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. 

Why is Congress Silent on Science Debates’ High-Stakes Science-related Questions?

According to Shawn Otto, U.S. Senators and U.S. Representatives have ignored a request from Science Debate to answer eight science policy questions.  The questions were selected from hundreds submitted by scientists, engineers, educators, and concerned citizens.  Science Debate would like to know what elected officials in Washington think about science related policy issues facing the U.S. in 2012.  The eight Congressional questions, which were selected from 14 questions submitted to the campaigns of President Obama, and Governor Romney,  focus on topics such as innovation, climate change, education, energy and science in public policy.   Figure 1 is a “wordle” of the eight Science Debate questions.

Figure 1. Terms and Ideas in the Science Debate Congressional Questions

There are 535 members of Congress.  According to Shawn Otto, only two (or 0.37%) Congressional members have responded — Reps Henry Waxman and Chris Van Hollen.  Where is the other 99%?

Unlike students in K-12 schools and college, Congressional members have large staffs of paid full-time and part-time staffers.  Senators have on average 34 staffers, while members of the House have 18 or more.  No doubt neither Representative Waxman or Van Hollen will sit down and write the answers to the Science Debate questions.  Their respective staff will handle the job.  But what about the other 99%.

Why are they remaining silent?

Is Silence Golden?

It may be that most members of Congress believe  that “silence is golden.”  This really is a paradox, especially if you watch politicians compete for an office in either the U.S. House or  Senate.  Be that as it may, the Congress is stonewalling Science Debates’ attempt to engage them in a discussion of science related issues that face U.S. citizens.

Interestingly, many of the members of Congress contacted have strong opinions on many science issues.  For example, one of the questions submitted to Congressional members was this one on climate change:

The Earth’s climate is changing and there is concern about the potentially adverse effects of these changes on life on the planet. What is your position on cap-and-trade, carbon taxes, and other policies proposed to address global climate change—and what steps can we take to improve our ability to tackle challenges like climate change that cross national boundaries?

According to Think Progress and the Daily Kos, in nearly every state, there are members of Congress who question and challenge the scientific consensus of global warming. Many in Congress consider the scientific evidence is a hoax, scam or conspiracy.  They claim human’s  have had little influence on the climate, or at least they think the influence is unclear.  They deny that greenhouse gasses have any impact on global temperatures.  You would think that with such strong opinions, Congressional members would speak up on climate change.

Think Progress has documented that over half (56 percent) of the new Republican members of Congress deny or question the science of global warming.  Go over to this site to read the documentation.  Of the 47 Republicans in the Senate, 35 (74 percent) have publicly questioned the science related to global warming.  And more than half of the House of Representatives question the science.

Putting their views in writing to Science Debate might expose their political views,and it will show their lack of understanding and ignorance of basic scientific research.

For example, here are statements some representatives and senators have made.   Would they include statements like the following as part of their answers to the climate change question?

  • Climate change is nothing but a “hoax” that has been perpetrated out of the scientific community (Rep. Paul Broun, R-GA)
  • Climategate reveals a serious lack of integrity in the underlying data and models, such that it is doubtful that any process can be trusted until the data and models are validated and their integrity assured (Rep. Phil Gingrey,R-GA)
  • The EPA’s unilateral decision to regulate carbon dioxide would impose a de facto national energy tax on every sector of the economy and push our struggling job-creators off a cliff. This decision goes against all common sense, especially considering the many recent revelations of errors and obfuscation in the allegedly ‘settled science’ of global warming.(Rep. Tom Price, R-GA)
  •  I called the threat of catastrophic global warming the “greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people,” a statement that, to put it mildly, was not viewed kindly by environmental extremists and their elitist organizations.(Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-OK)
  • Bill Shuster (R-PA) offered a new reason not to take action on global warming: it’s cold in Copenhagen, where the UN Climate Change Conference is taking place.
Figure 2. Terms and Ideas about Global Warming from a Sample of Congressional Members

I would have included statements by Democratic senators or representatives, but I could find no documentation that they agree with their Republican counterparts. Please follow this link to read documentation showing what congressional members think about science.

A related issue here is if these members of Congress think this way about climate change and global warming, what are their views on the teaching of science in American schools?  Do they think that teachers who design activities and projects engaging their students in data collection, and theory building about global climate change are perpetuating a hoax with America’s students?  Or do they join with many state legislators who think ideas such as global warming, evolution, origins of life, and human cloning should be critically analyzed because they are mere theories, and all points of view should be considered by science teachers.  With the support of the Discovery Institute, various states have figured out a way to get creationism and intelligent design into the curriculum through stealth.

The academic freedom bills that have been passed in Louisiana (2008), and Tennessee (2012) disguise their intent of teaching creationism and intelligent design using clever and slick language that they are coming to the rescue of science teachers by passing a law that protects teachers’ academic freedom to present lessons questioning and critiquing scientific theories being studied including but not limited to evolution, the origins of life, global warming, and human cloning. Kind of a poor “Trojan horse” scenario, don’t you think? Where is the theory of gravity, plate tectonics, and atomic theory on their to do list?

High-Stakes Questions?

Members of Congress  passed the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001, a law that required each state in the country to develop tests in mathematics and reading, but over time, the policy makers decided that science and history should also be tested.  On the one hand, we have elected officials telling schools that all students should be subjected to high-stakes questions and tests, but on the other hand when asked to answer a few questions about science, they remain silent.

Why don’t Congressional members respond to the Science Debate questions?  To most members running for office, science is a non-issue.  It may be that expressing an opinion that shows an understanding of the nature of science might not be good politics.

What do you think?  Why aren’t members of Congress responding to the Science Debate questionnaire?