The truth about climate change


An op-ed about (and hopefully debunking) the myth that global warming has plateaued.  From the Raleigh NC based News & Observer.  Thanks to KRT from the N&O for the great image above and to N&O op-ed editor Allen Torrey.

Warming is fact; denial is harmful

“The earth is cooling!”

Actually it isn’t, but we have all heard that so many times recently, we’re starting to wonder.

Globally, the last few years have indeed been cooler than 1998 and 2005. But this has no relevance for whether the planet’s climate is changing or whether people are the cause. The US civilian unemployment rate dipped this summer too, but would anybody credibly argue that was evidence that unemployment hadn’t risen during and as a result of this recession?

According to NASA, the hottest ten years since 1880 (when continuous instrument records begin) have occurred since 1996, and the planet’s temperature is still increasing. The only way to arrive at the conclusion that global warming has “plateaued” as George Will suggested last week in the N&O, is to begin your analysis in 1998; the warmest year on record.  In science, the technical term for choosing your data to make a point is “cherry picking”.

Like many climate change skeptics, Will is confusing weather with climate, which encompasses longer time periods; generally 30 years or more. The shorter-term fluctuations Will is fretting about are natural, have been happening for centuries, are well understood by climate scientists and are predicted by global climate models. It is the longer-term progressive warming that began over a century ago – and coincides with the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere – that is cause for concern.

Climate change skeptics like Will are successfully making the public think the evidence of our impact on the earth’s climate is confusing and contradictory. The details are complicated, but the basic science is actually simple. Have you ever climbed into a closed car on a sunny August afternoon?  Pretty hot wasn’t it?  That is essentially what the growing layer of gases in the atmosphere does to the earth, trapping in the heat caused by the sun warming up the land, just like it warms up the dashboard in your car.

Here in the world’s wealthiest nation the impacts of climate change on most of our lives have been relatively minor. Elsewhere, crops are failing, temperature sensitive diseases like malaria and cholera are increasing, and coastal villages are preparing to move to higher ground. In the US, arguing about whether the earth is warming is political sport. Elsewhere, the argument has moved on to which new technologies might reverse climate change, how societies can adapt to it, and who should pay for the costs.

Elsewhere, though, climate change is a bread and butter issue. When a coral reef in Papua New Guinea is wiped out by warming oceans, local fisheries collapse and fisherman can’t afford to send their kids to school. When Arctic permafrost melts, the physical underpinning of entire Alaskan villages is endangered. Nearly 1 billion people, or 1 in 7 worldwide, live at low coastal elevations and are experiencing flooding, erosion, and other direct impacts of climate change.

We haven’t experienced impacts of that scale here in North Carolina, but we eventually could. As sea level continues to rise, coastal communities here, too, will be threatened, and economies based on tourism and agriculture will suffer. Some of our fisheries could be affected too. One of the many affects of increasing the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is that the oceans are becoming more acidic. This will affect economically important marine life like shrimp, crabs and oysters by making their skeletons more brittle and energetically costly to grow.

Given the clarity and relative certainty of the science and the scale of the potential social and economic impacts, why do newspapers publish articles denying climate change is happening? Social commentators like George Will certainly have freedom of speech and a general license to express their opinions on the editorial page. But would newspaper editors publish essays denying other major threats to humanity? Imagine an editorial arguing that cancer, poverty, HIV-AIDS or genocide don’t exist and are merely the product of a well-orchestrated scientific hoax.

In some countries, you actually do see such lies in the media. To Americans, this seems crazy, which is what the rest of the world thinks when they read denials about global warming in our newspapers. To everybody else, climate change is something they are already experiencing and are trying to find solutions to, rather than just another talking point in a never-ending culture war.

October 6, 2009

John Bruno, Carol Arnosti and Mark Sorensen

John Bruno, PhD, is an Associate Professor in the Department of Marine Sciences at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Carol Arnosti, PhD, is a Professor in the Department of Marine Sciences at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Mark Sorensen, PhD, is an Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

3 thoughts on “The truth about climate change

  1. These clowns can’t even accurately predict the weather
    2 days ahead of time and they are claiming to predict 100 years
    ahead of time. There in fact has been a short term cooling
    trend. The predictions from NASA and others have been based on
    ill-fitting computer models and not science. The models don’t
    even agree in predicting the future. It is irrelevant that they
    “predict” the past. You can always do that with enough

    See for example

    by Freeman Dysan a very distinguished physicist at the Institute
    for Advanced study who really knows something about this area.
    He writes

    “Freeman Dyson: I am always happy to be in the minority.
    Concerning the climate models, I know enough of the details to be
    sure that they are unreliable. They are full of fudge factors
    that are fitted to the existing climate, so the models more or
    less agree with the observed data. But there is no reason to
    believe that the same fudge factors would give the right behavior
    in a world with different chemistry, for example in a world with
    increased CO2 in the atmosphere.”

    Of course there has been warming; there has ALWAYS been warming
    (and cooling). Where does one suppose that Greenland got its
    name. Lief Erikson grew crops. The issue is the alarmist
    prediction of the future based on questionable computer models
    and whether the human component is large or small. Claims are
    based on correlation and even non-statisticians know that
    correlation does not prove causation

    Hockey sticks, principal components, and spurious significance

  2. Cremer: This is the same Freeman Dyson who said:

    “One of the main causes of warming is the increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere resulting from our burning of fossil fuels such as oil and coal and natural gas”

    Dyson was a self-pronounced ‘heretic’, but also not an AGW skeptic (‘who really knows something about this area’). Dyson’s skepticism of models is interesting and at times valid, but you can’t pick and choose people’s viewpoints to match your own.

  3. Predictions and models are not as relevent as observations. There are simple truths that we know… For example, the Ocean is becoming more acidic, which means the level of CO2 is going up. We are trashing the land by wiping out regions that consume a lot of CO2, thereby reducing the amount that we lock away every year. I am not one who puts a lot of faith in predictions. I base my theory on observations. It is clear that things are changing and we are observing obvious changes – coral bleaching being a good example here. These types of events are good indicators that the world is changing. Models and predictions are guesses, so we don’t really know what is going to happen, but we can see what is changing now, and what it means to the human civilization today.

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