In this first installment to discuss climate change I am going to cover the current myths that climate skeptics frequently use to cast doubt and ensure that society sticks with the status quo. Doubt is the primary strategy and historically has been an effective means of creating confusion and slowing progress. The Marshall Institute and others effectively created a false public perception of scientific uncertainty over the negative effects of second hand smoke, tobacco smoking, the existence of acid rain, the connection between CFC’s and ozone depletion, as well as climate change. Perhaps the most memorable was in the 1960’s when actors would be dressed up as doctors to say that cigarette smoking was safe and posed no danger. The doubt campaign was effective with tobacco for decades and has been with climate change as well. The primary current denier myths are as follows:
- It’s not happening – This is becoming an increasingly difficult argument for climate change deniers to use but many still maintain that the planet is not warming despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary. If you limit the scope of the data being reviewed it is possible to show evidence of cooling as the included animated gif shows, however if you look at the full data set, warming is definitive. Over 97% of expert climate scientists agree that climate change is happening and that humans are largely to blame. In response to this and the 2007 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), climate deniers resurrected the Oregon Petition where they collected over 31,000 “scientific” signatures urging the US government to reject global warming based on a lack of any scientific merit. It turns out that the requirement to be considered an expert on climatology was a bachelor of science degree regardless of field of expertise. Less than 1% of the individuals had a background in climatology and only .5% had a background in climate change science. The fifth IPCC report is due out this fall and will reinforce what is already scientifically certain. In addition, July 2013 was the 341st consecutive month with a global temperature above the 20th century average.
- It’s Natural – First, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has increased about 40 percent since humans started using dirty energy. Second, the carbon from dirty energy has a unique chemical signature that differentiates it from other sources of carbon so we can confirm that it’s coming from us. Third, we know it is not natural forces like the sun that are responsible for the recent increase in global temperatures because while the lower level of the atmosphere is warming, the middle layer is cooling. If the sun were responsible for most of the recent temperature change on Earth, both layers of the atmosphere would be warming. The earth does have natural variations of its axial tilt, orbit, and more which work on known cycles that take tens of thousands of years to complete. When these natural cycles come together it results in warming as well as ice ages. We are not in one of those cycles that could be responsible for the warming we are experiencing. In addition, in the past 800,000 years we have never been higher than 300ppm co2 and we are now at 400. The link between co2 and warming is undeniable and rather than showing ice core charts and all kinds of other items, let’s let Bill Nye show us a simple experiment.
- It’s not bad, more co2 is actually good – This might be my personal favorite, in part because Michelle Bachmann went on at length on the house floor about how carbon dioxide is natural and makes up only 3% of the atmosphere. Actually it is .03%, Michelle was only off by a factor of 100. Plant food is one way co2 is described. While true that plants use co2 in photosynthesis, there is certainly no merit in the argument that we should continue to add to the atmosphere and this myth warrants little rebuttal based on the known link between co2 and warming.
- It’s too hard – The argument that the problem is too big to tackle or that it would ruin our economy garners a lot of momentum. To state that the problem is complicated and will require some sacrifice is a gross understatement. At a recent shareholder meeting Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson asked “What good is it to save the planet if humanity suffers?” Here in lies the fictitious conundrum. Perhaps ensuring humanity has a habitable planet to live on should be a sufficient enough answer. Often in life the hardest things to do are the most rewarding and create the best life experiences. Whether or not moving away from fossil fuels and coal is hard or not is irrelevant, there is no other option. The financial and human costs of inactivity far outweigh any costs of taking action. There is no single technology that is going to save us, we will require a portfolio approach as we innovate. Sadly the US is lagging behind other countries in taking what is likely the single most important step in moving forward, but more to follow on that in a future entry.