Some months ago, I “liked” a Facebook meme that joked about how changes in temperature were called “weather”, as opposed to climate change. My sister who lives in Texas sent me a video clip about how “climate change is real”. Over the course of the next few weeks, we discussed the subject further in some emails, and I began researching the matter a little more deeply.
Climate change is a large topic in today’s political debates and is passionately argued by all sides
of the issue. I’ve been in many debates on gun control, voting rights, Obamacare, and others. The worst personal attacks I have ever endured came after I posted a picture on Facebook and Twitter of a weather website showing a temperature of -15.5 degrees and making a joke about global warming. I was shocked at the level of hate I received simply because I made a joke about the weather.
After my sister challenged me on the topic, I decided to research it further. While there is always more to study and learn, I have decided to explore this topic in a series of three blog posts. This first one will deal with whether or not climate change is a real phenomenon and look at the alternative theories put forth about it. The second one will look at the most controversial aspect of the debate: is it a naturally occurring phenomenon or is it caused by humans and our modern industrial society? The third post will address the impacts of climate change activism on energy policy and some of the political aspects of the debate.
One of the extremely frustrating things about this issue and the debate surrounding it is the difficulty in finding objective, unbiased, sound scientific peer-reviewed data. It is easy to find “studies”, articles, blogs, images, graphs and memes to support just about any point of view. Since I am not a climate scientist or meteorologist by training, I have to rely on others who are. But whom to trust?
Because this issue is so politicized, I automatically distrust anything published by a partisan source. Even sources I normally trust like Wikipedia are clearly biased and therefore untrustworthy. I try to find studies and data that are published and peer reviewed by universities and actual scientists. I trust the word of a trained climatologist over the word of an engineer who makes his living as an entertainer such as Bill Nye. And even then, trained scientists are divided on the issue. Because skepticism is the essence of the scientific method, for this reason alone I don’t view the science as “settled” or that anthropogenic (human caused) climate change is a “fact”, as President Obama testily announced during his 2014 State of the Union speech.
Global Cooling…No…Global Warming…err…Climate Change!
As a young person growing up in the 1970s, I remember seeing headlines and panicky news pieces about a coming ice age. Some scientists in that era were predicting the onset of another period of global cooling similar to those in the past that produced the ice ages. As we all know, that has not materialized in the forty years since then.
In the 1980s and the 1990s people began to worry about global warming. The study of earth’s climate as a science is just under two centuries old, and from the beginning scientists have been compiling data, striving to understand it, and putting forth predictions about what was going to happen in the future.
As the later 20th century progressed, instead of worrying about an ice age, the concern turned to an expected increase in global temperatures due to the “greenhouse effect”. Instead of global cooling, the concern became one of global warming. What was causing it? What were the impacts going to be on human life in various parts of the globe? What could be done to prevent it or reverse it? Whose fault was it? Who’s going to pay for fixing it? And so the debate has raged and become ever more prominent, with progressives and liberals clamoring for reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and libertarians and conservatives saying climate change doesn’t exist or it is not caused by humans. Because we are divided on so many other issues, this one is just another thing to fight about.
There are those who deny that any type of global warming is taking place. They are disparagingly referred to by those who believe in climate change as “deniers”, similar to Holocaust deniers and others. When I first approached this topic, I was of the mind that global warming was not really happening either and that it was a made up problem for certain political elements to promote an agenda. It is difficult to “believe” in global warming when polar vortices plunge much of the country into subzero temperatures for days at a time (like when I took my screenshot), or when a ship carrying climate change researchers gets stuck in Antarctic ice who then have to be rescued.
There are voices who say global warming is getting worse, others who say it is getting better, and others who say it doesn’t matter. There are those who point out that the earth’s temperature has remained constant for the past 17 years despite ever-increasing carbon emissions into the atmosphere.
Of course, the Earth has been around for 4.5 billion years, humans have been on the planet for several million years, but our modern industrial society is only about 250 years old, and we have modern scientific measurements of climate data going back only a hundred years or so. Satellite data is only available for the past 50 years. Scientists rely on other evidence to estimate global temperatures in the past, including tree ring widths, coral growth, isotope variations in ice cores, ocean and lake sediments, cave deposits, fossils, borehole temperature and other data. These are all what are called “proxies”, or substitutes for actual thermometer readings since those clearly are not available. This is an important distinction and is worth stating bluntly – these are estimates and not as reliable as the data gathered in the last century.
