Sunday, June 1, 2014

Betting Our Planet's Future on Climate Change

Just this last month, the Obama Administration fired the latest salvo in the discussion around climate change.   Its presentation summarizes that climate scientists overwhelmingly agree that not only is climate change happening at a dangerous rate but that human activities such as burning fossil fuels and depleting the rain forests are a predominant cause.  I have read through much of the report which the interested reader can access through this link. 

Since this is a complex subject, there is a fair amount to read through.  But having said this, the material is not only presented to be understandable to the layperson but is also well organized.  Unlike a book, the reader can easily roam between topics of interest by clicking on appropriate links.  If the reader only has time to read one part of the report, I would recommend going through the Frequently Asked Questions which address many of the issues that are raised by those who question the validity of the scientific assertions on climate change. 

Of course, not everybody agrees that climate change is real or if they do, feel that man has little or nothing to do with it which makes it at least for some laypeople, a controversial issue.  But for about an estimated 97% of climate research scientists, there is no controversy and that this is a settled issue.  Do we put our faith in some laypeople who may well have economic and/or political motivations for denying climate change or should we put our trust in the climate scientists who have thoroughly studied this?  This is perhaps the most crucial question of all. 

Scientists studying the warming of the earth is nothing new.  Back in the 1820s, the greenhouse effect was discovered and since then, while it may have been studied over the years, it was mostly discussed within the scientific community.  Especially in the later part of the 20th century, the concept of ‘global warming’ was bandied about but again, this was not often discussed as a mainstream issue like it is today. 

That changed when former Clinton VP Al Gore decided to make it his mission to alert our general population along with governments about the dangers of global warming.  Perhaps his signature achievement was his Oscar-winning documentary An Inconvenient Truth.  In the movie, Gore presents a compelling case supporting the existence of man-made global warming based on scientific evidence.  Today, in order to stress that it is not just about warmer temperatures but also about many other issues like stronger storms and more severe droughts, the term ‘climate change’ is more often used nowadays to convey this. 

So having Al Gore as a champion for educating us on climate change was good news and bad news.  The good news is that he was a household name and face that we all knew.  The bad news is that he is one of the people that conservatives just love to hate.  If Gore says that global warming or climate change is real, then in their minds it must be false!  No other proof needed!  Many times when discussing this issue with conservatives, instead of discussing the science, it deteriorates into personal attacks against Gore.  And although Republican John McCain has spoken out for the need to deal with climate change when he ran for president back in 2008 (along with Jon Huntsman in 2012), climate change denial is pretty much a requirement for anybody seriously seeking the Republican presidential nomination today.  It is a sad commentary on our present political climate that science is now argued as a partisan issue.
Climate forecasting is indeed a complicated science that involves tremendous amounts of measuring and computer modeling over a longer period of time which is a whole lot different than forecasting the weather which is much more changing and unpredictable.  So how does the layperson sort out technical subjects like this?  It’s simple. We have to rely on the experts in a field who have dedicated their lives to their specialties. 

For example, since I do not have a medical degree, if I want to get an expert opinion on the state of my health, I would go to my physician.  For whatever reason, I may not agree with his or her diagnosis, but I can always get a second opinion.  Or a third or even more if I wish. But if they all come to the same conclusion, I can still deny it but one can then logically argue that I am just denying reality.  What this is about is the concept of expert consensus.  This is far more than just a consensus of laypeople who may well have an interest in a subject but not the expertise of a specialist in the field. 

Yes indeed, experts can and often do disagree.  But if about 97% of climate scientists agree that we do have man-made climate change, it is most reasonable to call this an expert consensus and one can again logically argue that those who disagree are just denying reality.  

It has been argued by some that many scientists are pretending to agree on the existence of climate change based on financial gain or political ideology.  But any true scientist is only concerned with one thing – and that is getting to the truth wherever it may lead us.  If Al Gore is proven to be right on climate change, that’s OK.  But if Al Gore is proven to be wrong, that’s just as OK.  

