Why I Don’t Believe in Climate Change
I’m old enough to remember when some scientists warned that worldwide air pollution could cool the earth, could lead us into another ice age. And, today, scientists are telling us that air pollution will warm the earth.
How can we believe arguments that change so much?
Well, that’s what science does. It follows the available evidence. It observes. It gathers facts. It compares new evidence to existing knowledge. Sometimes that existing knowledge has to be corrected. That’s one thing that makes science different from religious faith. Science is based on evidence, and evidence accumulates over time. In the world of science, evidence matters, and new evidence can displace old evidence (and old ideas).
Those who inform us of new evidence are not always very popular. Oh, we like the people who bring us new inventions and conveniences. We like scientists who create cell phones and heart defibrillators and high-tech weapons. But we don’t seem to care much for scientists who tell us things we may not want to hear.
The U.S. Surgeon General warned us about smoking in the 1960s. A lot of people – not to mention tobacco companies – didn’t like hearing that. A lot of people (and tobacco companies) really didn’t like hearing that secondhand smoke was a substantial health problem to non-smokers who inhaled other people’s cigarette smoke. For years, the lack of scientific certainty kept cigarettes (and the companies that make them) from bearing any accountability for the impacts they created in the lives of millions of American families.
My dad smoked two packs of cigarettes daily. Cigarettes killed him and millions of other Americans before there was ever enough scientific certainty to satisfy the skeptics.
Galileo displeased a lot of very powerful people when his observations with the newly-invented telescope verified the theories of Copernicus that earth was not stationary in space, and that the sun and stars did not revolve around us.
The science of biology, unlike physics, is very difficult to replicate with mathematics and this means it’s very difficult to achieve the level of scientific certainty that people want. Biologists work with evidence, but it’s evidence that is accompanied by many variables. Combine that fact with the difficulty of representing it mathematically, and you can see that it’s much harder for biology to predict with certainty than it is for sciences like physics or chemistry.
So, instead of predicting, climate scientists make projections using computer models packed with observations from scientists around the world. Real-world facts are what go into these projections. Still, it’s important to remember that those many variables in global climate make every projection ultimately uncertain. Ocean currents change, for example, and we don’t know how often or in what ways; this one variable would have a huge effect on what happens to the climate.
Then there are what they call “positive feedback loops,” processes that, once begun, accelerate other processes. (Negative feedback loops, on the other hand, tend to keep things as they are.) Scientists are concerned that we’re creating new positive feedback loops that will upset the climate’s balance to which we – and all the plants and animals that share the earth with us – have become adapted over the eons.
In the Arctic, sea ice (along with the snow that covers it) serves to maintain itself and the kind of weather that local wildlife know how to deal with. But when that sea ice breaks up and recedes due to warmer temperatures, the absence of the ice will lead to even warmer temperatures because open water absorbs and retains the heat from the sun. The more ice that melts, the faster the rest of the ice melts.
This process is already under way, according to a study published in 2014 that found the area covered by arctic sea ice has shrunk by tens of thousands of square miles since 1979.
There are numerous positive feedback loops on our planet, and we don’t know how they’ll all behave, or at what points we will step over their thresholds for irreversible change. There is a lot of carbon dioxide sequestered in the Arctic permafrost. If the Arctic warms up too much – and we don’t yet know how much is too much – that carbon dioxide will be released into the atmosphere, accelerating the warming that’s already going on.
Sometimes I’ve heard people say, “Well, climate change is just a theory,” as if to imply that it’s not based on anything real, and that it’s just a notion some-one came up with.
But a scientific theory is based on real-world observations – lots of real-world observations.
A scientific theory has also been subjected to peer review – that is, it has been published or presented to other scientists for out-in-the-open criticism. Also, a theory is something that could be disproved if enough evidence is found that contradicts it. What a scientific theory does is seek to explain phenomena that have been observed.
Does this mean I believe in climate change? No, it doesn’t.
I believe in God. I believe in love. I believe in justice. All these beliefs require faith on my part, and do not rely on evidence alone. Would anything convince me to drop my belief in these things? Probably not.