What The Data Shows – The Climate Is Cyclical in Nature
As the chart shows, there have been four warming trends over the last 4,500 years or so, one quite significant, long before our modern industrial society with its greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) appeared on the scene. The “Medieval Warm Period” encompassed the Viking exploration and settlement of Greenland (how did it get its name?). That was followed by a major cooling period called the “Little Ice Age”. People starved all over the world because the agricultural seasons were disrupted and summers were cold and wet.
It is worth noting that the first half of each warming trend and the second half of each cooling trend was a period of “global warming”, some of which encompassed hundreds of years and completely without the carbon dioxide emissions we have today. The tiny downticks on the right side of the chart depict the cooling trends I alluded to earlier.
The scientists who prepared this chart and others put forward the theory that global temperature changes are driven by volcanic and solar activity. Both of these contributing factors have absolutely nothing to do with humans.
Do I “Believe” in Global Warming?
When I sat down to write this, I was of the opinion – based on what I had read to that point – that the Earth was currently in a warming period. However, as I continued to research the issue, I found an article written and reviewed by several scientists that rebuts the findings of the Obama administration’s 2014 National Climate Assessment.
As I alluded to earlier, the evidence suggests that the global mean surface temperature has on average remained constant over the past 17 years. “Remained constant” means “not getting warmer or cooler”. Climate change alarmists point to the melting ice in the Arctic but ignore the fact the Antarctic is getting colder and the ice there is growing.
The climate change alarmists cite computer models (which predict the future and can be manipulated to produce the results desired by funding sources, preconceived notions, settled ideology and other reasons) as “proof” that the earth is warming at a catastrophic rate. But do the predictions hold up?
Obviously, the graph of “real” data tells a different story from what the climate models predict. And reliance on these models is problematic for the reasons I mentioned above. Indeed, just recently Robert Caprara, a former computer modeler for the EPA wrote in the Wall Street Journal (July 8, 2014) that on one project, he “turned enough knobs” to get the answer his boss wanted and “everyone was happy.” As he says “There are no exact values for the coefficients in models such as these. There are only ranges of potential values. By moving a bunch of these parameters to one side or the other you can usually get very different results, often (surprise) in line with your initial beliefs.”
We like to think of scientists as completely objective seekers of truth who are free from bias, emotion, hidden agendas, desire for fame and fortune and other human factors. The fact is that scientists are human too. They bring a worldview, education and upbringing, and political philosophies to their work. Often, they emphasize and recognize data to support their theories and ignore data that doesn’t. That is why peer review is so important and why I give more credence to papers written by groups of scientists instead of just one or two.
As Caprara notes in his Journal commentary: “The academic community competes for grants, tenure and recognition; consultants compete for clients. And you should understand that the lines between academia and consultancy are very blurry as many professors moonlight as consultants, authors, talking heads, etc.”
My conclusion is…Insufficient data. In my view, it is still not clear as to whether or not we are even in a warming or cooling trend as of the last decade or so. It is even more difficult to say whether or not we are in a long term warming or cooling trend. If the cyclical trend on the chart shown above holds true, we could well be facing a cooling period lasting from decades to centuries.
What I do believe the science supports is the assertion that climate change is real. Our planet clearly goes through cyclical changes over short terms and over millennia. These changes have been going on long before our modern industrial carbon dioxide emitting society was in existence, and presumably will continue long after we’re gone.
In the next installment of this series, I will explore in more detail the arguments as to whether or not climate change is caused by humans or is a natural phenomenon.
By Richard D. Turnquist
July 20, 2014
A Pretty Balanced Look at The Issues on Pro Con: http://climatechange.procon.org/
Yes – Global Warming Is Real
These are some sites I looked at in my research.
http://www.skepticalscience.com (Note the author does not source his “science” claims)
No – Global Warming Is A Hoax
Most Americans Are Not Worried About Climate Change