Myths and Misconceptions – Part 1
I recently wrote about the perils of politicizing science. It’s legitimately harmful for accepted scientific principles to be treated as hoaxes due to political, religious, or business reasons. In a world increasingly dependent on science and technology, willful ignorance of basic scientific concepts is problematic for individual citizens. For elected “leaders,” it’s downright hazardous.
So, in the spirit of pushing back against intentional ignorance, I will start the first of what will likely be many posts related to explaining and correcting bad information that far too many people believe. The first of these pernicious myths that crop up in our world is the notion that climate change is a hoax.
A majority of Americans agree with the premise that human industry and agriculture is leading to warming of the atmosphere and oceans of our planet. The science behind this is well established, and has been understood for decades now.
Scientific American, National Geographic, New Scientist, Skeptical Science, and the Royal Society have all devoted pages of information to explaining why global warming is real and a serious threat to our future. Phil Plait of Bad Astronomy fame has discussed the topic on multiple occasions.
If you’re skeptical about human-caused climate change, I highly suggest you check out the links I provided. All of them provide real information from real climate experts. They represent a wide array of beliefs, ideologies, and experiences. They aren’t all politically-motivated, but they all are motivated by facts and evidence.
But if simply providing links to climate experts is not enough, let’s actually talk about this. I’m going provide a brief primer on the evidence for anthropogenic climate change.
First of all, what evidence do we have that the planet is warming?
Simply put, we take the Earth’s temperature. Air and ocean temperature has been reliably recorded by scientists from multiple countries since late in the 19th century (good records date back to 1880), and more extensively since 1950 or so. The immediate trends of the last 150 years are easy to see. Going back farther takes a bit more digging. There are plenty of historical documents available, discussing climate and weather patterns in different parts of the world, going back several thousand years. Europeans of the Renaissance and back into the Middle Ages, Muslim scientists toward the end of the prior millennium, Viking explorers, Romans, Greeks, Egyptians, Mayans, the Chinese, and so on, have all documented their climate. Much information can be gleaned from ancient texts. Beyond human civilization, many of the trends of climate on Earth can be found in other ways. Looking at ice cores pulled from glaciers and ice sheets is a good way to read the record of ancient climate. Tree rings, erosion of rock layers, and the location of glaciers all tell part of the story. There is plenty of evidence that the Earth’s temperature, both globally and at more local levels, has fluctuated greatly over the years. It’s certain that more rapid changes in global temperature have been recorded during human civilization. The immediate effects provide proof of warming, even beyond temperature readings. Sea levels and damage to polar ice are clear signs. Webcomic XKCD provides a wonderful chart explaining the trends of temperatures on Earth for the past 22,000 years. The next step is differentiating between natural fluctuations and man-made change, which leads us to…
How do we know people are the cause?
There are a few ways we can tell. First of all, the timing of the temperature increase coincides clearly with the increase in carbon output by human industry, transportation, and agriculture. The type of carbon in the atmosphere also corresponds with human-caused emissions, compared with natural occurrences (such as volcanoes and forest fires).
We have a good idea of the human footprint on the planet’s atmosphere. We know pretty conclusively that increases in global temperature have been concurrent with the massive surge in atmospheric and oceanic carbon of the 20th century. There have been thousands of scientists, research projects, papers, and studies all driving toward the simple fact that humanity is causing the temperature of the planet to rise.
Oh yes, and we should remember that 2012 was the warmest year on record. Until 2014 was. And then 2015 took that crown. But wait, it looks like 2016 may have been the warmest year in recorded history. The ten hottest years have all occurred since 1998, with the records themselves going back to 1880, when human industry was still a tiny fraction of what it would be 70 years later, much less today.
Okay, so people are causing the Earth to warm up? What’s the worst that could happen?
Where do we start? First of all, we already have seen sea levels rising, thanks to major sheets of ice in Greenland and Antarctica melting. As the oceans continue to rise, coastal communities will be imperiled. Some are contained enough (and wealthy enough) to likely survive, albeit at tremendous cost. I could envision New York, Sydney, or Hong Kong spending the money to build sufficient barriers, levees, and retaining walls to keep the ocean at bay. Some cities, like New Orleans or Manila, might be in bigger trouble. Miami would have to become an artificial island in order to survive.
Beyond the levels of the ocean, another effect would involve increased acidity. That change to the oceanic PH balance would have devastating consequences on marine life.
Speaking of animals: the rate of extinctions – already increasing due to humanity – would increase even faster with further warming. Many animals require a fairly limited range of temperatures for survival. Warming trends would force migrations, changes in diet, and often mass death.
Meanwhile, temperature increases would lead to great instability in local weather. Droughts would grow longer, and floods would become more intense. Disease would spread more easily, as tropical weather expands further from the equator, bringing insects with it. Ground level ozone increases also help trap more particulate matter in the air. So, the improvements we’ve seen in air pollution – especially in American cities – would be short-lived.
