Climate change is hard to talk about. Much of it is confusing, it isn’t discussed on the news, it wasn’t properly explained by politicians, its claims are terrifying and some of it is downright counterintuitive. I don’t blame anyone, therefore, for denying climate science. I don’t blame anyone for not listening to the doomsayers who want to shame you into not driving your car or turning on your lights. In fact, I would be shocked if there wasn’t a certain degree of skepticism surrounding this issue. However, while I think it is healthy to be skeptical, I also think it is healthy to try and listen to what the other side has to say: that’s where I come in! What I hope to show you all in this post is that the basic science of climate change is actually quite simple and that its findings predate our current political discourse.
To start, we need to define a few key words so that we can all try and speak the same language. One popular misconception is that climate is the same thing as weather. This is not true. Weather is what the conditions of the atmosphere are over short periods of time, while climate refers to how the atmosphere behaves over long periods of time. In other words, weather is what we see on a day-to-day basis, while climate is what we can expect to see over long periods of time. So then, what exactly is our climate system and how does it change?
To help you better understand the basic science behind this issue I want you to imagine that the planet is, by way of analogy, covered in a giant heat-retaining blanket, a blanket called the atmosphere. Our atmosphere is composed of a large number of gases, some of which are called greenhouse gases. The major greenhouse gases are methane, nitrous oxide, water vapor, and carbon dioxide (that’s the one we hear most about). Carbon is an element that’s found in every living thing while oxygen is another element, obviously found in the air we breathe. When one carbon atom and two oxygen atoms bond together they form a colorless, odorless gas called carbon dioxide. Whenever we burn fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and natural gas these elements are combined and carbon dioxide is produced. Once this gas is formed plants and oceans absorb some of it, but much of it rises into the atmosphere for many, many years. But how exactly do these gases in our atmosphere work and what is their function?
This too can be explained. Sunshine warms the earth’s surface, but without any greenhouse gases this warmth would simply escape. Think of it this way – when we open up the door on a freezing cold day heat is sucked out of our houses and when we close the door that warmth is insulated. So in exactly the same way these gases act like a giant blanket, effectively trapping the sun’s heat before it is lost. Thus, the more gas we add, the warmer it becomes! Another way to think about this is that if we didn’t have these incredible gases present in our atmosphere there wouldn’t be any life on earth at all! In fact, the world as we know it would be one giant frozen planet plagued with sub-zero temperatures. So then, how much has the world actually warmed in recent centuries? Between 1880 and 2016 the earth has warmed approximately 1.3 Celsius (or 2.4 degrees Fahrenheit). But how do we know this?
We know the earth has warmed because we can measure it with remarkable clarity. Since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution in the 18th And 19th Centuries humans have burned an enormous amount of fossil fuels, which, as I illustrated before, means that a large amount of co2 was released into the atmosphere. But how much are co2 we talking about? In this relatively short time frame humans have burned over 500-billion tons of carbon dioxide, which means that the standard measurement of co2 rose from 280ppm (parts per million in 1880) to just over 400ppm (today). In the picture at the top of this article (please scroll up and see), you can notice that co2 emissions fluctuate naturally, rising and falling over time. However, we can also see an incredibly sharp rise during the industrial revolution and into modern times. While this graph might look like a mistake, or something made to fool its readers, it is not.
** This is where that healthy dose of skepticism should come in ** If you are reading you might be thinking, how do we know these numbers aren’t simply made up? How is it possible to measure the atmospheric conditions of our planet centuries ago? We can do this a number of ways. For example, one of the best ways to measure past (and present) atmospheric co2 levels is to examine ice cores (check out the video below).
We can also measure co2 from examining tree rings and looking at satellite data that give us recordings with remarkable clarity.
** Skeptic point #2** Even if co2 emissions warm the planet, ice cores show us that the cliamte has been changing for millions of years. Doesn’t it warm (or cool) itself on it’s own?
This is a great question. If the question is: does the planet experience warming and cooling over long periods of time, then the answer is most definitely yes! The climate system does indeed experience natural variability. The earth’s climate changes due to many natural events such as volcanic eruptions, the shifting of tectonic plates, variations in solar radiation, greenhouse gases being absorbed by oceans and plant life and events like El Nino and La Nina. However, the rate of human caused climate change is 170x faster than natural forces. Indeed, this is where the 500-billion plus tons of co2 comes back into play. This enormous amount of greenhouse gas concentrations is the direct result of human activity. Anyone who tells you that this number co2 emissions had a net-zero effect on the climate system is either lying, or simply uninformed.
