I am a scientist. For me, most decisions about things involve a hypothesis and supporting evidence. I have had a particular political hypothesis for some time. Today, that hypothesis appears supported by evidence.
Political Hypothesis: The super rich guys who say climate change isn’t happening, or we shouldn’t be worried about climate change, or we can simply ADAPT to climate change, will vanish when the sh*t hits the fan.
Consider the following tweets from President Trump over the past few days:
Texas & Florida are doing great but Puerto Rico, which was already suffering from broken infrastructure & massive debt, is in deep trouble..
“Ultimately, the government of Puerto Rico will have to work with us to determine how this massive rebuilding effort…will be funded.” [The effort] “will end up being one of the biggest ever” [and Puerto Rico already has] “a tremendous amount of debt.” -President Trump, in a press conference on Friday.
The message? You’re already in debt and it’s super costly to rebuild your stuff. You’re on your own.
This is a message that the town of Shishmaref, AK, I suspect, has already received loud and clear.
I am working on a draft article on the link between climate change and hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria. Please look for it soon, but it takes some time. (Real research takes longer than impulsive tweets!) Suffice it to say, every expectation is that warmer oceans and atmosphere will bring us increasingly strong hurricanes (see evidence in my upcoming post!)
Please pay attention to that evidence, and consider where you, personally, come down on it. Because, …
When our leaders say, “don’t worry about climate change,” they are saying it with the exact attitude and intentions as the guy who encouraged you to steal the farmer’s apples, then took off when the farmer appeared with his shotgun. The same as the guy who encouraged you to drink while under-age, then ran off and left you with the keg when the cops rolled up. They are having their fun, lying to you while their rich fossil fuel executive buddies get richer off fossil fuel technologies that, if rationality governed, should be going the way of rotary dial phones right now. But they have NO INTENTION of taking responsibility for the predicted consequences of climate change.
AP — On Wednesday, with an air of confidence reminiscent of their controversial “climate change” allegations, the world’s scientists were apparently nearly unanimous in predicting a strange astrophysical event, during which they outrageously claimed portions of the Earth’s population will experience partial, or even nearly total, darkness in the middle of the day. During this event, which scientists dubbed a “solar eclipse,” astronomers and astrophysicists explained that the moon will pass directly between the Earth and the sun from the vantage point of some observers in North America and around the world, temporarily blocking, or “occulting” the sun’s light.
“It’s a sort of weird and very cool phenomenon, but actually not as rare as many people think,” said University of California — Berkeley astrophysicist, Rhonda Rokitpantz, Ph.D. “In fact, a solar eclipse is visible somewhere on the Earth’s surface about once every 18 months. A total solar eclipse only occurs at a given location on the Earth about once every 360 years, though, so if you get a chance you should definitely check it out. You’ll be able to see stars in the middle of the day!”
As if these outlandish claims weren’t enough, scientists further claimed the ability to forecast exactly when this event will occur at any given point on the Earth. Indeed, NASA, an American organization dedicated to space and earth sciences, was found to have wantonly expended American taxpayer money on an entire webpage dedicated to the phenomenon and alleged upcoming event including, among other content, tables of calculated locations and times of “solar eclipses” as far into the future as the year 2100.
Many people and organizations worldwide, particularly in Europe, appeared to be taking the world’s scientists’ astrophysical forecasts at face value. A company based in Stavanger, Norway, timeanddate.com, was displaying on its website highly specific predictions. For example, a search on “Hudson, Wisconsin” on that website alleged the 2017 “solar eclipse” would commence at precisely 11:44 am on Monday, August 21, reaching maximum coverage of the sun at 1:07 pm and ending at 2:29 pm.
When questioned about how they could possibly have any confidence in such specific predictions, scientists widely referred to astronomical studies that have occurred since a mathematician and astronomer named Nicolaus Copernicus, a European, first proposed in the 1500’s that the Earth orbits the sun.
“The work of Copernicus was a breakthrough,” said NASA astronomer Morgan Meteorlicker. “It enabled the correct understanding of astronomical observations over the centuries since, and the development of mathematical equations that now empower us to predict a variety of astrophysical phenomena, like eclipses, with great accuracy.”
