probably not be swayed by this report.  After all, it is a government report.

But perhaps if people begin to realize that the extreme weather events that have come to them are do to an increasing risk for several weather events by the warming of the earth.  Most climatologists would agree that we can “blame” a single event (such as Hurricane Sandy) on global warming, but how can we not consider the possibility that the extreme weather events that have been documented over the past twenty years might be due to human activity?

Pictures tell a story more powerful than words, in many instances.  Here are few that might bring back events that affected you.

Figure 2. Extreme earth events in the U.S. Source: Melillo, Jerry M., Terese (T.C.) Richmond, and Gary W. Yohe, Eds., 2014: Climate Change Impacts in the United States: The Third National Climate Assessment. U.S. Global Change Research Program, 841 pp. doi:10.7930/J0Z31WJ2.
Figure 2. Extreme earth events in the U.S. Source: Melillo, Jerry M., Terese (T.C.) Richmond, and Gary W. Yohe, Eds., 2014: Climate Change Impacts in the United States:
The Third National Climate Assessment. U.S. Global Change Research Program, 841 pp. doi:10.7930/J0Z31WJ2.

Do you think the events of the past few years will impact people’s views of climate change?

 

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. 

NBC’s Climate Debate: Enabling the Deniers

On NBC’s Feb. 16 edition of Meet the Press a “debate” was broadcast between Bill Nye, the Science Guy, Marsha Blackburn, a Republican Rep. from Tennessee and David Gregory, the media enabler.

Figure 1.  By using split screen imagery the media presents the illusion that climate change is a debatable issue between Bill Nye, the Science Guy, and Marsha Blackburn, the Tennessee Rep.
Figure 1. By using split screen imagery the media presents the illusion that climate change is a debatable issue between Bill Nye, the Science Guy, and Marsha Blackburn, the Tennessee Rep.

On the one hand, its unfortunate that Bill Nye agreed to go on the program and acknowledge by his presence that global warming is a debatable issue.  Marsha Blackburn, who has no credentials in science (at least Nye is an engineer and science educator), teamed up with David Gregory to voice the side of denialism.  This irrational thinking is part of the tactic of “persistent distortion” of climate change.

The media supports this distortion by using their “split-screen” imaging to pretend that there are two equal and competing views on what ever issue they put up for debate.

The research on the “media wars” is quite compelling, and sheds light on why we continue to witness debates such as the Nye-Blackburn debate on climate change, and Nye-Ham debate on origins.

A few years ago, I reviewed Stephen Schneider’s research on climate change politics and climate change science as it is portrayed in the media.  His book, Science as a Contact Sport: Inside the Battle to Save the Earth’s Climate (public library), documents the history of how climate change has been distorted, and how to understand the media’s approach to enabling science denial.

Figure 2.  In the beginning there was the famous Keeling Curve showing the increase of CO2 in the Atmosphere.  Source: Science as a Contact Sport
Figure 2. In the beginning there was the famous Keeling Curve showing the increase of CO2 in the Atmosphere. Source: Science as a Contact Sport

Dr. Schneider was professor of biology at Stanford University, and internationally recognized for research, policy analysis and outreach in climate change.  In particular he focused on integrated assessment of the ecological and economic impacts of human-induced climate change.  He was senior participant in the Nobel Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2007.

As Dr. Schneider points out in his book, we have been warned that human technology could disturb the functioning of nature.  He reviews for us the Swedish chemist Arrhenius in 1896 who theorized that CO2 and H2O trapped the sun’s heat in the atmosphere, connecting CO2 the burning of fossil fuels.

And of course he cites Rachel Carson’s seminal book, Silent Spring, published in 1962, which showed the interconnectedness of nature and how human technology was ravaging nature.  As he points out, the Rachel Carson story is one example of how it is possible to take action to prevent the further threat caused by insecticide technologies.  But the most compelling work that Schneider points to is the atmospheric measurement of CO2 levels at Mauna Loa by David Keeling (Figure 2).  The resulting graph became known as the “Keeling curve” showing the steady increase of CO2 in the atmosphere, from 315 parts per million (ppm) in 1958 to 392 ppm in 2011.  There are many other scientists who delved into climate change during this time, including James Hansen, S. Ichtiaque Rasool, and Schneider.  You can read one of the best histories of the environmental movement to not only bring awareness to the climate change associated with increased CO2 levels in Schneider’s book.