When it comes to climate change, it’s not that I “believe in it,” it’s that I accept the science behind it. The evidence I’ve seen convinces me that the science concerning climate change is valid, based on what we know about the world today. That science, like other science about other subjects, may be imperfect and incomplete, and it will surely change. I also accept that enough contradictory evidence could persuade me otherwise. But here’s why I think it’s valid.
First, there’s a fundamental sense to it. We know air pollution can kill people – look at the Great London Smog. Look at the simple risk of sitting in a closed garage with your car engine running… many people who want to kill themselves know that this is one way to do it.
We’ve dumped a smorgasbord of fossil fuel exhausts into the air – and we’ve accelerated our dumping of these exhausts since World War II. Can I reasonably believe that it’s possible to dump this much fossil fuel exhaust into the air without it having an effect?
The medical journal The Lancet published a study in 2015, reporting that climate change threatens to undermine the hard-won gains of the past half-century in development and global health. The study cited direct effects like increased heat stress, floods, drought, and intense storms, along with indirect effects such as increased air pollution, spread of disease, food shortages, and displacement of people.
Second, a lot of evidence has accumulated, evidence that points to the fact that the world is changing, and that the changes correlate with the big increase in our discharging of certain gases into the atmosphere. Is it all just a big coincidence that these changes correlate with the increased burning of fossil fuels? Maybe, but that’s just too big a coincidence for me to accept on faith, especially when so much evidence has been brought to bear.
A few years ago, Northern Plains hosted a speaker at its annual meeting who has been deeply involved in studying climate change. Dr. Steven Running is a professor at the University of Montana, but he has also worked with thousands of other scientists around the world as part of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. At the time Running gave his talk to our members, the IPCC had just received the Nobel Peace Prize for its years of worldwide research on what is going on with the world’s climate.
His presentation was geared to a general audience, but it was packed with evidence from all over the world. His many charts and graphs outlined changes to the world’s weather, and all of it correlated with the increase in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
Some of the evidence he presented was very clear to those of us in Montana. We know that the glaciers are retreating; we can see this happening right now in Glacier National Park. We could see for ourselves the prolonged droughts. We knew only too well about the increased frequency and intensity of wildfires. We had been seeing almost every year the early and rapid melting of mountain snowpacks.
But we could only see so much in our local area. The report Dr. Running had worked on described a wide variety of evidence from all over the world, all illustrating that changes are afoot in the climate:
* the concentration of warm weather worldwide in recent years, continuing a trend that began in the 1950s;
* the concentration of those warmer temperatures in the Northern Hemisphere, where most of the greenhouse gas pollution takes place;
* the increasing areas of the world affected by drought;
* increasing global ocean temperatures (the oceans have taken in far more heat than the atmosphere);
* increasing temperatures at different levels of the atmosphere;
* decreasing glaciers, polar ice caps, and Arctic sea ice and corresponding increase in the number of glacial lakes;
* decreasing areas of seasonally frozen ground, and the instability of permafrost areas;
* decreasing frequency of cold days and cold nights, and increasing frequency of hot days and warm nights;
* increasing intensity of storms;
* increasing flooding;
* earlier spring runoff;
* earlier timing of other events that happen in spring (e.g., bird migrations and nesting, fish migrations, the opening of leaves);
* changes in the ranges of land animals and plants, moving toward higher elevations or toward the poles;
* changes in the range of freshwater algae, plankton, and fish;
* warming of lakes and rivers;
* warming of soils;
* rising sea level;
* increased acidity in the ocean;
* the strong likelihood that the last half of the 20th century was the warmest 50-year period in at least 500 years and likely the warmest in at least 1,300 years.
The IPCC’s 2007 report included 29,000 series of observational data, and 89% of that data was consistent with an expected response to warming. The next report in 2014 included more observations and more data, collected from onsite reporting stations, ships, satellites, and remote sensors in soils and floating on the oceans.
Is climate change a scientific certainty? Of course not. The IPCC report addresses the question of uncertainty, and acknowledges that some of their report’s evidence was more certain than other evidence, and the report uses terms to clarify the level of certainty or uncertainty on various evidence.
You and I deal with uncertainty every day. We especially deal with it when we’re raising kids. “What are the odds my little girl will be kidnapped?” I would ask myself when my daughter was young. I knew from real-world statistics that the odds were extraordinarily slim. But did that stop me from exercising caution every single day? Did that stop me from teaching her to stay away from strangers?