It was difficult to find scientists dissenting from the sensational view that darkness will occur in the afternoon next Monday in many American cities. In fact, even scientists in very different disciplines appeared to accept the claims with a high degree of confidence, citing a “scientific method” evidently discussed frequently in scientific circles. Scientists widely professed an almost religious faith in this “scientific method,” by which they claimed observations by scientists are reviewed by rival experts prior to detailed publication in “peer reviewed journals,” whereupon researchers in other disciplines perform related experiments to verify consistency with the published research, resulting in the correction of errors and emergent “scientific theories” widely held as revealed truths about the natural world.
Mayo Clinic neurologist Georgina Graymattur, a scientist not expert in astronomy, explained, “I’m not an expert in astro-anything, but astronomers have been applying the scientific method to this since Copernicus and publishing their work in peer reviewed journals like Science and Nature. They have a long history of making accurate predictions with those equations of theirs. Heck, they’ve successfully landed remote control cars on Mars! At this point, if NASA says there’s going to be a solar eclipse next Monday, I’d say you can take that to the bank.”
Indeed, astronomers and scientists specializing in ophthalmology were teaming up on Wednesday to warn of potential health hazards arising from the impending astrophysical “eclipse” phenomenon.
“You do need to take care not to look directly at the occulted sun during the solar eclipse,” said ophthalmologist Bartholomew Beedyiyes. “The sun appears less bright during an eclipse, which prevents the normally unconscious things, like squinting, that you usually do to protect your eyes from the sun’s UV radiation. Because of that, your eye won’t properly protect its delicate retina when you look at an eclipse, and you could sustain permanent eye damage.”
For those interested in viewing the upcoming “eclipse,” scientists recommended wearing protective eye wear, so-called “eclipse glasses,” which were being offered for sale by many companies.
Many American leaders were more circumspect about the scientists’ alarmist claims. President Donald Tweety took to social media early Thursday morning, tweeting, “This is obviously yet another Chinese hoax aimed at tricking middle class Americans into spending their hard-earned wages on ridiculous Chinese-manufactured cardboard glasses.”
A Reuters poll revealed that a majority of Americans believed there was something to the scientists’ claims, though a minority of those polled believed it was likely to impact them directly. Some strenuously questioned the elitist scientists’ claims.
“The moon and the sun both shine, so it seems to me that if they teamed up they would only shine brighter together,” said Ronald Randumpurson of Sundusky, OH. This commonsense argument, apparently highlighting an obvious fact the egghead scientists had missed despite their years of college and self-important faith in complicated “equations,” cast substantial doubt about the scientists’ claims for many observers.
A web search on the issue revealed many dissenting views as well. Willard Wannabegeek, a self-described entrepreneur and blogger, wrote on his blog, “The moon has a diameter of only 2,159 miles, while the sun has a diameter of 864,576 miles. Since the area of a disc is proportional to the square of its diameter, this means the frontal area of the sun is 160,362 times that of the moon. It’s simply not mathematically possible for a disc to obscure another disc that is over 160,000 times larger.” This alternative explanation, involving numbers, mathematics, and technical language, was as convincing to many as the assertions of the “mainstream scientists.”
Still other Americans, including lawmakers, emphasized their inability to fully evaluate the claims. Senator Dirk Dumbutt (R-WI), said in a press interview, “Look, I’m not a scientist, so I can’t comment on whether it’s possible for the moon to pass in front of the sun, and I can’t recommend buying so-called eclipse glasses. The fact that the government, in which I have a leadership role, employs a multitude of expert scientists to study this stuff surprisingly turns out to be of no use to me in evaluating the issue one way or the other.”
Many lay people seemed to echo Senator Dumbutt’s views questioning the knowledge of so-called “experts.” “I know the Earth experiences frequent periods of darkness,” explained Athens, Georgia resident, Kenny Kluliss, “but I can’t say for sure the cause or whether the sun or moon is mainly responsible. It could just as well be primarily the luminosity of the blessed sap, as others have purported. Or, it could be that the UN just wants to control the glasses I put on my face.”