Figure 2. Global annual mean temperatures since 1900.
Figure 3. Global annual mean temperatures since 1900.

Given this early work, and the research done by independent researchers around the world, and the most  research compiled by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, why do we continue to debate the question, Is Global Warming Real?  Or is the Earth warming up, and is this warming attributable to human engineering and technology?

Well, its obvious that the media thinks that the “debate on global warming goes on.” And in these debates, not only does the media enable the continued denial of the evidence for global warming, but the method used is called “balance journalism.”  The tactic that was identified by Schneider is the tactic of persistent distortion.  He puts it this way:

One of the key reasons for distortion in the media reports on climate change is the perceived need for “balance” in journalism.  In reporting political, legal, or other advocacy-dominated stories, it is appropriate for journalists to report both sides of an issue.  Got the Democratic view?  Better get the Republican.

In science, the situation is radically different.  There are rarely just two polar-opposite sides, but rather a spectrum of potential outcomes, which are often accompanied by a history of scientific assessment of the relative credibility of each possibility.

In the NBC debate, there is not another side of global warming.  There is only denial.  But in the debates that do occur, the denier uses the scientific notion of skepticism, that people in the field of science generally welcome.   But in our view, such as, in the Nye – Blackburn debate, there was only one skeptic.  The other was a denier.

Schneider helps us distinguish between skeptics and deniers.

When I give a public talk on aspects of climate change, I always take the time to explain the difference between climate deniers and skeptics.  All good scientists are skeptics—we should challenge everything.  I was a big-time climate skeptic, changing from cooling to warming and nuclear winter to nuclear fall when that is where the preponderance of available evidence led.  As more solid evidence of anthropogenic global warming accumulates, the numbers of such legitimate climate skeptics are declining.  Climate deniers, however, are not true skeptics, but simply ignore the preponderance of evidence presented.  Skeptics should question everything but not deny where the preponderance of evidence leads.  The latter is, at best, bad science, or, at worst, dishonesty.

Crap Detection

We need to heed Neil Postman’s classic essay “Bullshit and the Art of Crap Detection“which was presented at the National Convention of the Teachers of English in 1969.

Here is how Postman explained the title of his speech:

With a title like this, I think I ought to dispense with the rhetorical amenities and come straight to the point. For those of you who do not know, it may be worth saying that the phrase, “crap-detecting,” originated with Ernest Hemingway who when asked if there were one quality needed, above all others, to be a good writer, replied, “Yes, a built-in, shock-proof, crap detector.”

Is climate change real? Is the greenhouse effect based on fundamental science? To what extent are “debates” on TV news outlets using split screen technology peer review or rhetoric? Do large companies abuse the concept of peer review by using rhetoric to cast doubt on scientific findings?  We need to practice the Art of Crap Detection in these situations.

These are questions that should underscore student’s pursuit of an understanding of climate change, and the skepticism that has inverted the public’s view of global warming, the greenhouse effect, and the burning of carbon. For many years, large corporations, starting with the tobacco industry, have led the public and politicians down a path that leads to denial (of the science) that has been established by scientists through the publication and peer review process. Casting “doubt” on the “science,” has been a tactic used to put a wedge between real scientific information and the rhetoric of the deniers.

There is almost no accountability for the “skeptics.” They don’t publish in peer-reviewed journals, and they spend most of their time on media outlets giving their point of view, but with almost little data based on scientific evidence.

We need to call these deniers out, and tell them that we understand their tactic of persistent distortion.  You are not going to change their minds.  But at least you can call it when you see it.

What is your view?  Do you think the media enables the deniers of climate change and global warming?

Is the Monster Storm, Sandy, Connected to Global Warming?

The Superstorm that is slowly moving toward the Middle Atlantic and Northeast states appears to be an anomaly by most weather standards.  Or is it?  Could this superstorm be related to Global Warming?  More specifically, could it be related to the the melting of the the arctic sea ice?

Climate change, according to some, has conveniently been left out of the 2012 Presidential election.  ScienceDebate dot org, and the AAAS tried to get the candidates to discuss climate change along with other top American science questions including how innovation impacts the economy, energy, basic research, education, water resources.

And here is a very odd coincidence.  On November 1, at The Mott House, Capitol Hill, Science Debate dot org and ClimateDesk will sponsor a debate between Obama campaign surrogate Kevin Knobloch and former Republican congressman and Delaware governor Mike Castle.  The debate that ScienceDebate and AAAS wanted to have will come on the aftermath of what is turning out to be a Monster Storm that is affecting not only 60 million people in the Mid-Altantic and North East States, but the 2012 Presidential election.