How many threats to our children are out there? If you are a parent, your world is full of threats that are unlikely, but nevertheless worth responding to. You know how much is at stake and, no matter how unlikely the threat is, you take precautions to make sure your kids are safe. You take action even though the threat is uncertain or even remote. We all do it every day. We don’t ignore the real-world facts, but we use a reasonable amount of care to avoid an out-come that could be disastrous.
We make sure our children buckle their seat belts.
Wheat farmer Wade Sikorski compares the warming climate to walking on an ice-covered lake in the early spring. There’s already an area where the water is open, but changes in the thickness of the ice are gradual. Still, the ice is getting thinner as you approach the open water. “Even though chances are your next step won’t be the one where the ice fails, at some point, you are going to take a step that does it.”
The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) employed another analogy to illustrate why it’s so hard to state with absolute certainty whether any particular weather event was caused by climate change. During the steroid era in Major League Baseball, home runs were more frequent and were longer. The effect of steroids on hitting couldn’t be denied, but it would have been impossible to point to any single home run and state that it was the result of steroids.
“Greenhouse gases have supercharged the climate just as steroids super-charged hitting in Major League Baseball.”
We’re all well aware that a furious campaign has been going on for several years to discredit the science behind the IPCC’s reports, as well as similar reports by other scientists and scientific organizations. Much of that campaign has been underwritten by the oil, gas, and coal industries, and includes a whole lot of junk science. Those guys have a lot to lose if America makes a serious transition away from fossil fuels.
Exxon is best known for underwriting much of this campaign. It’s ironic because it was Exxon that, more than any other oil company, arrived at an early understanding of climate change. Back in 1977, a senior Exxon scientist told the company’s Management Committee that “there is a general scientific agreement that the most likely manner in which mankind is influencing the global climate is through carbon dioxide release from the burning of fossil fuels.” The company funded climate research for several years after that, but refrained from sharing that research with stockholders. By the late 1980s, Exxon had shifted from funding climate research to funding organizations and lobbying aimed at sowing doubt about the science that its own researchers had documented.
And then there are those who denounce the science behind climate change because they just don’t like environmentalists, and they see climate change science as supporting what a lot of environmentalists have been saying for many years.
But the evidence continues to pile up. NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released a joint report that 2010 tied with 2005 as the hottest year on record (since record-keeping began in 1880). It was also the wettest year on record, which climate science also predicts, since the warmer atmosphere can hold more water vapor. We have all heard more news reports about more intense storms in recent years. Heavy rainfall events of more than six inches have increased 27% since 1970. 16 of the 18 warmest years on record have taken place since 1998. As I write this in 2016, the warmest year ever recorded was 2015, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Okay, it’s getting warmer, some people say, but humans didn’t cause it. Therefore, there’s nothing we can do about it.
A lot of people want to believe that, but scientific evidence keeps mounting.
In 2010, the National Academy of Sciences announced a new series of reports by the National Research Council. The NAS press release said, “multiple lines of evidence support scientific understanding of climate change. The core phenomenon, scientific questions, and hypotheses have been examined thoroughly and have stood firm in the face of serious debate and careful examination of alternative explanations.” Quoting directly from the report, the release said,
Climate change is occurring, is caused largely by human activities, and poses significant risks for – and in many cases is already affecting – a broad range of human and natural systems.
From the American Meteorological Society:
…there is adequate evidence from observations and interpretations of climate simulations to conclude that the atmosphere, ocean, and land surface are warming; that humans have significantly contributed to this change; and that further climate change will continue to have important impacts on human societies, on economies, on ecosystems, and on wildlife through the 21st century and beyond.
From the National Geographic Society:
Scientists have spent decades figuring out what is causing global warming. They’ve looked at the natural cycles and events that are known to influence climate. But the amount and pattern of warming that’s been measured can’t be explained by these factors alone. The only way to explain the pattern is to include the effect of greenhouse gases (GHGs) emitted by humans.
…human-caused warming is resulting in a broad range of impacts across the globe.