Our reporters asked NOAA climatologist, Doreen Damitshot, if the scientists’ sensational claims about the upcoming “eclipse” were analogous to their similarly outrageous assertions regarding “anthropogenic global warming.”
By and large, while largely sympathetic to the scientists’ point of view, Americans appeared to be taking a wait-and-see attitude with respect to the controversy. President Tweety offered one suggestion: “If you’re worried about the sun hurting your eyes, you’ll be safe from the sun mining coal underground. I love coal miners!”
“We have nearly 100 years worth of natural gas and more than 250 years worth of clean, beautiful coal. We are a top producer of petroleum and the number one producer of natural gas. We have so much more than we ever thought possible. We are really in the driving seat…” -President Trump, calling for loosening of environmental regulations in pursuit of a “golden era of American energy” in a June 29, 2017 speech promoting the White House’s “Energy Week”
“And the last administration had an idea of keeping it in the ground.” -EPA Administrator, Scott Pruitt, in a March 28, 2017 interview with ABC News Anchor, George Stephanopoulos
Let’s ponder some numbers on those two statements. (Click hyperlinked numbers for more information…)
According to the same assessment, range of estimated carbon content of remaining global reserves of “beautiful” coal (of which beauty is, I guess, in the eye of the beholder), in gigatons of carbon: 7,300 to 11,000
According to NASA scientists, based on climate modeling shown in a peer reviewed scientific analysis to produce excellent agreement with past known global conditions spanning hundreds of thousands of years of Earth’s history, expected global average temperature increase if we were to burn fossil fuels containing 10,000 gigatons of carbon on a “business as usual” trajectory from the present, in degrees Fahrenheit: 29
In degrees Fahrenheit, sustained wet bulb temperature above which the human body cannot get rid of sufficient excess metabolic heat to maintain a normal core body temperature near 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit: 95
Assuming humanity burns additional fossil fuels containing 10,000 gigatons of carbon, estimated most common summer wet bulb temperature over the Earth’s surface, degrees Fahrenheit: 109
“The Earth was 10-12°C [18-22°F] warmer than today … at the peak of the PETM [Palaeocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum, about 56 million years ago in Earth’s history]. How did mammals survive that warmth? Some mammals have higher internal temperatures than humans and there is evidence of evolution of surface-area-to-mass ratio to aid heat dissipation, for example transient dwarfing of mammals and even soil fauna during the PETM warming. However, human-made warming will occur in a few centuries, as opposed to several millennia in the PETM, thus providing little opportunity for evolutionary dwarfism to alleviate impacts of global warming. We conclude that the large climate change from burning all fossil fuels would threaten the biological health and survival of humanity, making policies that rely substantially on adaptation inadequate.
… Most of the remaining fossil fuel carbon is in coal and unconventional oil and gas. Thus, it seems, humanity stands at a fork in the road. As conventional oil and gas are depleted, will we move to carbon-free energy and efficiency—or to unconventional fossil fuels and coal? If fossil fuels were made to pay their costs to society, costs of pollution and climate change, carbon-free alternatives might supplant fossil fuels over a period of decades. However, if governments force the public to bear the external costs and even subsidize fossil fuels, carbon emissions are likely to continue to grow, with deleterious consequences for young people and future generations.
It seems implausible that humanity will not alter its energy course as consequences of burning all fossil fuels become clearer. Yet strong evidence about the dangers of human-made climate change have so far had little effect. Whether governments continue to be so foolhardy as to allow or encourage development of all fossil fuels may determine the fate of humanity.”