The event is called:

The Debate We Should Have Had: Science, Climate and the Next Four Years

The latest position of Sandy, the Monster Storm is shown in the map below and as you see is off the coast of New Jersey, and is moving NNW at 18 mph, with sustained winds of 90 mph.  We will experience gusts of 115 mph.  Sandy is classified as a category 1 hurricane, but is one of the largest Atlantic hurricanes on record.

According to the NOAA and NWS, Hurricane Sandy will evolve into a Post Tropical Cyclone, and will be known as “Post-tropical Cyclone Sandy.”  In this scenario, Sandy as a hurricane derives its energy from the ocean, whereas cyclones, which Sandy will become, derives its energy from temperature contrasts in the atmosphere.  As hurricane Sandy turns slightly left and heads inland, it will meet up with cold polar air, and this convergence will result in a catastrophic storm with high winds, ocean surge and inland water flooding, lots of rain, and enormous amounts of snow further to the west in the Appalachian Mountains.

Hurricane Sandy at 1:55 P.M. from CNN website

 

 

Climate Change Connections

Climate change, especially with respect to global warming, raises the shackles of many right-learning politicians.  Climate change, global warming, the Big Bang, birth control, theories of the origins of the universe are linked together with evolution as ideas that are frightful, and therefore, must be considered very carefully in the classroom.

Climate change is one of those ideas that gets the gander up with a lot of people, and as a result, legislatures around the country have passed laws to “protect” those teachers that might discuss such ideas critically.  So, the latest ploy of suggesting that some scientific theories need to be analyzed and discussed critically is simply another way for creationists, and intelligent design advocates to enter the realm of science education. The National Center for Science Education keeps a watchful eye on these kinds of events, and has made recent posts regarding the goings on in Florida and Missouri.

The storm that his bringing havoc to a huge swath of the U.S. mainland does have a climate change connection

Andrew Revkin, over on Dot Earth, explored the connection of Frankenstorm in the context of climate change in a recent post.  Revkin asks “what is the role, if any, of greenhouse-drive global warming in this kind of rare system?”  Rare system indeed.  Revkin reports that some climate scientists say that this the kind of storm that one would expect following a summer in which the Arctic was “open-water.”

As Revkin notes, it is not a simple implication to say that these monster storms are the direct result of the global warming.  Warmer ocean temperatures in the tropics seem to be related to more active hurricane seasons.  And here is this powerful statement from a paper Revkin wrote ten years ago about the Northeast and its stormy history:

Four times since the last ice age, at intervals roughly 3,000 years apart, the Northeast has been struck by cycles of storms far more powerful than any in recent times, according to a new study. The region appears to have entered a fifth era in which such superstorms are more likely, the researchers say.

So, is the hurricane Sandy one of these superstorms that Revkin speaks about.  Probably.

But another interesting aspect that Revkin brought into his blog post was research by Jennifer Francis of Rutgers, who said:

The jet stream pattern — particularly the strongly negative NAO [North Atlantic Oscillation] and associated blocking — that has been in place for the last 2 weeks and is projected to be with us into next week is exactly the sort of highly amplified (i.e., wavy) pattern that I’d expect to see more of in response to ice loss and enhanced Arctic warming….It could very well be that general warming along with high sea-surface temperatures have lengthened the tropical storm season, making it more likely that a Sandy could form, travel so far north, and have an opportunity to interact with a deep jet-stream trough associated with the strong block, which is steering it westward into the mid-Atlantic. While it’s impossible to say how this scenario might have unfolded if sea-ice had been as extensive as it was in the 1980s, the situation at hand is completely consistent with what I’d expect to see happen more often as a result of unabated warming and especially the amplification of that warming in the Arctic.

You might also want to read Chris Mooney’s article over on ClimateDesk entitled, Did Climate Change Supersize Hurricane Sandy?  He explores how the following variables might be affected by climate change: precipitation, storm surge, ocean temperatures, massive size, & hybrid storm.

This is a devastating storm, and we hope that people take heed, and do all that is necessary to protect themselves from this Atlantic hurricane, turned super cyclone.

Are you in the path of superstore, Sandy?  What precautions have you taken?  What are the conditions right now?