The first part of last week was unusually cold in most of North America. The reaction from the climate change deniers was predictable. They felt the Arctic chill when they stepped outside, or saw temperature maps on TV full of negative and single-digit numbers, and declared global warming to be a hoax.
Rush Limbaugh, great scientific mind that he is, explained it this way for his radio listeners:
"We are having a record-breaking cold snap in many parts of the country ... And right on schedule the media have to come up with a way to make it sound like it’s completely unprecedented. Because they’ve got to find a way to attach this to the global warming agenda, and they have. It’s called the ‘polar vortex.’ The dreaded polar vortex."Of course, those with an actual grasp of climate science were quick to point out the flaws in Limbaugh's discourse. For starters, record cold in North America doesn't mean record cold elsewhere. For example, Australia has started off 2014 the same way as it spent a good part of last year -- absolutely baking. That's why the word global is included in the phrase "global warming." You have to consider what's happening across the entire planet, Rush.
"Do you know what the polar vortex is? Have you ever heard of it? Well, they just created it for this week."
"See, normally the polar vortex stays up there in the polar region, but something is causing it to dip down like it's never happened before. We've never had arctic air blasts before. And remember, now, the key to all this is you have to understand one of the fundamental concepts of man-made global warming is ice melting at the poles."
"One of the ways they have always sought to convince you that the world is warming is not the climate where you live, but rather where you aren't, where you can't see what is really happening. So they tell you the ice is melting at the North Pole and the South Pole. And then they publish pictures, which are fraudulent pictures, of poor little polar bears stranded on three square feet of ice that you are told used to be the North Pole."
"... Well, obviously there is no melting of ice going on at the North Pole. If they're gonna tell us the polar vortex is responsible for this cold, that means record cold is also happening in the North Pole, which means there isn't any ice melting."
Look at last year, for instance. It was relatively cool in North America but the global average temperature for 2013 was likely among the 10 warmest since 1850. (The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) hasn't published their final report for 2013 but their preliminary report notes a top 10 ranking is likely.)
As for Arctic ice, those who are actually studying what's been going on there tell a far different story from Limbaugh. Sea ice coverage in the Arctic reaches its annual maximum in March and its minimum in September. In 2013, the maximum ice extent was the sixth lowest since satellite measurements began in 1979. The 2013 minimum extent was also the sixth lowest.
Even more telling is the loss of older ice. In March 1984, 18 percent of the ice was four years or older. In 2013, it was down to 3 percent. In March 2013, 78 percent of the total cover was first-year ice, as versus 56 percent in March 1984.
Overall, the trend for March maximums and September minimums has been downward since the 1980s. The average decrease for the maximum as been 2.6 percent per decade. The average decrease for the minimum has been 13.7 percent per decade.
Finally, there's Limbaugh's assertion the "polar vortex" is a new term invented by the media to support the "global warming agenda." Sorry, Rush, not so. As NBC weatherman Al Roker pointed out, meteorologists have been using that term for at least 50 years.
Now, did any of these rebuttals make a difference to Rush and his legions of "dittohead" listeners? Of course, not! For them, global warming is just another liberal conspiracy designed to interfere with their lives and raise their taxes.
Reminds me of an Isaac Asimov quote I saw recently:
"Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that 'my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.'"All of this got me thinking about what it would take to convince these folks and what this means for the future of the human race.
Limbaugh's listeners aren't particularly good at abstract thinking. If global warming had presented itself as a 10 degree year-over-year temperature increase everywhere, every day, year after year, sure, they'd be on board with everyone else. If they could look out their windows and see trees spontaneously bursting into flames, that would do it. But a gradual change which occurs by fits and starts, that is only evident when mountains of data from all over the world are analyzed over decades, is way too subtle for the dittoheads.
In fact, hardly anyone outside academia knew climate change was occurring until the late 1980s. Even among scientists, the effect of human activities on global warming was a matter of debate until relatively recently. By the 1990s, the accumulation of data and analysis made it clear to climate scientists (and some in the general public) that humans were having a major impact, but that was a hundred years after the Industrial Revolution which started it all.
Really, if one was trying to come up with a devious plan to rid the world of humans, climate change would be a great candidate. Think about it. A disaster which progresses so slowly and unevenly that it's hardly perceptible to the casual observer. And, it's mostly mediated by an invisible, odorless gas. Even more diabolical, the gas lingers in the atmosphere for hundreds, if not thousands, of years continuing to warm the planet. So, once the victims are aware of what's going on, a lot of damage has already been done. Quite clever!
The question for mankind is -- will this be our Waterloo? Do we have the ability to adapt to the new climate we're creating? Or, better, can we find a way to reverse the damage we've caused?
Seems unlikely to me, despite the good work by many environmental groups, that we'll be able to prevent the average global temperature from rising at least 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) higher than the pre-industrial average. Exactly when this century we'll cross this threshold is unclear, but those living then will be seeing major climate changes. A rise of 3 degrees Celsius (5.4 degrees Fahrenheit) or more by 2100 is quite possible if current carbon emissions are not dramatically reduced. Whether humans can survive in such a world, and, if so, in what numbers is a good question.
Obviously, it would be far better if no one ever had to experience the far toastier world we'll have created by 2100 if we do too little. My hope is scientists, the same ones Limbaugh's dittoheads so distrust, will come up with ways to capture and sequester atmospheric carbon on a scale which allows global warming to be dialed back.
If we had any collective sense as a nation, we'd be funding the heck out of this kind of scientific research, but, again, we're not because too many of us don't sense the impending danger. So, we'll have to hope what little funding there is will do the trick. Doesn't give us our best chance of success but who knows?
As Auburn found out during the Iron Bowl against Alabama last month, sometimes you do field a kick in your own end zone with no time on the clock and run it back for the game-winning score. It happens.