Using words including “mythical,” “hoax,” and “bullshit,” number of times Donald Trump tweeted climate change skepticism or denial between 2011 and 2015: 115
In a permit application filed by Trump International Golf Links Ireland, number of tons of rock proposed to make up a sea wall to protect Trump Doonbeg, a low-lying, sea-side luxury golf course and resort purchased by Trump in 2014, from “global warming and its effects” (wording from the permit application): 200,000
Proposed height, in feet, of Trump’s proposed sea wall, which Trump International Golf Links Ireland wrote is necessary in the permit application, directly citing climate change, because “it could reasonably be expected that the rate of sea level rise might become twice of that presently occurring”: 13
Number of offshore wind turbines proposed to be built 4 km from the same golf course by Clare Coastal Wind Power Ltd, which Trump International Golf Links Ireland formally opposed on the grounds that “the resort primarily relies on bookings from international and, in particular, the North American market and a reduction in bookings as a consequence of the visual impact from the proposed development will have a serious negative impact on tourism in the area”: 9
Approximate number of Americans who, for the time being, call Shishmaref home: 650
Including Shishmaref, Number of Alaskan towns and cities at imminent risk of destruction by the effects of climate change: 31
Dollar amount of a federal “climate resilience” grant, announced by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in January, 2016, to fund the relocation of approximately 60 residents of Isle de Jean Charles, Louisiana, which is similarly being destroyed by the effects of climate change, according to the National Climate Assessment, a report co-authored by 13 federal agencies: 48,000,000
Approximate number of residents of Kiribati, a nation of 33 Pacific islands that recently paid nearly $7 million for a 6,000-acre refuge in Fiji because climate models predict much of Kiribati will be underwater by 2100: 110,000
According to the International Organization for Migration, minimum number of people who passed through Agadez, Niger in 2016 while fleeing West Africa on the so-called “Road on Fire,” due to prolonged, climate change induced failure of their subsistence farms: 311,000
Since 1983, number of people the government of China has relocated from the arid Ningxia region into new, hastily built villages, due in large part to rising temperatures and diminishing rainfall in Ningxia linked to climate change, the most recent wave of whom China formally names “ecological migrants”: 1,140,000
Approximate rate of increase, in square miles per year, of China’s deserts due to human activities including climate change: 1,300
According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, average number of people “forcibly displaced by weather-related sudden onset hazards – such as floods, storms, wildfires, extreme temperature” each year since 2008: 21,500,000
Percentage contribution of U.S. to cumulative global CO2 emissions from 1850 to 2011: 27
U.S. rank among nations in cumulative global CO2 emissions from 1850 to 2011: 1
Number of nations that have signed the Paris climate agreement and maintain their intention to honor their voluntary commitments to it: 194
Number of nations, including the U.S., that have announced their intention not to participate in the Paris climate agreement: 3
Number of references to “climate change” in President Trump’s June 1, 2017 speech announcing his decision to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris climate agreement, an internationally negotiated agreement to work collectively to prevent the potentially catastrophic consequences of “climate change”: 0
Number of references to “innovation” or “technology” in President Trump’s June 1, 2017 speech announcing his decision to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris climate agreement: 0
Number of references to “solar” or “wind” in President Trump’s June 1, 2017 speech announcing his decision to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris climate agreement: 0
Number of references to “coal” in President Trump’s June 1, 2017 speech announcing his decision to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris climate agreement: 8
Number of references to “job,” “jobs,” or “joblessness” in President Trump’s June 1, 2017 speech announcing his decision to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris climate agreement: 18
Number of Americans employed by the coal industry in 2016, according to the DOE: 160,119
Number of Americans employed by the solar industry in 2016, according to the DOE: 373,807
Percentage of U.S. electricity generated by coal in 2016, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA): 30.4
Percentage of U.S. electricity generated by solar in 2016, according to the U.S. EIA: 0.9
Number of Americans employed by the coal industry in 2016 per percentage unit of coal’s contribution to U.S. electricity generation: 5,267
Number of Americans employed by the solar industry in 2016 per percentage unit of solar’s contribution to U.S. electricity generation: 415,341
Metric tons of CO2 emitted in 2016 by electricity generation from U.S. coal, according to the U.S. EIA: 1,241
Amount of CO2 emitted by U.S. solar electricity generation: 0
According to President Trump in a February, 2017 speech, estimate of potential jobs to be created by approval of the Keystone XL pipeline project, approved in March by the Trump Administration: 42,000
According to an official U.S. State Department report, number of permanent jobs expected to be created by the Keystone XL pipeline project: 35
According to a study by the DOE, percentage increase in CO2 emissions from Canadian oil sands oil, to be transported by the Keystone XL pipeline, relative to traditional U.S. crude: 18
In 2007, photographer James Balog founded the Extreme Ice Survey (EIS), the most comprehensive ground-based photographic study of the Earth’s glaciers ever undertaken. Pioneering new automated time lapse technology, James and a team of scientists, videographers, and extreme weather expedition experts have setup 43 cameras to record the changes occurring in 24 glaciers in Antarctica, Greenland, Iceland, Alaska, Canada, Austria, and the Rocky Mountains. Over the past decade, this has resulted in stunning time lapse recordings of the changing glaciers (spoiler alert, they are melting). Click each of the images below to see, in about a minute, the effects of 7-8 years of climate change on one of the world’s largest glaciers.
