Choose Your Battles

It was my grandmother who often offered this wise advice.  Unfortunately, advice is easily offered, but not so easily followed.  When emotions hijack us, we’re in no mood for thoughtful consideration.

Yesterday, the United States Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works conducted a hearing entitled Review of the President’s Climate Action Plan.  It lasted four hours, but it seemed like 40.  It was obvious that several of the senators suffer an amygdala hijacking unencumbered by grandmotherly advice.  Don’t ask me why I chose to endure such torture.  I don’t have an adequate excuse.

The hearing commenced with each senator making a statement.  Back and forth they sallied for exactly one hour and seventeen minutes, first a Democrat then a Republican with each side contradicting the other.  This occurred without much evidence that either side was listening to or considering the positions of the other.  The statements were prepared, and the senators read them with occasional outbursts and excursions off-script.

Each side had its favorite talking points.  The Republicans expressed concern that the administration, through the Environmental Protection Agency, was over-regulating without congressional authority.  They also argued that the Climate Action Plan was not based upon sound science and if implemented would devastate the economy without making any significant difference to the global climate.  The Democrats argued for the need to combat climate change.  They repeated the notion that a lack of action to reduce carbon pollution would lead to long term catastrophic consequences.  There were other points and counterpoints, but these were the primary themes.

Two panels of experts waited patiently and passively to testify.  Of these nine individuals, two were active climate scientists and the other seven represented various government agencies and non-governmental organizations.   It was the testimony of the scientists that motivated me to watch this Webcast in the first place.

I’m not particularly interested in politically motivated pontifications or the agendas of various special interests, but I am keenly interested in the science.   I found myself strangely fascinated and somewhat depressed by the statements of the senators.   Certainly, their statements were prepared by their staffs.  Of course, they must stick to their templates.  Changing their minds is as likely as winning the lottery, three times in a row.

The wonder of science is that our understanding does change.  There is nothing settled in science, neither the facts nor their interpretations.  Science is the continuous pursuit of knowledge.  I used two important words in that sentence, continuous and pursuit.  No matter how much we know, there is always more.  Often what we know turns out to be incorrect, and that is a good thing.  It means we learned something important.  The history of science is full of examples where so-called settled science turned out to be absurdly wrong.  No one recognized it, or perhaps just one persevering and courageous skeptic who dared to challenge the orthodoxy, the consensus.

Today, scientists know as much about climate as they know about what goes on in the centers of galaxies, which is not very much.  It is a relatively new interdisciplinary field of study meaning that you need to know some physics, chemistry, biology, geology, and many other sciences in order to grasp the whole of atmospheric dynamics.  Ironically, the very term “climate” is an invention, a construct.  There really is no such thing as a climate.  Consider the definition and you will see what I mean.  It refers to the average weather conditions for a specified region over a period of time.  The region may be a local environment or the entire planet.  The period of time might be a few years or decades, or it might mean multiple millennia.  The temperature is just one of countless measures that might describe a climate.

The number of factors that influence and change our atmosphere over time is incomprehensible.  The important point is that it is always changing and always will.  There is absolutely nothing we humans can do to prevent the climate from changing.  Heaven help us if we think we can control the sun, the motion of tectonic plates that make up the earth’s crust, volcanic eruptions on the continents or under the oceans, or the oscillations of currents in the world oceans among other forcings.

The notion of combating climate change as articulated by several senators is beyond ridiculous.  It is embarrassing that we elect people to serve us who should be so ignorant and arrogant.

The idea that carbon dioxide is a pollutant makes about as much sense as considering oxygen, nitrogen, and water to be pollutants.  All of these substances are vital to life on our planet.  Too much or too little of any one of these critical atmospheric components would be detrimental.  Using the euphemism “carbon pollution” instead of “carbon dioxide” is just an Orwellian propaganda tactic, and a transparent one for sure.

Allow me to conclude with a chart derived from a study published in Nature by Vinther, et. al., in 2009.  It shows a temperature trend from an analysis of an ice core from Greenland.  The temperature at different depths of the ice core is calculated using the relative concentrations of two different isotopes of oxygen.  This graphs represents 18 thousand years.  Remember that all of human civilization occurred within the most recent 10 thousand years.  Also remember that this represents just one location on the surface of the Earth.  Scientists have no record of global average temperature before the late 1970’s when the first satellites were placed in orbit to monitor atmospheric temperature trends.  Finally, remember that this represents only 4 ten-thousandths of one percent of the age of our planet.

Greenland Ice Cores from 18000 BP

The problem for atmospheric scientists is that they do not understand how global temperature changes occur naturally.  Therefore, they cannot say with any certainty how much of the warming that occurred in the most recent 20 years of the twentieth century might have occurred naturally.

It is obvious from this Greenland ice core, and many other studies, that our planet experienced a relatively colder episode known as “The Little Ice Age” which commenced about 1400 AD.  The warming from that cold period began about 1650 AD and has continued rather unsteadily to the present.  There is nothing unique about the recent warming compared to past warming such as occurred in the 1800’s.  In Greenland, significantly warmer temperatures than at present occurred from 6000 BCE to 3000 BCE and again during the Minoan, Roman, and Medieval warm periods.

Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas and fortunately for us, the atmosphere is warmed by its presence as well as by other greenhouse gases, most importantly water.  Without these gases that absorb infrared (heat energy), our planet would be a very cold place.  No credible atmospheric scientist disputes this.  There is considerable dispute about the relative importance of the various greenhouse gases and more importantly about feedback, positive or negative.  This is an active area of research.  Over most of the surface of the Earth, carbon dioxide contributes little to the greenhouse effect, being overwhelmed by water vapor and clouds.  There are many natural sources of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that dwarf human or anthropogenic sources by many orders of magnitude.  Much of the observed increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide over the last 60 years that we have accurately measured it, can be explained by the natural warming of the oceans.  We are currently in an interglacial known as the Holocene.  The most recent glacial period ended somewhat abruptly, in geologic time scales, about 12 thousand years ago.   The oceans have been generally warming ever since and outgassing carbon dioxide as a result.

Before we enter combat against climate change, I suggest we take a deep breath, and exhale some carbon pollutants.  The plants will love us for it.

About DocStephens

Retired college professor of science and mathematics, academic administrator, and president (emeritus).
This entry was posted in Climate Science, Politics and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Choose Your Battles

  1. Doug Andrews says:

    Last statement was much too funny. Well written piece. The senators…. how much of what they say is for perceived political advantage, or, do they actually believe some of it? Both are problematic.

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