From the American Geophysical Union:
The Earth’s climate is now clearly out of balance and is warming. Many components of the climate system—including the temperatures of the atmosphere, land and ocean, the extent of sea ice and mountain glaciers, the sea level, the distribution of precipitation, and the length of seasons are now changing at rates and in patterns that are not natural and are best explained by the increased atmospheric abundances of green-house gases and aerosols generated by human activity during the 20th century.
From the American Association for the Advancement of Science:
Based on well-established evidence, about 97% of climate scientists have concluded that human-caused climate change is happening. This agreement is documented not just by a single study, but by a converging stream of evidence over the past two decades from surveys of scientists, content analyses of peer-reviewed studies, and public statements issued by virtually every membership organization of experts in this field.
So we have a lot of evidence, but we still have some uncertainty. How much certainty do we need to have before we act? If we wait until we have absolute certainty, will we have waited too long?
General Gordon R. Sullivan, former Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army, said “We never have 100% certainty. If you wait until you have 100% certainty, something bad is going to happen on the battlefield. That’s something we know.”
We also need to remember that carbon dioxide stays in the atmosphere for a long time once we put it there. All the CO2 we’ve already put into the atmosphere will be affecting the weather and the world our children and grandchildren live with. The more we add to what we’ve already done, the greater the effects will be. Those effects could make the world a much more difficult and dangerous place for the Americans who come after us.
Even when we decide to move forward, there are plenty of things we just can’t know at this time. How much will new energy technologies cost? How will those costs change as the technologies become more widely used? Can the United States exercise leadership in new energy technologies? Or will we leave it to the Chinese? Will Americans change their personal ways of using energy? If we burn less fossil fuel, what will be the financial benefits of reducing what we have to spend on health care for ailments related to air pollution?
Some say we can’t afford to transition away from fossil fuels. But can we afford not to? It’s important to remember that there is a cost to inaction, a substantial cost.
We have long bought much of our oil from foreign governments and, as the late energy expert Randy Udall used to say, some of those governments “aren’t exactly Denver Broncos fans.” The oil boom in North Dakota (and somewhat in Montana) changed that for now. But, as a nation, we burn through eighteen to twenty million barrels every day. Eighteen to twenty million barrels today. Eighteen to twenty million barrels tomorrow. Eighteen to twenty million barrels next Sunday. Do we really think we will never run out?
Energy is going to cost more in the years to come, whether or not we begin the transition to renewables. As oil and other fossil fuels become scarcer in the world, they’ll become more expensive. By building vehicles that get better fuel economy, we postponed real shortages in oil, and bought ourselves a hedge against dramatic increases that might have otherwise happened by now. Over the long term, though, extracting oil and other fossil fuels will become harder, using more extreme methods, that are not only more expensive, but also more damaging to our land and water and air.
And all that coal we have in this country? It’s the dirtiest fuel we use. Mining it devastates our land, pollutes our water, and damages our aquifers. Burning it taxes our lungs, especially among people who already suffer from diseases like asthma. The ash left over from burning coal is full of toxic heavy metals, and some of that toxic ash gets into the air we breathe and the water we drink.
We pay a high price for the fossil fuels we burn, but much of that price is hidden and externalized. Still, we pay that price, whether it shows up on our electricity bills, or our medical bills, or the taxes we pay so our government can clean up the messes left behind by coal mining. In the future, we may pay that price through increased human misery in the world – more famines, floods, disease – or in sending our sons and daughters to fight in new wars.
So how do we start dealing with a serious threat to our way of life and that of our children, even if the worst effects of that threat won’t come around for decades? Thomas Friedman at the New York Times said, “I buy insurance. That is what taking climate change seriously is all about.”
Friedman recounted former Vice President Dick Cheney’s response to concerns that a scientist from Pakistan was offering nuclear weapons technology to Al Qaeda. Cheney said, “If there’s a 1% chance that Pakistani scientists are helping Al Qaeda build or develop a nuclear weapon, we have to treat it as a certainty in terms of our response.”
Climate change is a “high-impact event.” There is scientific uncertainty about the nature of its impacts, and the severity, and the timing. But the effect will be a lot more than just slightly warmer weather. It will affect whether we have enough water, whether we can grow enough food, whether our grandchildren live in a world full of desperate people.
