Climate, Science and the Scourge of the Denialist
Who Do You Put Your Faith In For Climate Change Reality Checks?
In the Climate Change and Global Warming debate, human beings are getting very tribal again. The debate is polarising into the Greens and the Denialists. I have to say right at the outset I am a Green (ish). My ire was triggered by the report from climate scientists, publicised on the Mashable blog, that the atmospheric CO2 level has already passed the 400 parts per million (0.004%) this year, weeks earlier than its first recorded 400ppm+ reading last year and its showing now sign of slowing down. (0.002% was more or less the textbook norm that we were taught as young Chemistry school students 40 odd years ago).
In my Google Plus feed I noticed that Mashable had put the post out publicly and as this debate has gotten deep into my psyche over the last 2 years, as my kids approach adulthood, I scanned down the comments. This time there was a range of less vitriolic than usual discussion. I spotted a question about the graph: Mashable had wrongly chosen to cut off the lower portion that went down to zero on the CO2 concentration axis. Now to my mind that’s bad practise as it doesn’t show the whole story, it unnecessarily exaggerated the size of the human related CO2 spike. It doesn’t need exaggerating! The same questioner also asked how such a tiny concentration of just 1 component of our atmosphere could have such a profound effect.
I let the dormant science teacher erupt for a minute as I began to answer the comment. Within moments it had become a post in its own right… so I brought it over to my long neglected blog.
So here’s the Sciency teacher (of sorts) bit. Most of the air you breathe is nitrogen. It doesn’t do much – until lightning zaps it and creates soluble gases that get involved with the life cycle. Next comes the bit we need. Oxygen, just over 1/5 of the air we breathe, it’s the powerhouse for life on earth: luckily it’s diluted by the nitrogen. Otherwise we’d be bursting into flames all the time – it really is dangerous stuff! Everything else is there in tiny amounts. There’s argon, which is pretty inert and boring most of the time – it makes up about 1% of the air. It’s the little green slice of the air cube.
The 4th component is an odd one. It’s the wet stuff. Water vapour makes a huge difference to our experience on the planet because; if you live in Manchester 😉 (or other monsoon climates) you’d think the air was 90% water! The truth is, even on the muggiest most humid of torrential days; there’s only about 2% water vapour soaked into the air. But that relatively tiny amount makes a disproportionately huge impact on our lives and the surrounding environments. We have just come through a year of pretty unusual quantities of extreme weather. Every single climate model that has been put together by REAL scientists keeps pointing to the likelihood of the planet’s atmosphere getting warmer quickly and that means more energy available to create havoc loaded storms and more energy to soak up even more water than rained down on the UK this winter! This interpretation is not rocket science, now that the data has been collected.
The cube on the left doesn’t even show the water vapour – it represents dry air: even drier than the air that bathes Chile’s Atacama desert, the driest place on earth. Water’s place on the PPM Composition cube at the left would vary between nothing as here, to a slice or two about the same extent as the green of the Argon.
However, look at the dark grey chunk. Those 370 miniscule parts out of the million in this thousand litres of air is what all the debate is about. When I was learning my Chemistry basics as a teenager those 370 would only have been 210 if memory serves me well. Last year the CO2 level peaked at just over 400 little grey bits in mid May last year. This year saw the concentration of CO2 reach over 400ppm before April started and for the first time in the scientific record, the level has been maintained right through the month of April. it’s the first 400ppm+ month in recorded history: and as far as we can interpret from ice core evidence, in the experience of all human life! This is rapid change by anybody’s standards and the IPCC report published last year, which pulled all the exhaustive science work together just confirmed the gloomy picture of what we have done to our planet.
The Disproportionate Power of Carbon Dioxide
Why is this increase in something tiny as the carbon dioxide content of air so significant? Carbon Dioxide molecules have an unusual talent for catching and absorbing the sunlight reflected back from the ground. Weirdly they don’t catch the light on the way in but do on the way out.
This good ole Wiki article explains the process of the ineptly named Greenhouse Effect as well as anything else!
The greenhouse effect is a process by which thermal radiation from a planetary surface is absorbed by atmospheric greenhouse gases, and is re-radiated in all directions. Since part of this re-radiation is back towards the surface and the lower atmosphere, it results in an elevation of the average surface temperature above what it would be in the absence of the gases.