A true scientist is always questioning.  Perhaps the greatest thing that could happen in a scientist’s life would be to prove through peer-reviewed research that what we have already ‘known’ was indeed not the case.  Put another way, if someone were to come up with solid peer-reviewed scientific proof to disprove climate change, that person would be first in line for a Nobel Prize along with the fame and fortune that would go with it. 

Indeed, the experts have been known to change their minds when confronted with new scientific evidence!  For example, when Isaac Newton gave us the basic laws of physics, they were considered to be equally applicable everywhere throughout the universe. No scientist seriously questioned this until the 20th century when Einstein through his Theory of Relativity showed that particles traveling at or near the speed of light can violate Newton's laws which until then totally explained the workings of the universe. 

Instead of questioning the motives of the climate scientists, we should question those who have far more to gain from climate change denial – the fossil fuel producers!  The only way to try and address climate change is to burn less fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and gas and to rely more on renewable sources of energy – which would result in less profits for these corporations.  Perhaps the most active financial supporters of climate change denial are the Koch Brothers, billionaire inheritors of Koch Industries, a vast conglomerate, who have tirelessly fought against regulations that would help to keep our air and water cleaner.  But it is a delicious irony that even though the PBS science show NOVA has kept a consistent position warning of the dangers of man-made climate change, one of the major underwriters of the show continues to be the David H. Koch Foundation whose mission is announced at the beginning of each show as “promoting public understanding of science.”  While this is a good thing, liberals are understandably skeptical.  Or perhaps this is a tacit admission that the campaign of climate change denial isn’t really about science after all! 

As an example of rhetoric from the right, I ran across a recent editorial Here's the reality from the Tribune-Review which serves as an alternative conservative voice to the more liberal Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.  The position of the editorial essentially says that their experts are right and that the climate scientists are pretty much completely wrong about climate change.  

Of course they are entitled to their opinion.  But was most disturbing about this was the deliberate misleading of the reader by stating that their experts, the NIPCC independently evaluates scientific evidence “without taking...corporate money”.  Indeed, they may not directly take corporate money, but they are heavily supported by The Heartland Institute, a conservative/libertarian think tank actively involved in climate change denial which has taken money from the fossil fuel industry including the aforementioned Koch Brothers.   

The first online commenter to the article summed things up well which I am including here:
Why does the Tribune Review uncritically accept the word of the NIPCC? This is an organization that was created by S. Fred Singer, who is well known not only as a denier of human causation of climate change, but also as a denier of the health risks of passive smoking. The NIPCC also has ties to the Heartland Institute, which receives major funding from ExxonMobil, Phillip Morris, The Walton Family Foundation, and even the Koch Brothers. All of this creates serious doubt about the objectivity and accuracy of anything the NIPCC reports. [The Wikipedia link on Heartland Institute funding indicates that ExxonMobil announced that they discontinued funding to Heartland in 2008.]
So which side of this issue of climate change do we take?  It is not a question to be taken lightly.  If the climate scientists are right, we are not only suffering the effects of climate change already but things will get a whole lot worse over the next century or so.  In addition to the severe weather in the way of devastating storms and droughts, rising sea levels from the melting polar ice caps may well make many coastal areas uninhabitable that are now densely populated. 

It can be argued that we may not be able to totally avoid the consequences of climate change that is now happening.  But through lesser use of fossil fuels we may well be able to make the effects less painful for our future generations.  And yes, China is still building coal-fired power plants with abandon.  But they are already suffering from horrible and sometimes debilitating air pollution that will only get worse. But there are signs that they too are starting to accept reality and starting the move away from fossil fuels.  But it will take the leadership of the US in addressing climate change to help make this happen. 

It is not an overstatement that we are betting the future of our planet on whether the forecasts of damage from climate change are true.  If you had to bet it all on one side or the other for all of the marbles, do you go with the 97% of the climate scientists or with the deniers?  That should be an easy one!