Thursday, April 12, 2012

What is the climate fight really about?

A couple of recent news stories on climate change highlight the growing influence of opinion over reason at time when the depth of scientific knowledge grows ever faster. The first story covered the completion of a huge study of global temperatures and CO2 levels over the last 20,000 years. I've actually looked at the 420K years of data from Antarctica in some detail  and know just how clear a correlation exists between temperature and CO2.

The big remaining question has been: which is causing which and how significant is the impact? What's amazing about this new global study is how clear the rise in CO2 precedes the rise in temperature (see charts below), basically providing irrefutable evidence of the direction and significance of causation. Not only that, they are able to show how a rise of around 30ppm kicked off a whole feedback loop of climate change and CO2 releases that brought an end to the last ice-age. Over the entire 20,000 year period CO2 levels rose just over 100ppm. To put this into perspective, mankind has raised CO2 levels 100ppm in just 100 years! I don't think it takes a scientist to find this alarming especially since these levels are also 30% higher and increasing 200 times faster than at any time in the last 650,000 years. While I don't think it should be necessary to conjure up doomsday scenarios resulting from such changes, I think it is pretty naive to dismiss catastrophic consequences for what we are doing to change the atmospheric composition.

Source: BBC News

So, why is Antarctica different? According to another story on the paper its temperatures rose more quickly due to a change in ocean currents that used to carry heat away from the region.  For years skeptics have tried to use the inconclusive correlations found in the Antarctic ice cores to claim that the CO2 effects are grossly overstated, but this new study really, truly should put an end to that argument...right?

Apparently not. The second article is a story from just a few days later about a letter sent by 49 former NASA folks, several with high profile titles, criticizing the agency for its "stance" on global warming. It seems crazy to me that 49 people, that are not climate scientists are somehow representative of the other 23,000 current employees, much less former employees. This 0.2% of NASA is simply part of the 3% of all scientists that choose to ignore evidence like that of the first article. How is this balanced reporting?

As a scientist, I take it kind of personally that this get's any attention at all. It's been frustrating to watch how such a small number of people have eroded what should have been settled years ago. As a result, instead of moving on to what we actually do about CO2 and climate change, we've gone back to basically arguing whether the earth is flat or round. What is more is that I don't even understand why they are fighting it so fiercely. Why should we ignore so much evidence when there are so many other positives for having a carbon neutral economy and zero negatives? Energy independence, less pollution, no more oil spills, no more trapped or killed coal miners, and a whole new wave of innovation and technology are just a few examples from our potential future that this 3% is leading a charge against. Why?

I think the real fear these folks have is about the upfront cost and their own uncertainty about how changing the status quo would play out. Even though we don't really know what the total upfront cost will be, the reality is that it is not a cost, but rather an investment. The only fear then should be that it will take much longer to recoup the investment and reap the rewards. As the father of a son, with another on the way, I'm far less concerned with when the investment is paid back as I am with being certain that there is a better future for them.

Those that know me are already aware how strongly I feel about the way to handle problems as a society. I'm afraid that we've become too hypersensitive to "everyone has the right to their own opinion" and "we must allow for balanced reporting". These aren't opinions, these are facts and it isn't balanced when 3% is put on the same level as 97%.  I don't feel like I should have to apologize or yield on an issue that I know to be scientifically correct and yet that is just what has been happening in policy debates today. We've given ourselves over to a world based on opinions instead of one based on reality.

Climate change is only one of many realities we are ignoring. Sustainability on every level of society is at a risk and I think most people feel this and as a result, feel less optimistic about the future. Yet again, in reality, we have all the skills and tools in front of us to fix our problems. All it takes is a little courage and vision to bring it about.