Solar radiation at the frequencies of visible light largely passes through the atmosphere to warm the planetary surface, which then emits this energy at the lower frequencies of infrared thermal radiation. Infrared radiation is absorbed by greenhouse gases, which in turn re-radiate much of the energy to the surface and lower atmosphere. The mechanism is named after the effect of solar radiation passing through glass and warming a greenhouse, but the way it retains heat is fundamentally different as a greenhouse works by reducing airflow, isolating the warm air inside the structure so that heat is not lost by convection.
With the recent record droughts in Sothern Africa, California and Texas, incessant rain in the UK and north western USA. Record freezing of the US mainland at the same time as disappearing Arctic ice are another set of extraordinary symptoms. Climate change denialists (quite rightly) point out that these things don’t necessarily mean that they are caused by global warming. They are after all single weather events. A weather event does not a climate make. However when these weather events begin piling up one behind the other with increasing regularity, frequency, severity and ferocity then that would seem to indicate that there is a step change in the climate. The patterns are changing.
The Dilemna of Personal Choice and Greater Good for a Concerned Parent
With my children growing up I know I have to do my bit to alter my impact on the earth. I’m a fanatical recycler I’m afraid – my kids probably think I’m going to end up as one of those hoarders that the telly brigade seem to love following. I’ll reduce and reuse (mainly because I’m still poor) and I studiously recycle as much as I can. I switch off the engine at traffic lights, I do try to walk or bike as much as physically possible. Even when I do get rich I won’t be buying the latest popularised crap that is a complete waste of resources and people’s creativity.
BUT: I like the ability to travel – even though I can rarely afford the diesel to get out to play! I love winter climbing in the hills of the Lakes and Scotland – which is likely to improve (?) if the North Atlantic Drift breaks down due to melting Greenland ice sheets. I am enthralled by the the sheer beauty of the planet we live on as photos stream back from those bits of technology in constant freefall round the planet. And I dream of being rich enough to own an aircraft of my own as the whole concept of flight has fascinated me since I was a toddler in a caravan on the present site of Stanstead’s passenger terminal, staring through the hedge at the edge of our caravan site at the American jets that used to be parked there.
AND: I understand (sort of) the idea of evolution and how we came about accidentally as a result of thousands of more or less helpful differences spawned by millions of generations of sex! As a result of my dabblings with sex, I’ve got a couple of children who are entering their adult lives. Great
kids, sorry – people: who I want to have a life expectancy that’s at least reasonable, even though I hope I’ve brought them up to understand that life is intrinsically a game of risk.
I know I’m full of contradiction in my position, it’s why I have to say I’m a green (ish) ! But I am troubled. I’ve watched the news and the headlines as I’ve travelled through my adult life. I’ve watched corporate big wigs out
Who Do You Actually Trust on Climate Change Science and Solutions?
So- my question on the topic of human accelerated climate change remains.
“Would you put your faith in someone who tells you one thing about the possibility of us humans having made climate change dangerously rapid, backed up by a $200 million PR apparatus and who will clearly stay in profit if we continue to burn and waste the precious resources we have been blessed with. These people have been documented as liars, cheats and manipulators of truth but they have the fate of millions of jobs in their hands.
Or would you believe someone who tells you a different story about the issue. A story that isn’t backed up by a set of PR organisations: a story that wasn’t officially released until it had been double checked by their peers. A story which is still full of uncertainties because science ISN’T exact. A story that suggests if we do some uncomfortable things about our lifestyles now: we might leave a world for our kids that would be recognisable to ourselves.
Who would you believe; the uncertainty of real science and long term change put out by people who often pray they are wrong or the certainty offered by the lies of PR, bad science and vested interest?
Another Way to Picture Human Induced Climate Change.
If you consider that that 0.02 (ish)% CO2 in the atmosphere has been the extra woolly jumper that has kept the global temperature to a reasonable level for millenia since green plants first generated the oxygen that we take for granted now. That’s the first point. The denialists argue that warming was happening anyway (true) so we don’t need to get our knickers in a twist (not so true). Since Triassic times (I think – I’m not a real scientist!) there seems to have been a slow warming trend, interspersed with the many ice ages. Denialists also argue that what humans put out in a year doesn’t match the outpourings from even one eruption of a big volcanic episode (possibly true). However it is important to remember that volcanoes are usually fairly short episodes that usually last days, but occasionally go on for a year or so. They are a big cause of the oscillations in the chart. Life on earth, evolved around this slow warming with peaks and troughs.
