As global warming comes back to the fore of public discourse, environmentalists wonder how to overcome the polarization (this New Hampshire poll finds global warming to be the most partisan issue, second only to support for Obama) and help the broader public support critically-overdue climate action.
One approach has been to stay away from the crux of polarization - whether one "believes" in anthropogenic global warming or not, and why - and focus on areas of broader and near-bipartisan agreement, like support for renewable energy.
I do not subscribe to that approach. I think we do need to talk to our conservative and/or climate-confused friends about the science. The title "most polarizing issue" is a rapidly-changing "flavor of the day" thing; it comes and goes. I feel the wind is in our backs on this issue (pun semi-intentional), simply because the other position is fast becoming a laughingstock. This is the time to push forward.
But there's another critique of such engagement: that we should not dignify an anti-science stand by giving it unjustified "parity" with solid science.
To this criticism I say: just like we ask deniers and fence-sitters to wake up and smell the climate-reality coffee, so should we accept political reality rather than sit in an idealized and convenient political bubble. The fact is, not only are anti-scientists already getting parity with scientists, on this issue. In the American public sphere, they actually dictate the conversation. Here's the example that motivated me to write this post.
Over the past year, my favorite website (together with Daily Kos) has been insideevs.com - a grassroots site that provides, among other things, the most authoritative US electric vehicle sales numbers. Occasionally they publish personal driver testimonies. One such driver from southern CA proudly described how his family is not only all-EV, they also have extensive solar panels. This way, they save money, reduce smog, and help the American economy. Do you notice anything missing?
I did, and commented: "What about global warming? After all, that's what's driving both the EV and solar revolutions, and is making these products accessible for you." My comment was not welcome, to put it mildly; the thread turned into a pie fight. The author himself, who happens to be an elected Dem local official, responded in a more friendly manner, indicating that he does know all about global warming, but would rather not "alienate" parts of the public by mentioning it. This is the situation in an EV forum, and most EV fans are environmentalists at least to some extent.
So the game is not about dignifying someone who's waiting for our approval; this is about helping reality get through the door, when the other side is pretty effectively shutting it out.
The following text is a variation on a blog post at insideevs.com. I am indebted to insideevs.com editor Jay Cole: he took a lot of crap from some readers, who don't want to see global warming even talked about in EV circles, and let me publish a 3-part series on EVs and global warming.
This is the middle part. Feel free to take chunks of it that you like (if you like any), and use when talking with climate-confused friends.
In Part I, I made the case that global warming is a main reason, and arguably the main reason why EV technology is finally getting its day in the sun. Unfortunately in American circles - still the world's largest EV market - there is a culture of silencing and self-censorship regarding global warming, even within EV communities. Just recently there was a nice example here for how different the conversation is elsewhere: the founder of the UK's highly effective quick-charge network has no qualms about showcasing global warming as a main motivation, both for the network and for customers. In the US people in similar positions do somersaults to avoid mentioning the issue. So the first post's aim was to open up a space, in which one can talk about global warming with other EV fans and visitors of this site, without being set upon. The fact Post #2 is seeing the light of day, indicates at least a partial success :)
This second post will not talk much about EVs directly (I did sneak in one Tesla Model S eye-candy for you). Rather, it's about the science underlying global warming. Given the topic's contentious nature, and the style of the "debate" about it, I devote quite a bit of space for a reminder/refresher/primer about what science is and how it works. Since EV technology itself relies upon lots of science, this is not a bad conversation to have here - global warming or not.
The bane of global-warming perceptions in the US, is that politicians and media figures have injected so much partisanship and "He said, She said" chatter into the topic, that it comes across as purely political. It is not. Yes, What to do about global warming can become heatedly political. However, the study of global warming itself is not a political question. Rather, it is a straightforward application of scientific theory and methods.
This is why I don't believe in global warming. Belief and faith belong in the realm of religion, ideology, etc.A bio note: I have a B.Sc. in physics, an M.Sc. in environmental science, and a Ph.D. in statistics. As a statistician, too, most of my work has been in collaboration with scientists on scientific research projects. FWIW, I was also raised by a pair of scientists. I am not a climate scientist. However, the components of global warming are simple enough that anyone with a science degree can understand them on a pretty good level, and explain them in to others with less background.
Global warming, OTOH, is a collection of field measurements, scientific descriptions of reality, and scientific forecasts of future natural processes - all of which are based on several rather well-established, mainstream scientific theories.
