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This blog is expressly directed to readers who do not have strong training or backgrounds in science, with the intent of helping them grasp the underpinnings of this important issue. I'm going to present an ongoing series of posts that will develop various aspects of the science of global warming, its causes and possible methods for minimizing its advance and overcoming at least partially its detrimental effects.

Each post will begin with a capsule summary. It will then proceed with captioned sections to amplify and justify the statements and conclusions of the summary. I'll present images and tables where helpful to develop a point, since "a picture is worth a thousand words".

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Denying Global Warming

Summary: Global warming due to increasing greenhouse gas accumulation is considered by many to be among the most serious challenges facing humanity in the coming decades. Crucially, global warming is driven primarily by humanity’s burning of fossil fuels that produce the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide to provide energy.  There are, however, many individuals who deny the menaces posed by global warming, or even more fundamentally, deny that global warming is an actual phenomenon operating on the earth’s climate at all.  Significantly, many of these deniers are in positions wielding considerable political or economic power.  Here we examine some rationales given for the denial of global warming and seek to refute them.

1. “If I can’t feel it, here and now, it must not be happening!”  Some may require that, in order to accept the reality of global warming, they have to experience warmer weather in their localities on a daily basis. Global warming, however, is not a weather phenomenon, but rather a climatic phenomenon.  We experience weather daily and locally where we happen to be, as our television weather experts remind us every evening.

But climate is the long-term averaging of weather as experienced on all seven continents and over the oceans on long time scales such as a year or more.  Nowadays these climate data are gathered from hundreds of continental and island land-based observation stations (see graphic below) and from the oceans using buoys

Land- and island-based observation stations.

and ships (starting about 1850) and nowadays also by satellite.  It is this long-term average in global temperatures that climatologists have shown unambiguously to be changing: the global average temperatures experienced over recent years have been inexorably increasing.  The graphic below shows the deviation in global mean temperatures from a reference temperature calculated by averaging the years 1961-1990, in deg Centigrade (the vertical scale runs from -1.08 to +1.08 in deg Fahrenheit).

The global temperatures are all below the mean reference temperature prior to about 1935, and increase above the reference dramatically after 1980 in a clearly unmistakable trend that exceeds the variations in each year shown by the “I”-shaped error bars. 

The increases to date may seem small by the layman’s reference, on the order of 1ยบ F for this global average.  Such a change at the local level, experienced by our denier, may be imperceptible given the wide fluctuations in daily or weekly weather.  On a global level, however, such seemingly modest changes will have profound effects. 

The West of the US has suffered extreme drought and a high incidence of forest fires for several summers, to extents that exceed expectations from earlier historical records.  Record high temperatures were recorded in Russia, and in Pakistan, this summer (2010), and the last 12 months (as of July 2010) have been the hottest on record.  The catastrophic flooding in Pakistan is highly likely to be correlated with increasing ocean temperatures, due to global warming, according to the U. S. Center for Naval Analysis and World Meteorological Association.  Some areas will experience greater aridity and drought.  Others will experience more precipitation because warmer ocean temperatures permit more water to evaporate into the atmosphere to subsequently precipitate as an increased amount of rainfall.

Thus, in summary, the appropriate assessment of whether or not global warming is occurring is not what a sole denier may experience on the ground in her daily life, but rather the broad regional and planet-wide climate patterns that develop over periods of one to several years. 

2. “Warnings of global warming are made by climate scientists who stand to gain personal advantage by inciting the people of the world to act.”  According to this conspiratorial hypothesis, climate scientists have serious conflicts of interest between their discussions of the public welfare and potential financial or reputational gain arising from their work.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

The practice of science is fundamentally driven by open inquiry involving the gathering and interpretation of experimental data (see Climate Science, Global Warming and The Scientific Method). Climate scientists, as most scientists practicing in what may be termed “basic” science, are preponderantly employed by universities, government agencies, and similar not-for-profit organizations.  They, and their employers, are not driven by motives of financial gain, but rather by establishing, verifying, and extending our understanding of the physical world that we inhabit.  Essentially all results made public in climate science pass under the scrutiny of peer review prior to publication.  In the peer review process, the editor of a journal to which a scientist submits a manuscript for publication sends the manuscript to two or three scientists who are expert in the field of the manuscript for critical evaluation.  Importantly, the peer reviewers remain anonymous to the authors of the manuscript.  A reviewer can accept the work as is, reject it outright, or require responses to certain criticisms he/she may develop prior to acceptance.

