The record-setting East Coast blizzards of the last several weeks have added fuel to the fire in the debate over global warming/climate change. As I’ve mentioned previously, I love a great debate, but prefer to stay dispassionate–that is, I prefer to debate the facts and leave my personal opinion out of the discussion. However, you can’t have a fair debate when the facts are being skewed or ignored.
Specifically, I’m referring to the politicians and pundits who have used the blizzards as an example of why global warming is a farce. I’m not saying they’re wrong or right, but I am saying they are ignoring (purposely or not) scientific facts on climate change that deserve to be a part of the discussion.
So, I asked a scientist to provide some background on the debate and insight into why the blizzards might actually be another example of the global warming phenomenon without trying to influence your opinion one way or the other. This scientist, Ben McGee, also happens to be my husband, so I’ve asked him to provide some of his qualifications so this whole thing doesn’t look too conflict-of-interest-y.
Ben, please tell the readers a little bit about your professional experience. What makes you an authority on climate change? For starters, I should say that I’m a geologist and a planetary scientist by training. The relationship there to climate change may not be immediately obvious, but did you know that the way that Earth naturally removes CO2 from the atmosphere is by the creation of limestone rocks? It’s true–Geology is an often overlooked (at least popularly) component in the climate change system. Because of this and my training, I’m inclined to see climate change as a planetary problem, involving geology, meteorology, solar physics, and anthropology, not just a problem with the atmosphere. I spent a great portion of my time in college studying the way planets work (including their climate systems), and did side coursework in meteorology and environmental science. That’s the schooling side. As far as practical and professional experience goes, I studied glaciers in Alaska for a year (big climate change indicators), worked for a couple of years as an environmental scientist for the government and did work specifically relating Mars meteorology to Earth meteorology, and I’ve spent the last two years working for the Southern Nevada Water Authority on researching how the recent extensive drought in the southwest has affected rainfall and streamflow in Nevada so we can attempt to supply Las Vegas with the water it needs to survive. All of the work I do now is directly related to climate change. So, in short, you could say I’ve been trained to study how planets work, and I’m also deep in the trenches of practical climate change research right now.
How did the phrase “global warming” come about? Isn’t “climate change” a more accurate term if cooling can be involved in the phenomenon? When scientists first identified the potential problem of the “greenhouse effect” related to our CO2 emissions, they coined the term “global warming.” The idea there is quite simple: You release a heat-storing molecule into the atmosphere, like CO2, and everything will warm up like being in a greenhouse. However, when our understanding became more sophisticated, we (scientists) realized that the process is much more complex and subtle than that–adding more heat to the climate system can trigger all sorts of effects, from shifting climate zones and increasing cloud cover to slowing ocean currents, which themselves might actually have a cooling effect in some places. So, there was a push back in the ’90s to change “global warming” to “global change” or “climate change,” which is more accurate. The problem was that the term “global warming” was just too catchy, and the “change” wording refused to catch on with the public and in the media.