I am not waving "Science" here as a codeword to hide behind. I am well aware that over the years there have been things calling themselves "Science" which were not. One shameful example is Eugenics, in vogue in many academic circles around the 1920s and 1930s. It turned out to be an intellectually compromised attempt to cloak racism in "Scientific" attire.
But here's the deal. The scientific theories that indicate anthropogenic global warming is happening, are among the most plain-vanilla, settled, non-questionable science you can find. Most of these theories have been around - and have been used extensively by all of us - for ~100 years.
Here's a list of the major components of global warming science.
- The chemistry of combustion (19th Century established science) - showing that industrial society has been releasing an excess of CO2 into the atmosphere;
- Straightforward measurements of atmospheric concentrations (e.g., the "Keeling Curve" plotted above) - showing that natural CO2 sinks (e.g., plants) are unable to absorb all that excess CO2, and therefore concentrations have been rapidly increasing. In fact, the "Keeling Curve" has been increasing every single year since the start of measurements in 1958; (Of course, massive destruction of native forests doesn't help either; but fossil-fuel burning remains the #1 cause.)
- Calibrated reconstruction of historical and prehistorical concentrations and temperatures, mostly from ice cores (using established lab methods, relying upon, e.g., stable-isotope ratios - a theory/practice that has been mainstream since mid-20th Century) - showing that our current (and still-rapidly-increasing) CO2 levels are well beyond anything seen on Earth in the last couple of million years, since well before the Ice Ages;
- "Black-body" electromagnetic radiation (data known since late 19th Century; usable theory stabilized in early 20th Century, in fact Einstein got his Nobel for his contributions to this theory) - showing that the Earth's surface emits electromagnetic radiation as a function of its temperature, with the most intense emissions being in the infrared range;
- Molecular absorption spectra of radiation (1st half of 20th Century, but data known before that) - showing that CO2 molecules (unlike, e.g. nitrogen and oxygen) absorb lots of infrared radiation;
- Heat and mass balance equations of gases and liquids (19th Cetury, although the advent of computers has revolutionized the way it is practiced and its ability to make predictions in complex systems) - showing how these phenomena play out in terms of the Earth's overall heat budget.
This is enough to establish that anthropogenic global warming is expected, because the Earth's ocean-atmosphere-land system has been running an ever more positive heat budget, driven mostly by the relentless increase in CO2, year over year. And since CO2 keeps rapidly increasing, we are nowhere near a new equilibrium yet.
Note that the words "Marxist Economics", "Social Engineering", "Stalin" or "Trotsky" are nowhere to be found in the list of scientific theories above :) Rather to the contrary, all of us use these very same underlying theories, every day, in a zillion different ways, without feeling the least bit controversial.
The less-certain part of global-warming science, is the task of trying to pinpoint how, where and when global warming will be felt worse/earlier/less/later. The inherent noise of weather systems, the difficulty of calculating a single global index for the Earth's surface temperature, the interaction with oceans (CO2 increase also causes ocean acidification, which is its own big problem, but also complicates climate predictions) - all these make exact predictions very difficult, especially since the entire system is out of balance at the moment. But this prediction task, too, is based mostly on mass and heat balance equations, mentioned above.
Recent and current field measurements of temperature and related variables, confirm that even though weather signals are noisy and difficult, global warming and other associated changes are indeed happening, pretty much as expected. In fact, generally worse than expected.
If you want to delve into more details on the scientific basis of global warming, besides the links above, here's the National Center for Atmospheric Research. UC-San Diego's Scripps Institute (they're the ones who started measuring CO2 at Mauna Loa in 1958) offers this free online course on the subject. And the following link has what seems like an earlier version of this class, without videos - but also without needing to register.
Ok, a few words on how science works. It's a bit tricky and not quite what we are taught in, say, middle school!
We humans have always tried to explain and predict the world around us. What sets science - a relatively recent yet wildly successful endeavor - apart from other such attempts, is science's dogged commitment to submit ALL theories to a rigorous reality check. Any scientific theory, large or small, that demonstrably fails its reality test, is discarded to be replaced with one that fits reality better. This encourages theories that are more general, more logically coherent, more defensible. (a semi-related aside: that's why economics is not a science; for example, economic theories proven horribly wrong by reality in the 2008 crash are still alive and well as if nothing happened...)
But this property of science, known as Falsifiability, also means that from a purist perspective, all scientific theories are by definition Wrong!!! The only question, is when and how we will find out they are wrong.