Peer review ensures that no biased points of view, or inaccurate scientific conclusions, enter the public domain.  In addition, in contemporary scientific practice, the publishers of most journals require authors expressly to identify any interests they have that may be construed as being in conflict.

On the other hand, political conflict against practicing climatologists arose during the administration of President George W. Bush.  This actually represents a perversion of any conspiracy theories proposed by deniers of global warming.  Several of the most prominent climate scientists employed by the U. S. government had their work, as well as their personal appearances, suppressed or sequestered, presumably because their views concerning the urgency of the impending global warming crisis conflicted with interests and/or policies that the administration wished to promote.  Thus rather than scientists profiting from their writings and speeches, it was the federal government during the Bush administration, their employer, that in reality engaged in conflicting practices for the benefit of its policy implementation.

3, “We’ve always burned fossil fuels to power our way of life.  Why can’t we continue doing so without constraint?”  Sentiments such as this are common in the U. S. and abroad nowadays.  They represent an attitude of complacency or willful persistence in continuing past behaviors, even in the face of overwhelming evidence of the reality of global warming brought about by human activities.

Yet such behavior is dangerously reckless when considering the future changes to our planet that global warming is likely to bring about.  There are several considerations militating against such complacency.  First, this lifestyle has not “always” been so.  Little more than 100 years ago technologically developed countries were just emerging from a pre-industrial way of life that had persisted for millennia.  While I’m hardly advocating a return to that state, it’s important to note that our present comforts only arose within the past 3-4 generations.  In developed countries, the ubiquity of cars, and of central heating and air conditioning, both major users of fossil fuel-driven energy, has been a reality for only the last hundred years or so.

Second, the rest of the world’s population, not to be left out, is clamoring to enjoy the benefits of advanced energy-driven lifestyles as well, and those people vastly outnumber the population of the developed countries.  This thirst to join the Western world in its comforts and conveniences leads to increased demand for energy, currently derived from fossil fuels, that is not merely additive, but is growing by multiples over very short time spans. 

Third, not only is the population base for energy demand growing, but in established economies the per capita demand for energy is growing.  One only has to observe the unending expansion of highway systems, the growth of air travel, and the increase in the number and size of homes that need to be heated and cooled, to understand how this is occurring.

This expanding demand for energy thus gives the lie to the complacency of continuing past patterns of energy use.  Past energy consumption has not been as high as it is now, and starting now will continue to grow at ever-increasing rates in the future.

4. “Global warming is quite simply a hoax.  The planet is not warming!”  These sentiments are problematic on several fronts.  First, such fervor takes on an air of unshakeable faith, such that the statement that global warming is a hoax becomes the conclusion, in support of which half-truths, misrepresentations and unsubstantiated findings are adduced, frequently after the fact.  Many who engage in this practice pretend they are following a scientific approach; in fact they are perpetrating a travesty of the scientific method. The objective practice of science requires the unbiased gathering of data, evaluation of the results gleaned from the data, and finally, statement of conclusions based on the results and supported by them. 

Second, the tenacity with which opponents of global warming hold such anti-global warming beliefs makes it very difficult to engage in discussion with them.  A belief held on faith can be quite unshakeable, and is very difficult to rebut using arguments based on the science of global warming.

Third, energy legislation in Congress intended to counteract global warming has failed to progress because of the stance taken by many congresspersons and senators that global warming is a hoax and is not happening.  The (U. S.) Virginia Republican party scoffed at Congressional Democrats supporting the cap-and-trade bill this past winter (Feb. 2010) when the capital was hit with serial record-breaking snowstorms.  Sen. James Inhofe has stated climate change is “the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people."  He has cited the severe Washington blizzards of the 2009-2010 winter as evidence.  )  Sen. Inhofe continued to deny that climate change was responsible for the subsequent severe heat wave in Washington the following summer (2010), in direct contradiction to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Climatic Data Center which cited the vast array of scientific evidence showing increasing global temperature trends.  

The adamancy of the anti-global warming position espoused by these legislators is critically significant for impeding U. S., and global, progress toward mitigating the effects of global warming caused by man-made greenhouse gases.

Conclusion:  Arguments denying that global warming due to man-made greenhouse gases do not hold up to critical analysis, and to the unambiguous conclusions of the world’s climatologists (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) convened by the World Meteorolgical Organization and the United Nations Environmental Programme.  It is imperative to embark on meaningful policies and practices to minimize the growth in global warming and to overcome its effects at the earliest practical time.

1 comment:

  1. Global warming is reality which we need to accept rather than denying it. We need to take initiatives to cope with it, anyways good post, thank you for sharing it..