Time to get serious about climate change

In a recent CDT letter, the author chastises those of us who aren’t climate scientists for believing those who really are.

The letter’s author denies the existence of a portion of established science, in this case climate science. Yet I’m willing to bet he has a cellphone, uses a computer, watches TV, drives a car, maybe takes medicine, eats food and wears clothes. Further, he probably knows why the sun rises in the east and why that piece of toast he dropped landed on the floor.

The truth is that everything in his, and our, lives has been discovered, created, explained or enhanced by some branch of science, including the food we eat and the clothes we wear. You can’t choose which parts of the multiplication table you want to believe based on your political philosophy, and you can’t choose which parts of established science you want to accept.

Science builds on itself; it doesn’t go backward. Scientists make discoveries, present and test theories, make errors and then correct them. A blind system of peer-reviewing papers and findings before publication ensures maintenance of high scientific standards. Thus science constantly gets better and stronger.

The original discoveries underpinning global warming science were made in the 1800s by John Tyndall, of England, and Svante Arrhenius, of Sweden. Working independently, and many years apart, Tyndall and Arrhenius discovered and confirmed that if we pump more carbon dioxide (CO2) and certain other “greenhouse gasses” into the atmosphere, it will heat up. Well, we have, and it has. A sure Nobel Prize awaits anyone who can prove Tyndall and Arrhenius wrong. Please don’t hold your breath.

Ever since these original discoveries, year by year, observation by observation, scientific paper by scientific paper, the science behind global warming has become increasingly robust. There are thousands and thousands of lines of evidence by now. There is no scientific debate.

Scientists can measure the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere over time. In 1800, at the beginning of the industrial revolution, CO2 in the air measured about 280 parts per million. Then we got serious about burning coal, oil and gas to generate steam power, electricity, and build our modern economy and lifestyle, all driven by carbon fuel energy. As a result, CO2 in the atmosphere now measures just more than 400 parts per million. And, just as predicted well more than 100 years ago, temperatures have increased. Even worse, the pace of warming is now accelerating; 14 of the 16 warmest years ever experienced by humans have occurred just since 2000.

Science tells us that increases of these greenhouse gasses will produce the global warming that leads to all the things we lump together as climate change: melting polar icecaps and glaciers, droughts here, floods there, rising sea levels, stronger storms, changing patterns for agriculture, flora and fauna. All these are happening as predicted. You would be very rich if your investment decisions were this accurate.

So what to make of someone who takes the time to write a letter to the local newspaper saying global temperatures haven’t increased when the scientific record clearly says they have? And what to make of someone who says carbon pollution from burning fossil fuels is not the cause of this?

We should certainly dismiss such notions as scientific illiteracy. But here’s the problem: Even though almost all of the rest of us, scientists or not, understand and are deeply concerned about the future of our climate-changed world, the vocal and over-wrought opinions of those without a scientific leg to stand on give our feckless politicians cover to do nothing. Nothing is unacceptable because the issue is no longer scientific certainty. The critical issue facing us now is finding the political will and leadership necessary to address the most serious threat humans have ever faced.

We are lucky here in the shadow of Penn State as we have access to the best climate scientists in the world. They are our neighbors, yet work at the highest scientific levels, recognized internationally. Almost every week they, and visiting experts, invite the public to presentations where they are open to questions, happy to discuss any aspect of climate science. Those willing to find the facts can easily do so.

Which brings us to the books in Schlow Centre Region Library. It is not Schlow’s job to vet every book in its collection for accuracy. Every library contains books some of us would find offensive or otherwise objectionable, even books advocating positions we might think ridiculous. Our CDT letter writer surely knows this, yet points to one book dismissed by real climate scientists as somehow indicating that global warming isn’t real.

In contrast, those seeking real information about climate change and the risks we face should read “The Two Mile Time Machine” by Richard Alley and ”Dire Predictions” by Michael Mann and Lee Kump. All three are Penn State climate scientists with a combined total of more than 500 published peer-reviewed scientific articles. Alley and Mann served on the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which was awarded the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize.

Carl Sagan said, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” Today, denying the causes and existence of global warming is indeed an extraordinary claim. Thus, those denying global warming and climate change must present extraordinary evidence. A book in the town library hardly qualifies as extraordinary evidence.

“Facts are stubborn things,” said John Adams. The facts behind climate change are rock-solid stubborn, readily available and downright frightening. All must understand these facts and pay attention locally, regionally, nationally and, especially, politically. We really don’t have a moment to lose if we care about all living things today, tomorrow, and all the tomorrows that follow.

Bob Potter lives in Boalsburg.