So... if all scientific theories are wrong, how can we ever use any of them ??? Obviously we do use them, right?
Ha. I guess I lied to you when I wrote scientific theories are always discarded when proven wrong. Many theories are indeed too flawed to be useful after proven wrong (stuff like "Cold Fusion" comes to mind). But some theories, are proven wrong in a way that helps define their limitations, i.e., it is understood where, when and why they fail. Moreover, it can be shown that within these limitations, the old disproven theory is still a very close approximation to the new and better theory (which is usually more complicated), making the older one still useful thanks to its simplicity.
The classic example is Newtonian mechanics, in particular Newton's Second Law F = ma. For over 100 years now, it is known that Newton's Laws break down as one approaches the speed of light, and also at subatomic size scales. And yet, professionals all around the world successfully use Newtonian dynamics in myriads of ways, e.g., when designing cars. In essence, we have modified Newton's Second Law to say,
For bodies with masses much larger than an atom's, and moving at speeds much smaller than the speed of light, F = ma is a very, very, very, very, very good and useful approximation.Besides these "proven-wrong-but-still useful" theories, we of course have the state-of-the-science theories: theories that have been tested and accepted broadly enough, to function as our best current working description of reality.
Put another way: science is the system of coming up with logically coherent, reality-tested, continually-improving approximate explanations of the natural world. While motivated by the search for the truth, science will always be imperfect, and never attain the full absolute truth, if such a thing exists.
Misrepresenting the imperfect nature of science has been a favorite tactic of anti-science types - whether their target is evolution, vaccinations or global warming (the old "It's Only a Theory, they are still figuring it out" canard).
Of course, this imperfection-by-design is part of why science works so well. Once you demand absolutely perfect knowledge of the Universe, no less - it's a very short road to blind faith in someone who (purportedly) possesses that knowledge. Failure to properly address reality is then guaranteed.
To sum things up:
Measuring human civilization's emissions, and figuring out how they affect the atmosphere, ocean and the climate - is all about researching natural processes and physical reality.The bitter irony is, scientists didn't ask for this weird fight with talking heads. Anyone who knows some scientists personally, can attest that most of us tend to be shy and to avoid mixing science work with politics. This is one reason why the earlier IPCC reports were rather nuanced and muted in language. The other reason is that the uncertainty about the rate and extent of the damage was greater; however, the scientific foundation was rock-solid and straightforward from the start.
Such tasks belong solidly in the realm of science.
Now, unlike some other professions, scientists are actually pretty good at what they do. For example, it is thanks to science that our lifespan is now double what it was for our great-great-grandparents.
It is supreme folly - nay, an absolute travesty - to take an inherently scientific question, hijack it from the scientists, and hand it over to talk-show hosts, random bloggers who specialize in provocation, conspiracy-theorists, politicians and empty-headed pundits: in other words, people who cannot even do their own jobs properly, let alone contribute positively to domains outside their profession.
Why would anyone want to do that?
In the 1990s most climate scientists thought that just pointing out the process to society would be enough; and for a while it seemed that way. But in the 2000s the topic fell prey (like many others) to the deepening polarization in American politics, and became political football - a game in which scientists feel like fish out of water. The few among them who are more outspoken (James Hansen comes to mind) have been singled out for vicious personal attacks aiming to destroy their career and good name.
In short, it is the height of Chutzpah to claim that climate scientists are "alarmists" about global warming. So far, they have been the grownups in the room.
That's why right now, all leading scientific communities - not just climate scientists, but organizations representing ALL scientists - are practically screaming from the rooftops while tearing their (remaining) hair out in despair, trying to get people to start taking it seriously rather than yet another Sunday-morning talk-show chatter.
Here, for example, is the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Here is the US National Climate Assessment. And last but not least, here is the IPCC website.
Finally, a news flash: even ExxonMobil, which for years had bankrolled much of the attempts to produce warming-denial research (attempts that have failed spectacularly on the scientific front), does not deny global warming anymore. The outright denial position has become too untenable for any global business leader. So now they "only" say we shouldn't do anything drastic about it, the darlings. See here for their current official view. They are not alone: recently there has been a mass realignment of many former outright-denialists towards this new "Yes it's happening, but it's not a big deal" frontline, from which they continue to wage the very same battle (oppose and delay action on global warming). Of course, none of these not-denying-anymore opinion shapers have bothered to inform or explain their recent shift, to the millions of good honest people who have trusted and followed them into outright denial.