Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Climate of denial

It's Winter time again. The time when it seems like the climate change deniers come out of the woodwork to stroke their own ill formed conclusions. Why is that? Why, snow of course. Not a Winter goes by these days without someone claiming that a bad snow storm is proof against global warming. The simple fact is that such a claim proves that they have no idea how climate models are made or what forecasts predict. First lets focus on the fact that weather and climate are not the same thing. it is true that climate can influence weather, but the two are on much different time scales. Weather is of the short-term variety. Will it rain this week? What will the high temperature be tomorrow? Weather is concerned with the present and short term future. Climate is a long-term construct. By averaging the weather and temperatures over long time periods, you can start to build a picture of the climate of and area, and of climate trends. For this reason, a cold Winter, or a Winter storm is not proof against a warming climate. You must factor that data into all the surrounding data and average it to find the trend. That is why a blizzard does not counter climate change. Yet the counter argument is often dismissed out of hand. If someone claims that a summer heat wave proves warming, many deniers will simply say, "It get's hot in the Summer. That's what happens", and then say that it does not prove anything. While it is true that one heat wave does not prove climate change, it can certainly paint a clear picture when factored with all the data. Interestingly enough, they will accept "Summer is hot" to explain a heat wave, but not "Winter is cold" to explain a severe cold snap. When do they do as such, they show how intellectually dishonest they are being. A heavy snow is also a favorite target. "Oh, global warming must have flown south for the Winter", is one mock I've heard. But again, this is an illustration of ignorance for what the predictions are. Global warming leads to higher temperatures. Higher temperatures leads to more water evaporation. More water evaporation supplies extra moister for storm systems. More moister in a Winter storm means more snow. So no, a heavy snow doesn't go against global warming, but is actually consistent with the predictions. Remember, climate is concerned with long-term data. a cold or warm patch here and there will have minimal impact on the overall picture of the climate. But that overall picture is one that is getting hotter. 2012 was officially the hottest year on record, and every month since February of 1985 has been above average. The Earth is warming, that much is certain.

Then there are those that are not satisfied with claiming that climate change isn't happening. These mental 'gymnasts' claim that it's a vast conspiracy that is just made up for the money. The claims go like so: Scientist's are involved in a mass scam and have invented global warming for research money and the money that's to be made in 'green' industries and alternative energy. Paranoid much? This claim is so out there it's laughable. First of all, if money was the driving factor, the scientists are on the wrong side. Big oil and conventional energy is where the money is. Renewable energy sources can only dream of having half the capital that big oil and coal do. If money and market make you wary of global warming, than you should be convinced that oil is a scam as well! Onward to the claim that scientists are making it up so they can get paid for research... Congratulations, you've proved that you have no idea how science works. Science starts with a question, and then looks for an answer. Not start with a answer and try to prop it up from there. Furthermore, if money and fame were driving factors, disproving climate change would be the thing to do, not supporting it. This is because (much like anyone who would disprove the big bang or evolution), proving climate change would lead to instant fame, the Nobel Prize, and funding for life. If you want to be swimming in the greenbacks, the 'green' industry isn't the greener side of the fence. That said, it is the future, and one we desperately need to invest in.

But then there are 'deniers' that will admit that the Earth is warming, but claim that it is the Sun's fault. Big hot orb of plasma... Surely that could be the cause right? Wrong! There was a recent survey that compared solar activity to terrestrial temperatures here on earth, which is represented in the above plot. The top chart shows the temperature trends on Earth (red = actual and green = average), while the bottom chart shows the Sun's activity. As you can plainly see, the climate trend is one of ever increasing temperatures, while the solar activity has remained predictably regular and flat.The court finds Helios not guilty on all charges! 

Another group in the 'global warming is natural' camp are those that say it's all just a cycle. They will say that the Earth has been much hotter before, and much colder before. That most areas once had palm tress growing at one point, that there was a glacier there at another point, and right now we're just in the middle of one of those climate swings. While it is true that the Earth has seen it's share of extremes, the current trend does not have any natural causes available to explain our recent warming. Climate changes look at a long time scale. But the problem with the current warming is that it's happening too fast (much faster than ever before). There is simply no natural explanation for warming of this pace. However, our output of greenhouse gasses neatly fills that gap and explains the warming we are seeing. Like it or not we do know for a fact that greenhouse gasses have a warming affect when trapped in a planets atmosphere. To see an exaggerated example of what can happen, take a look at Venus. Venus is the second planet from the Sun, yet is by far the hottest planet in out solar system (even though Mercury is much closer). The average surface temperature is a sweltering 863° F. This is because Venus' atmosphere consists of mostly carbon dioxide. The greenhouse effect on Venus is an extreme example, yet it does show us that higher greenhouse gas levels mean higher temperatures. Life on Earth would die far before we ever got to Venus levels, but we should hold it as an example of what we don't want to be, and try to transition to clean fuel sources as soon as possible.

But lets pretend that it is just a natural cycle. I've had deniers as me "What if we spend all this time and money and climate change turns out being fake or just natural?" Let's answer that in two parts. First, "What if it's fake". We know this isn't the case. But hypothetically, we would still be left with a better world. We would have advancements in technology across the board. Clean energy sources would be further perfected, allowing us to rely less on, or transition away from fossil fuels. Ignoring the fact that this would slash our production of greenhouse gasses, it would also lead to cleaner air to breath and cleaner water to breath due to the overall reduction of pollution. We would also be living more efficient lives where we waste less and make the most out of what we have. Overall, I see now downside. If there is warming, we try and make things as best we can for future generations. If there is no warming, we end up even better off. The second half of the question asks "What it climate change is natural?" My response to that is "So what!?" A hurricane is natural too, but does that mean you should just ignore it and not get out of the way? Of course not. Even if climate change is natural, does that mean we shouldn't change a thing? I emphatically say no! Supposing that the Earth were warming naturally, that doesn't change the fact that we are introducing greenhouse gasses at an amazing pace. We know that this causes a greenhouse effect. So even if the Earth were warming by natural pressures, we would be accelerating the process. So, shouldn't we still act to reduce our impact in this hypothetical case? Otherwise, we are dooming future generations that could have been saved. Remember, climate change is something that takes a long time to show real consequences. In the short term, it will manifest as melting ice caps and more severe weather. But in the long term, the rising temperatures also leads to rising sea level. We won't see that, and our kids won't either, but future generations will. We shouldn't sacrifice the futures of our future generations simply for our own convenience and laziness. Now is the time for real change. We may not be able to stop global warming in it's tracks, but we can certainly have a go at minimizing it. And I think that is a fight worth fighting.


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