Along with expansion of the oceans as they heat up, the melting of the large, land-based glaciers in these videos directly contributes to sea-level rise. A recent scientific study of the melting of Antarctic land-based glaciers, published in the prestigious and extensively peer-reviewed journal, Nature, makes the following conclusion:
“Antarctica has the potential to contribute more than a metre of sea-level rise by 2100 and more than 15 metres by 2500, if emissions continue unabated. In this case atmospheric warming will soon become the dominant driver of ice loss, but prolonged ocean warming will delay its recovery for thousands of years.”
The second of the above sentences refers to modeling results that quantified the expected effects of rising atmospheric temperature on the ocean temperature. The ocean heats up more slowly than the atmosphere. This means that atmospheric temperature changes we are “locking in” now will result in delayed warming of the oceans that will take millennia to reverse, even if we were to arrest the heating of the atmosphere now. This “sluggishness” of many of the Earth’s climate responses, very well understood by scientists, is important information for all of us to understand. As our leaders dither around with ignorant and disingenuous arguments about whether climate change is even happening (it is), balancing needs of the environment against short-term jobs in the fossil fuel industry (or, as evidence suggests is really the case, short-term profits for highly influential fossil fuel executives), we must understand that the decisions we are making right now, every day, are profoundly affecting the challenges of future generations, including the kids among us right now.
Showing both events on a split screen would’ve made for some good TV.
The photos above, of a crack in the Antarctic Larsen C ice shelf, were taken last November. But throughout last week, scientists watched as the greater than 120-mile long crack advanced 11 miles, leaving the crack tip only 8 miles from the edge of the ice shelf. This chunk of the ice shelf is expected to break off soon, freeing an iceberg roughly the size of the state of Delaware.
“…by 2040, compliance with the commitments put into place by the previous administration would cut production for the following sectors: … coal – and I happen to love the coal miners – down 86 percent.” -President Trump, explaining in the Rose Garden a shocking prediction that informed his thinking on exiting the Paris Climate Agreement
Um, duh. Replacement of CO2-emitting fuel sources with renewable ones is, literally, the point of the Paris Climate Agreement. So, yeah, parties to the agreement will be burning less coal. On account of trying to prevent the flooding described above, among other terrible consequences predicted if we continue “business as usual.”
A partial list of other industries that have succumbed to the relentless march of progress: horse and buggy manufacturing; rotary dial phone manufacturing; typewriter manufacturing; Betamax, VHS, 8-track, and cassette tape manufacturing; vinyl records; floppy discs; phone booths; dial-up modems; parachute pants (at least, until they come back); cathode ray tube televisions.
Does President Trump weep for the disappearance of those obsolete industries, each of which previously employed Americans? Most of us don’t weep, because those industries have all been replaced by new ones, to everyone’s benefit. Coal is no different. It’s served a valuable purpose, enabling much of the world to industrialize. But now we have economical solar energy, and it’s better.