What we’ve done however, is decided to burn every bit of shitty fuel we can get our hands on (with the best of intentions in truth (until the Kochs and similarly parasitic corporations arrived on the scene). This was done without any knowledge of the consequences and interrelatedness of the worlds ecosystems. One of our more polluting activities – global travel (and holidays!!!) are perversely the very vehicle that have allowed us to build up the global perspective that started ringing warning bells in the minds of the scientific community 30 or 40 years ago.
Newer technology has, at every turn, confirmed our worse fears and unusually shown that things were actually more serious than the scientists imagined. This makes uncomfortable reading for the energy corporates whose very survival (in their myopic view) depends on continuing to burn shit! They don’t give a rats arse about the state of the environment so long as they can continue to generate revenue from doing the same old same old!
The technology exists to halt the damage within a generation and shortly it will exist to undo the worst of what we have created. The most poisonous of the energy magnates (not all of them it has to be said) are actually funding massive PR programmes to cloud the scientific studies and the message that we all need to hear.
When the IPCC report on climate change was released. I heard a Radio 4 piece about its implications. The scientist, who was asked to explain the ACCREDITED and PEER REVIEWED work of hundreds of scientists around the world, was given around a minute to explain. The Denialist spokesperson was given around 4 minutes of air time. He regurgitated the propaganda from his PR campaign, which is based on a selection of scientific reports that suggest “anthropogenic” climate change (ie caused by the crap we pump out) isn’t real – plus the published work sponsored by his own side of the debate which, to a word, has been discredited by all of its scientific reviewers. Their arguments and evidence are all based on genuinely dodgy science which has been discredited by all the scientific community with any integrity.
Returning to Peter Nguyen’s question and the graph. Yes – the graph should show the full depth of the data right down to zero. The CO2 spike of the last hundred or so years is exaggerated in this view. However – it doesn’t alter the fact that it is still a huge spike! It is warming the planet at a rate that hasn’t been measurable since the time of the earliest ice cores that scientists have been able to reach and analyse. Oh yes that’s real science by the way. People who have learned to observe stuff and draw conclusions: no matter how unpalatable they may be; doing real work – usually on pitiful budgets compared with the effort put in and the urgency of the question. Trouble is – the way Science works, even if the results are earth shattering, nobody trusts the first attempt. The results are only trusted when other scientists have double and triple checked the work, the calculations and the conclusions. In many cases the experiment has to be repeated by other teams before the work is ever published.
People like the Heartland Institute seem to have forgotten this little detail in their quest to keep the oil dollars flowing into THEIR selfish pockets. they would have you believe that either it’s all natural and we should just keep buying and burning their oil, or that it’s good for us.
Tell that to the inhabitants of low lying countries like Bangladesh as the ocean physically expands through the effect of increased warmth. Or tell that to the hapless residents of Venice as the Greenland ice sheet continues to melt at totally unprecedented rates – tipping more fresh cold water into an already expanding ocean. Do you still like the thought of being beside the seaside?
We are Not as Powerless as Corporate Culture Would Like Us to Believe!
The tone of this piece makes me sound like a business hater. Nothing could be further from the truth. I was a late convert to the idea of doing business and an even more reluctant convert to the idea of profit. But I have learned that there is nothing wrong with getting paid a good fair whack for all the effort I’ve put in to learn a new trade late in life. I want to earn good money – travel and enjoy the benefits that modern lifestyles can bring. But I am damned if I am going to do it by crapping all over the people that pay my bills.
Corporations have become a law unto themselves and in the particular case of the current debate about climate change they are are being utterly fraudulent about the PR messages that they are putting out. They couldn’t care 2 hoots about crapping on the people who are directly affected by their corporate greed. Fraud and corporate dishonesty are – or bloody well should be criminal acts. The honchos who pay for it and the agencies who craft their messages should be called to account. It’s no good just going to your local politician, most of them simply haven’t got the balls to stand up to their party whips or their corporate sponsors. They have rarely got the gumption to stand up and give an unpopular message to their voters in an election cycle that is pure pantomime and bullshit.
There are a group of organisations that are separate to the dogma of party politics. Groups like Avaaz, Change.org, SumofUs, The Story of Stuff and 38 Degrees are mobilising campaigns based on justice and fairness and they are mobilisng numbers that genuinely put politicians to shame. because they are not tied to a “Side of the House” or to the staus quo.
38 Degrees is an organisation that tackles the issues that are crucial to UK voters. Avaaz has a much more global reach and here is their current campaign to influence attitudes about global warming. These campaign groups at this time are the nearest thing to real democracy. They are agile and responsive and beyond the concept of justice, they don’t have a vested interest in any status quo.