For Friedman, “buying insurance” means preventing the worst impacts of climate change by making the transition to an economy that runs on clean energy. He speculated on what would be the result of taking solid action even if climate change forecasts turn out to be wrong, and he listed these five results:
1. During the transition, energy prices would be higher.
2. We would become less dependent on foreign oil dictators.
3. Our trade deficit would improve.
4. The dollar would strengthen.
5. The air we breathe would be cleaner.
“In short,” said Friedman, “as a country, we would be stronger, more innovative and more energy independent.”
But we probably shouldn’t wait too long to act.
The carbon we put into the atmosphere during the Eisenhower administration is still there. We have been loading more and more carbon into the atmosphere, year after year, and it is still accumulating. Even if we reduce our carbon pollution dramatically – tomorrow – the pollution we generate will be added to what’s already up there. Things will get worse before they get better. (When I say “worse,” I mean impairing our ability to grow food, increased damage from extreme weather events, water shortages, insect outbreaks, dangerous political instability, and much more.)
The 2014 AAAS report underscored “two inescapable facts: first, the effects of any additional CO2 emissions will last for centuries; second, there is a risk of abrupt, unpredictable and potentially irreversible changes in the earth’s climate system with massively disruptive impacts.”
But we probably aren’t going to reduce our carbon pollution tomorrow. We have yet to really make a serious start. What are we Americans afraid of? Is it really that intimidating for us to step forward into forms of energy that don’t foul our air and water, and that won’t run out?
Some people and some organized campaigns against renewable energy claim renewables are too expensive. It’s a newer technology and doesn’t externalize so many of its costs as fossil fuels do. But if the coal industry had to account fully for its damage to people’s health, and its damage to land and water and the air, the entire industry would probably have been abandoned years ago. It keeps its price low by making people sick, tearing up aquifers, polluting rivers and our atmosphere, and taking good agricultural land out of production.
That’s not to mention the damage to earth’s climate.
The AAAS reminds us that “the longer we wait to respond, the more the risks of climate change will increase. Conversely, the sooner we take action, the more options we will have to reduce risk and limit the human and economic cost of climate change.”
Meanwhile, some people still say that climate change is a hoax. Is it? Well, a hoax is something intended to defraud or deceive someone else. Is the world’s scientific community intentionally trying to deceive everyone on the planet? If so, why? What would the world’s scientists gain from such a deception? Some people say that scientists get more research grants when they produce evidence of climate change. If so, why would governments and scientific institutions want to produce a false scenario of what is happening to our planet? Maybe I’m just not very bright, but I don’t see a hoax here. I don’t even see a reason to have a hoax.
OK, but perhaps all these scientists are simply wrong. That’s what MIT professor Kerry Emanuel thought in the late 1980s. Professor Emanuel teaches atmospheric sciences and was long skeptical about claims that the earth’s climate is changing. But as the evidence accumulated, including evidence from his own research, he saw a link between our emissions of greenhouse gases and the change in the earth’s climate. “Scientists are being asked to prove beyond any reasonable doubt that there is an imminent danger before we as a society do anything,” Emanuel said. “The parallel to that is saying ‘You won’t buy property insurance unless I can prove to you that your house will catch on fire right now.’”
Another skeptic of climate change, Richard Muller of the University of California at Berkeley, spent two years studying data on the earth’s temperatures. He had questioned whether the earth was really warming, but his study published in 2011 debunked two key criticisms that climate skeptics had espoused – that data from some weather stations is unreliable and that “heat islands” around cities had skewed the overall results of climate studies. His study came to the same conclusions as previous studies by NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and he said, “we have confidence that the temperature rise that had previously been reported had been done without bias.”
Nearly all of the world’s scientists in the field think climate change is real and the link to mankind’s carbon emissions is real. But even if I thought it was a mistake, I know that the consequences of climate change – if it really affects what happens to our long-term weather – could be disastrous. I’d weigh the costs and the benefits of doing something versus doing nothing.
I would ask myself, is America, which used to be known for innovation and ingenuity, so unable to adapt that our economy can’t make the transition? I don’t think so. I have faith in our capacity to make the most of renewable sources of energy, to use energy more efficiently, and to ensure that our children and their children have a fair chance in this world.
But it won’t happen by itself.