So far, I have kept politics out of this post and fortunately; I can continue to do so. I think that the main reason this issue is dismissed by large swaths of the population was because its messengers have been particular politicians who use this data to further their agenda, without explaining it properly to the public. It is worth asking then who recognized this phenomenon? Who came up with this all this global warming stuff? Why are we hearing about this all of the sudden?
Despite claims to the contrary, Al Gore didn’t invent the idea of global warming, nor did he invent the idea that there was such a thing as the greenhouse effect. He was a nothing more than a messenger, as these discoveries originated centuries before Al Gore ever stepped on a stage. A man by the name of Joseph Fourier, a French physicist and mathematician first suggested the greenhouse effect in scientific articles published in 1824 and again in 1827. The Irish scientist John Tyndall (1820-1893) expanded on Fourier’s work and discovered that water vapor and carbon dioxide work to retain heat in our atmosphere. In 1896 a Swedish chemist named Svante Arrhenius (who later went on to win a Nobel prize) concluded that an increase in greenhouse gases, coming from the burning of fossil fuels necessarily leads to an increase in the earth’s surface temperature. Another person who worried about the “unchecked burning of fossil fuels” was the brilliant engineer and inventor Alexander Graham Bell, the man credited with inventing the first telephone. As we can see, Al Gore, and the “leftists” didn’t invent global warming. In fact, what we know about climate change is simply the sum total of airtight scientific data and observation dating back centuries to the work of many accomplished minds. This is critically important because these men weren’t republicans or democrats. In other words, they had no agenda other than to be pioneers of science, and I think we owe it to them that they be respected as such.
Today, the consensus on global warming is remarkable. Almost 100% of scientists agree that climate change is man made (or should I more accurately say, accelerated by human activity) and is already causing harm. In fact, I have never even seen a scientific paper that doubts that climate change is man made. The only real disagreements that scientists have between one another center on issues of how fast warming will occur and what the extent of the damage will be, not whether or not climate change is anthropogenic (or man made). Most predictions we thought would happen are actually occurring now and much faster than anticipated, not the other way around.
Furthermore, it is important to note that every country and major political party across the globe (with the sole exception of the republican party in the United States) agrees that climate change is real, dangerous and deserves attention right now. Some other organizations that recognize the dangers of climate change are the American Association for the Advancement of Science, American Chemical Society, American Geophysical Union, American Medical Association, American Meteorological Society, American Physical Society, The Geological Society of America, U.S. National Academy of Sciences, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and even the United States military who has called climate change a significant national security threat.
So, what does a warming planet look like and why is it dangerous?
The fact of the matter is that a warming planet radically changes entire ecosystems and threatens all forms of life on earth. This is true simply because, whether we are aware of it or not, almost all forms of life on earth are interdependent. Therefore, even the slightest of changes in the earth’s temperature brings about enormous changes. A changing climate will, for example, disrupt food chains, migratory patterns, vegetation, trigger extreme weather events and the like. Over the past three years, for example, we have witnessed all of these happenings occur. Not only were 2014,2015 and 2016 the warmest years ever recorded, but we have seen record drought, wildfire, hurricanes, coral bleaching, species extinction, changes in vegetation, diminishing sources of fresh water, the spread of airborne disease and rising sea level, all of which can be tied back to a warming planet.
** While I realize that was a mouthful and a lot of it sounded like more doom and gloom, I think the right attitude to have towards is not to stick our heads in the sand and deny it, but accept it, try and appreciate its scale and say to ourselves, “okay, we have a problem, now how do we fix it?”
The good news is that we can avoid the worst impacts of climate change if we rapidly transition away from fossil fuels towards cleaner forms of renewable energy. A complete transition of energy would not only stabilize our climate system, but it will also deliver strong economic growth and bring about promising opportunities for the revival of American manufacturing. Moreover, a country that is less reliant on fossil fuels would see an increase in air quality and overall health (see link below).
This massive transition can only occur, however, if all Americans are on board and are actively supporting this effort. I leave you then with this message — there is no shame in accepting the science. I believe that you can still be a republican and accept these facts. You can still be an advocate for a small government, lower taxes and a strong border while at the same time acknowledging worldwide scientific consensus. You don’t have to change your identity by recognizing that these facts are not a hoax, but were established truths long before our current political parties started fighting with one another. Call me an optimist, but I truly believe that once people understand the threat of climate change and the benefits of switching towards energy efficiency and clean technology that we will do the right thing.