Some crops would do better in the short run, others would do worse, as growing seasons would lengthen. But the increased risk of drought would imperil any potential improvements.
Some of the longer-term projections are trickier to work out. But it isn’t tough to extrapolate from the current effects of the warming we see now. Plus, there is enough evidence of life on a warmer Earth thanks to the fossil record, and our knowledge of extinct species and past epochs.
I have provided some good information about the likely impact of global warming on human civilization here:
Didn’t some scientists claim that the Earth was actually cooling, not warming? What happened with that?
This comes up in some right-leaning opinion pieces. “Didn’t everyone in the ’70s used to worry about global cooling? Can we trust the science now?”
Beyond the obvious fallacy in assuming that changes in scientific consensus invalidates that science… it’s also not really true. Even in the 1970s, most papers discussing climate change were more concerned with warming than cooling. This whole myth stems from one article published in Newsweek in 1975. The author of the piece, who was a good science writer, later rescinded much of what he wrote. He wrote a new piece in 2014 acknowledging his errors, and expressed support for the current accepted science. The horse continues to be beaten to death by conservative pundits today, despite stemming from one guy who later admitted he was wrong.
What about Climategate?
In November 2009, several thousand e-mails from the University of East Anglica in the UK were illegally stolen and leaked. The resulting furor was an entirely manufactured controversy, caused by multiple statements taken completely out of context, and a lack of understanding of scientific processes and debates. Almost every single “gotcha” e-mail that was released and turned into “proof” against the scientific consensus was contrived BS. RationalWiki does a good job discussing some of those individual statements here.
It’s cold today. So much for global warming.
Every winter, somebody tries this one. James Inhofe famously brought a snowball into the US Capitol Building to disprove climate change.
This one is almost too simple to bother with, except almost every denier uses this argument. So, I’ll make this refutation quick.
Climate and weather are two different things. Weather is what is happening locally. Climate is the regional and global trend of all the local weather. When we discuss global warming, we speak of the overall warming of the entire planet. However, while even just a couple degree temperature increase can have devastating effects – local weather will remain highly variable. In fact, as the overall temperature rises, local weather patterns can become more extreme – and that includes winter storms and cold snaps. Yes, Inhofe’s snowball may have been an indirect result of global warming. And a direct result of him being an idiot and a corrupt pawn of the fossil fuel industry.
Ted Cruz says there’s been a lull in the warming trend for 15 years.
So do several other people who aren’t scientists. Guess what? They’re wrong. Even back in 2013, when that claim was first making the rounds, it was demonstrably incorrect. Much of it involved a misunderstanding of global trends combined with the natural rollercoaster-like cycles of warming and cooling that occur within those larger trends. Phil Plait did a lot of good work debunking the lies perpetuated by science deniers in Congress and the media.
Then, in the last month, new research was released, which explained how some temperature data required recalibration. This shift actually showed even greater warming than before, further disproving the likes of Ted Cruz and James Inhofe.
Some other year was the “warmest on record.“
Nah. These are simply more examples of cherry-picking data in pursuit of continued obfuscation. The 1934 claim in particular involved temperatures only in the United States, not worldwide.
Okay, so if all this is true, what do we do now?
Well, let’s make sure not to vote for the American Presidential candidate who denies the facts of climate change and seeks to increase greenhouse gas emissions.
Oh, whoops. Damn. Nevermind, then.
Okay, what now? Well, at least in the long run (since current American policy is going to be backsliding soon), we need to cut our carbon emissions. By a lot. We will need to eat less meat. We will need to stop using coal for power. We will need to get rid of gasoline-burning engines. We will need much stricter emissions standards in every nation on Earth.
We have to do more than yell at elected officials (although that is important). We need to take responsibility for our own lives and our own output. One person alone won’t make a big dent in the problem. But millions? That will definitely help.
Why do people deny this? What do they have to gain?
I talked about this a couple years ago. Quite a few lawmakers receive substantial contributions from companies that directly contribute to global warming. In many cases, they’re simply scratching the back that funds them.
There are also other motivations for politicizing science. Outright science denial is often seen as a badge of ideological purity. Sadly for human progress, many political figures receive extra credit from their political base when they oppose EVERYTHING the other side opposes, even when it’s opposing facts and logic. Sometimes religious extremism also comes into play, although that usually leads to opposing sex education, genetic research, and biological evolution, more than climate change denial.
Smarter people than I have covered this topic with more depth and wit than I have here. I have included a few additional links at the bottom for more information from those smarter people.
With my effort here, I primarily just want to provide a guide to those who may be on the fence, tools for those who want to learn more, and ammunition to those who relish the debate.
Anthropogenic climate change is a fact. As much as any area of scientific study can be. It’s happening, it’s real, we know why it’s happening, and we know the basics of stopping it. Unfortunately, there are many who are still fighting on the wrong side of this issue. It will take a concerted effort from all of humanity. But for that to happen, we all need to be informed of the facts.