The single part of Trump’s speech that had merit was his concern for workers in the coal industry, who are suffering from diminishing employment opportunities. As it turns out, this has very little to do with the Paris Climate Agreement, however. As has been widely reported (link, link, link), coal jobs are disappearing primarily due to automation (human coal miners get black lung; machines don’t), cheap natural gas, and cheap renewables. So, in the case of this one meritorious element of Trump’s argument, he has prescribed the wrong medicine for the right diagnosis. It may make some people feel good when they watch him on TV, but it’s not going to work, and in literally giving the entire Earth a fever, it has some serious side effects.
If Trump really cares about coal miners, one can envision productive policies that might actually help them. For example, upgrades to the U.S. electrical grid can help utilize renewable energy sources more efficiently (easy-to-read article, scientific study). The President’s $1 trillion infrastructure plan could include some of these upgrades, with a provision to re-train coal miners to do the work.
In an impressive feat of linguistics, President Trump managed to deliver his 2,000 word speech about exiting the Paris Climate Agreement, an agreement directed at preventing the worst potential consequences of climate change, without even once mentioning, well, climate change. EPA administrator Scott Pruitt, in a follow-up interview, further clarified this:
“This is not about whether climate change is occurring or not.” -Scott Pruitt, head of a federal agency with “environmental protection” in its name, clarifying his takeaways from the President’s statement Thursday announcing plans to withdraw the U.S. from the cooperative international effort to protect the environment from climate change, which is occurring
If climate change is occurring (it demonstrably is), then its terrifying potential consequences – destruction of the Palm Beach Mar-a-Lago, followed by an existential threat to the survivability of humans on Earth – would surely outweigh any of the purely short-term economic harms Trump mentioned in his speech. So, of course, this is precisely about whether climate change is occurring or not.
With respect to climate change, our federal government is failing us. The executive branch has just aligned us with Nicaragua and Syria in some sort of Axis of Environmental Villainy, spouting nonsensical declarations about climate change along the way (that it’s a hoax, it’s not happening, the science is “not in,” etc.) But Congress is entirely complicit. As I documented on another page, the attitudes of Congress members with regard to climate change fail to reflect those of the general public, let alone the scientists whose attitudes have been informed by actual data. The Supreme Court largely put Congress up for sale with its Citizens United decision. By equating monetary contributions with “speech,” this decision handed a virtually infinitely sized bullhorn to any corporate interest with deep pockets, an unimaginative business plan, and a callous disregard for future humans. As described in this New York Times article, Koch Industries and other fossil fuel interests have used this to great effect, systematically funding successful primary challenges to Congress members expressing concern about climate change, among other activities.
Here’s the thing, though. The Earth doesn’t care. As long as we continue “business as usual,” ice chunks equated with the sizes of ever larger U.S. states will continue breaking off of Antarctica and Greenland. This will happen whether Trump talks about it or refuses to talk about it, whether the EPA has a global warming website or not, or whether Trump is successful in his efforts to de-fund the very science activities with which we observe the climate.
A group of people – any group of people, including the President’s administration – who remains too thoroughly and too long divorced from reality will inevitably become irrelevant, because truth will eventually show them to be ridiculous. If an ice shelf collapses in Antarctica and no scientists are funded to see it, does it make a sound? Yes. Eventually, the sound of waves lapping at the base of the Mar-a-Lago.
The silver lining in all this, for me, is it has been a powerful civics reminder of the wisdom of our Founding Fathers, who created a federalist government replete with checks and balances, not only at the federal level, but between the various levels of government themselves. In the event that the federal government goes off the rails, states and cities retain substantial independence and power. In the wake of Trump’s shameful and irresponsible announcement of his administration’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement, the following events have unfolded:
In response to the part of Trump’s speech in which he explained his shameful decision by saying he was “elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris,” the mayor of Pittsburgh tweeted, “As the Mayor of Pittsburgh, I can assure you that we will follow the guidelines of the Paris Agreement for our people, our economy & future.”
The governors of New York, California, and Washington announced the formation of the United States Climate Alliance to convene states that will uphold the commitments of the Paris Agreement no matter what the federal government does (read more). Together, these states are the 5th largest economy and the 6th largest carbon emitter in the world.
