Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Climate change: it's past time to accept the science

I’ve written about this issue over at my science blog. For more background, check out Global warming is real and Human-caused climate change--Now even realer.

To summarize the data, virtually anyone who knows anything about climate agrees that global warming is real and that it’s caused by humans. Most of those people also agree that it’s going to be terrible. A large fraction of the human population is going to suffer and die, thanks to our inaction on this issue. Yet, nearly half the population of the United States does not know that this is settled science because our politicians and pundits have been misleading people to think there’s still some controversy over the issue. Nothing could be further from the truth.

One reason people remain skeptical of global warming is because of something that happened four years ago. In 2009, 1000's of private emails were hacked (i.e. obtained illegally) from climatologists at the University of East Anglia. The emails included suspicious phrases like: 
I’ve just completed Mike’s Nature trick of adding in the real temps to each series for the last 20 years (i.e. from 1981 onwards) and from 1961 for Keith’s to hide the decline. 
In what became known as ‘Climategate’, the denialists pounced on this and other comments as proof that the scientists were altering their data to make it look like the climate was changing when it wasn’t. 

Unfortunately, the public didn't get the memos completely debunking the allegations. For example, ‘trick’ is shorthand for 'mathematical technique' (am I committing fraud if I use the ‘trick’ of adding all the digits in a number to see if it’s divisible by nine?) and in this case ‘decline’ was referring to tree rings not temperature. Remember, these were private emails between colleagues. Like people in any business or community, climatologists use jargon and terminology when talking amongst themselves.

But don’t take my word for it. Six independent investigations have cleared all the scientists involved of any wrongdoing. And even if some data had been fudged (again, none was), that wouldn’t change the overwhelming amount of evidence that human-caused global warming is a fact.

If we’re talking about unethical practices, what’s more likely, that a small fraction of the scientific community was bought off by 'Big Oil & Coal' to say that things are fine the way they are, or that the vast majority of climatologists were bought off by… what, 'Big Academia'? To make false reports that won’t earn them an extra dime and will probably result in getting them humiliated and fired? Or by 'Big Clean Energy', so the government will increase their energy subsidies all the way to 20% of the amount given to the fossil fuel industries? What exactly would anyone have to gain by pretending that global warming was real?

Who are you going to believe? Politicians or your lying eyes?

I’m not saying that the few holdouts from accepting anthropomorphic global warming are lying. I’m sure they’re convinced that they are correct. I am saying that their financial incentive to retain that position is much stronger than any incentives the rest of the scientific community could have for accepting climate change.

Now to the last part of my title. One argument that people make goes something like this, ‘OK, climate change is real and we’re the cause, but will it really be all that bad?” I guess the answer depends on who you are and where you live. I attended a conference last year where one of the speakers, who was a climate change denialist, said that if he turned out to be wrong, he would just build a retaining wall around his house. How convenient for him. The people of Newtok Alaska, low-lying Pacific Islands and Bangladesh aren’t going to have that luxury. Instead, they have the privilege of being among the first climate change refugees. They won't be the only ones to feel the effects of global warming though.

Storm Surge Facts

2013 CoreLogic Storm Surge report

Here's something else to think about. CO2 levels haven't been this high for several million years. That means that our species has never experienced this type of climate. 

If it isn’t already too late, and there’s some debate over this, anything we do from now on to fight the effects of climate change will be far more expensive than they would have been if we hadn’t been obstructed from acting for so many years. In the interim, we can also expect to pay in treasure and grief for the storms, droughts and floods that will become the new normal. Greg Laden provides an interesting approximation of what our planet might look like in 300 years if we do nothing: 


It's time for us all to demand action from our leaders on climate change. If you prefer to be part of the solution, here’s a good place to get started. And after all, what's the downside to taking action?


  1. cool washington DC is gone. Can we make this happen any faster... I don't know if we can wait 300 years

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What are your thoughts? I welcome civil disagreement and discussion.