How did this whole climate change controversy get started anyway? What started raising scientists’ red flags? This is a subject of some debate, but in my view, it actually all started with the ozone hole in the Antarctic. Back in the ’70s, we had been regularly releasing large quantities of CFC gas (a chlorine-containing chemical compound) into the atmosphere. We were shocked to discover that these CFCs were actually chemically eroding away at our atmosphere’s protective ozone layer, and that this depletion was happening very quickly and migrating toward one of the planet’s poles. (Namely, the southern one.) This ozone hole, which was entirely caused by our pollution, was letting in gobs of harmful ultraviolet radiation from the sun. If we didn’t stop, the hole would continue to grow until it endangered human settlements. That’s really when we realized that our activities could make an almost immediate and lasting effect on the planet’s atmosphere and climate system, and we started looking at other things we were doing. Our practice of releasing CO2 gas was a natural next place to look, and at first glance it looked like things started warming up right after the Industrial Revolution revolution took off…
What about the claims that we’re in one of Earth’s natural warming cycles and that’s what’s causing the apparent warming trend versus anything man-made? They’re legitimate. Or, I should say, the Earth has had regular warming cycles throughout its history (this is the geologist in me talking). When dinosaurs were walking around, the Earth was a warmer place in general than it is now. So, it’s true that this is not the warmest the Earth has ever been, and that’s what makes the research tricky. There is good data to show that CO2 emissions are affecting the Earth’s atmosphere, and there is also data to show that the Earth might be in the process of a Sun-driven natural warming trend. (The temperature of Mars has gone up slightly, and our CO2 emissions certainly aren’t affecting Mars.) The responsible thing to do is call it like it is, which no one, not the politicians, the media, or the “talking heads,” ever seem to do: We have tripled the amount of CO2 in the Earth’s atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution. CO2 stores heat. So, we would be idiots to presume this won’t manifest somehow in the climate system. However, the Earth is a big girl and has developed strategies to deal with similar things in the past, like big volcanic eruptions, but those mechanisms take thousands of years to work. That’s the most accurate metaphor for what we’re doing – humanity is a great CO2 volcano that is injecting all of this gas into the atmosphere. But unlike regular volcanos, what we’re doing is without the sulfur and other particulate compounds that usually accompany an eruption, and we’re not erupting from one point – we’re erupting from everywhere at once. We don’t really know how Earth responds to something like that. However, to assume it will not respond at all is ridiculous. So, I don’t ascribe to a doomsday view of climate change, yet… The Earth has had plenty of volcanos go off in the past and the climate has bounced back. The real question relates to the “bounce” itself – how bad is a bounce for such a strange CO2 volcano as modern humanity? The rebound may happen in the blink of an eye geologically, but if the “bounce” takes us to a horrible place for a few hundred or a thousand years, then while the Earth itself may not really notice, that’s certainly something we want to head off before it happens. We like our climate zones where they are. A global reorganization of our agricultural systems is not something anyone wants to tackle.
Many politicians and pundits have been using the recent record-breaking blizzards on the East Coast as an example to support their claims that global warming isn’t real. Isn’t it true that cooling trends are also consistent with the global warming phenomenon? Absolutely. Anyone who says differently has no modern understanding of climate systems or climate change research. No one has seriously believed that “global warming” means warmer everywhere for nearly thirty years, but the talking heads keep perpetuating this idea for apparently political reasons. Let me give you an example of global warming = cooling: If you warm the air over the oceans, you increase evaporation, which leads to more water vapor in the air. More water in the air leads to the formation of more clouds, which actually bounce sunlight back to space and cool everything down underneath (you’ve all felt this under a cloud on a sunny day), not to mention that more clouds can also mean more rainfall and snowfall. If we play this scenario out a little farther still, increased rainfall over the oceans by this process can even dilute the saltiness of the water and slow down critical ocean currents that bring warm water from the tropics up toward the arctic. Then we’d have new glaciers forming across Europe at the same time that deserts in the American southwest and Africa and Asia are expanding and getting even hotter because there is more energy in the atmosphere. Droughts would continue to worsen. So, these are just a couple of the complex interactions that adding more heat to the climate system can trigger. The only thing anyone can responsibly say with certainty right now is that if we continue to supply more energy (via CO2) to the system, things will continue to change. Not necessarily warmer everywhere, but things will get more different as time goes on. Expect more records to be broken on all fronts in different areas; Higher highs, lower lows, more snow, more rain, greater and longer droughts, more floods – these are all symptoms of the planet potentially reacting to and adjusting to our influence.
Anything else you want to include? To anyone truly interested in global warming and climate change: Use your grains of salt frequently. The planet’s climate system is highly complex and we don’t have a complete handle on it, yet. So, anyone who says with certainty that this or that outcome will happen is speaking ahead of the science. However, anyone who says that nothing will happen in response to our activity on Earth (like emitting CO2) – that we’re too small to have an impact on something as big as the Earth – is speaking well behind the science. Reality is somewhere betwixt.
If you’d like to read more on science from Ben, you can do that here.