The mayors of over 85 U.S. cities signed a letter making a similar commitment.
Many of America’s most innovative corporations also expressed their intention to support the Paris Agreement.
While the federal government could (and should) certainly help, the fact is, in our federalist nation, it need not define us. If a sufficient number of states, cities, and corporations only want to buy renewable energy, then fossil energy will go the way of Betamax.
I started this blog because I was worried the events of last Thursday might unfold. They unfolded. Now, we need to shift our attention and support to the leaders who remain engaged with reality. Being as informed as possible is an important part of that.
In the last 3 episodes of our history of global climate change evidence, we’ve focused on measurement of Earth’s atmospheric CO2 record, finding in the last episode that it’s now over 40% higher than the entire pre-industrial experience of the human species spanning over 200,000 years. But we have not checked in on global temperature measurements since Episode 3, where the intrepid steam engineer, Guy Callendar (1961) and Landsberg & Mitchell, Jr. (1961) had independently measured what appeared to be a slight but discernible warming between 1880 and the late 1950’s. You may also recall from Episode 3 that the physicist, Gilbert Plass, had used some of the first computers to refine calculations of infrared absorption by CO2, predicting we would observe about a 1 degree temperature increase between the years 1900 and 2000, whereupon we would also begin to observe obvious effects of climate change.
Well, the year 2000 has come and gone and we have thermometers all over the world. Let’s grade Dr. Plass’ work, shall we?
In the 1960’s and 1970’s, others continued to document surface temperature records from collections of meteorological stations, but the data were gathered primarily from stations in the Northern Hemisphere and there wasn’t a standardized method of obtaining a truly global temperature average. During that time, James Hansen, a physicist and astronomer at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, was studying the planet Venus. Specifically, he was calculating the influence of Venus’ thick atmosphere on its extremely hot surface temperature. (Fun fact: scientists believe Venus’ atmosphere several billion years ago was similar to Earth’s and it had liquid water on its surface, but Venus now has a thick atmosphere and a scorching surface temperature of 864 degrees Fahrenheit due to the occurrence of a runaway greenhouse effect.)
In the late 1970’s, Hansen turned his attention to similar calculations of the effects of Earth’s atmosphere on its surface temperature. As part of this work, he tackled the problem of creating a standardized method for calculating global average temperature trends. The method begins with the recognition that, while absolute temperatures are widely variable from place to place on the Earth, even for locations relatively close to one another, temperature changes of nearby locations tend to be very similar. For example, while the absolute temperatures in New York and Pittsburgh might be quite different on a particular day, if one is having a hotter than average month, the other is likely having a month hotter than average by around the same amount. Thus, global temperature trends are plotted, not as absolute temperatures, but as temperature differences, called “temperature anomalies,” relative to some reference temperature.
The second key element of the method is the Earth’s surface is divided up into a grid formed by squares of equally spaced latitude and longitude lines, such that each square contains a sufficient number of weather stations to obtain an accurate record of historical temperature data. At any given time in history, then, the temperatures of the squares are averaged to get an estimate of the global average temperature. Various statistical methods are used to correct for errors, such as the known artificial urban warming around weather stations in or near cities. The gathering of sufficient, widespread temperature data to apply this method began in the late 1800’s. Hansen’s method was initially published in the peer-reviewed scientific journal, Science, in 1981, and has since been updated as the techniques have continued to improve (1987, 2010).
Similar methods have now been applied independently by four major research groups. They make their data publicly available for download (see links in the caption below). Here are the four readings of the “global thermometer” (orange, pink, red, and purple lines) plotted on top of the global CO2 record (green and blue circles) we saw in Episode 5:
Due to differences between the chosen data sources, gridding methods, and error correction methods used by the four independent groups (for details, see references in the caption above), the four temperature records are not identical. They show remarkable agreement, however. They generally have peaks and valleys in the same places, and their basic conclusions are all the same – the world is about 1.1 degrees Celsius warmer now than it was in pre-industrial times. Check out the video below, where the NASA and NOAA gridded data have been used to show how different parts of the globe have changed in temperature.
There is no obvious evidence of a “Chinese hoax” here. Instead, these appear to be the serious, well considered and extensively peer-reviewed conclusions of four independently funded and well-respected scientific groups (a British group, a Japanese group, and 2 U.S. groups – one of which, NASA, has brought us other generally well-regarded scientific achievements such as the moon landings).
In their 1981 paper, James Hansen and his coworkers calculated the temperature increase, relative to the global temperature around 1975, at which we would have a greater than 98% statistical confidence that global warming is “real” (not just a result of random temperature variations). That would be when the temperature rose above the light grey range in this graph, about 0.2 degrees C higher than the 1975 temperature, which the NASA scientists predicted would occur in the 1990’s.
A look at the temperature data above shows that had indeed occurred by the 1990’s. Now, we are a full 0.8-1.0 degrees C above the 1975 temperature, and there can really be no doubt.
Strikingly, the temperature graphs above have almost exactly the same shape as the CO2 graph! But, if we’ve been paying attention to our history of evidence, this should not be a surprise. Rather, it should be a confirmation of our expectations. Sure, the Earth’s climate is a highly complex system, and there have been real questions about things like the role of the deep oceans, as we saw in Episode 3. But those questions were settled by around 1960, by which time Dave Keeling had also begun direct measurements of the atmospheric CO2 concentration. Once we see CO2 going up, we expect warming with mathematical certainty. Based on physics known since the early 1800’s, CO2 absorbs infrared radiation reflected from the Earth’s surface, generating heat. It’s as simple as that. At the end of the day, the basic physics driving global warming are far simpler than those at work every moment inside your smart phone.
Anyone denying the reality of global warming would have to not only explain why at least four formidable groups of well-respected scientists, not evidently influenced by Chinese hoaxters, don’t know how to process data from thermometers. They would also need to explain how the undeniable increase in atmospheric CO2 through the combustion of fossil fuels has somehow not resulted in warming, when anyone with a basic laboratory infrared instrument can verify the infrared absorption of CO2. In fact, did you notice in Episode 4 how the weekly atmospheric CO2 concentration at Mauna Loa is measured? By the infrared absorption of collected air samples! So, every time we measure the CO2 concentration of the atmosphere, by the method precise enough to reveal the seasonal respiration of plants, we verify the very physical phenomenon that drives global warming!
OK, so it’s time to grade Dr. Gilbert Plass’ 1956 prediction of around 1 degree Celsius of warming between 1900 and 2000, and readily observed effects of global climate change, due to infrared adsorption by increased atmospheric CO2. The verdict?
Actual warming between 1900 and 2000? Around 0.8 degrees C. Not bad. Maybe an A-. But pretty impressive given that Dr. Plass was using the world’s very first computers and considering only the effects of infrared absorption by CO2.
Readily observable effects of global climate change? Absolutely.
Click below to watch a 5-minute video of the largest glacier collapse ever caught on film, according to the 2016 Guiness Book of World Records.
On May 28, 2008, while setting up to capture time-lapse footage of the Ilulissat Glacier (also known as the Jakobshavn Glacier) in western Greenland, documentary filmmakers Adam LeWinter and Jeff Orlowski happened to be in the right place, at the right time, to capture on film a 75-minute calving event during which a chunk of ice roughly the size of Manhattan broke off the glacier and collapsed into the ocean, causing a virtually instantaneous one-mile retreat of this Greenland glacier.
The filmmakers’ footage of glacier changes in the Arctic, due to global warming, was ultimately part of a documentary film, Chasing Ice, which won an Emmy in 2014. (You can stream it on Netflix.)
In 2015, the same glacier lost another 5 square mile chunk of ice during a 2-day period in August. Its current melting rate is roughly three times its melting rate in the 1990’s, according to a scientific study published in 2014. The Greenland ice sheet is dumping about 300 gigatons of ice into the ocean each year, according to NASA, making it the current largest source of sea-level rise from melting ice.