Friday, November 16, 2012

Left Side of the Aisle #82 - Part 1

Global warming: Human cause and effect

Last week, I talked some about global warming. I've discovered I need to revisit the topic this week. There are two reasons: One, some new stuff has come out recently. Two, I pointed to evidence that the world is warming, but it develops that may not be the issue I need to address.

According to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, 67% of the American public agree that there is solid evidence that the climate is warming. That number has steadily increased over the past few years and is up 10 percentage points over 2009.

However, only 42% agree that the warming is mostly caused by human activity, such as burning fossil fuels, while nearly one in five still cling to the fantasy that it's all the result of natural cycles. While the number who accept human activity as the main cause is up eight points over 2010, it's still a minority. And, Pew reports, the public continues to be divided on the question of whether scientists do or do not agree that the Earth is warming mostly because of human activity: 45% say scientists agree while 43% say they do not. And the number who say scientists do agree on a human cause for climate change is down by 14 points since 2006.

So the corporate-funded right-wing bullshit machine has been doing its job. It can't continue to deny global warming outright, although it does still try to nibble around the edges regarding just how much or how fast the world is warming. Even so, it can cast doubt on the source of the warming. "Oh, it's all natural, it's all the Sun or clouds or cosmic rays or something." And more importantly, that bs machine can keep hammering the point "scientists can't agree." So "it's nothing to do with us" - more exactly, nothing to do with them, with the corporations, so they don't have to do anything.

Okay, so do scientist disagree about the human contribution to global warming? Hardly.

Among publishing scientists, that is, scientists who publish in peer-reviewed scientific journals, 89% agree that human activity is what's driving climate change. That's scientists who publish in any field. Among publishing climatologists, the people who actually study climate, the figure climbs to between 98 and 99 percent. Yes, scientists do agree that we human beings are screwing with the climate.

Why do they agree? Here's one specific: The big claim about "it's all natural," one you still see bandied about in comment threads, is that it's all because of the Sun. Well, here's something for folks who still believe that: The graph just below shows recorded temperatures in blue and observed solar irradiance - how much energy the Sun is putting out - in red. There was a time in the past when there was a very rough equivalance between solar irradiance and temperature, but that connection broke in the late 1970s. Solar irradiance has been dropping since about 1985 even as temperatures have accelerated their upward climb.

That's one reason, here's another: Scientists of all stripes often rely on models, on ways of mathematically describing processes that can be used both the explain a process and to predict its future behavior. The way you test a model is by comparing the results it gives with those already confirmed by observation and measurement; in the case of climate change, that would be things like sea levels and temperature records, among others. The closer the match, the more confidence you can have in the model's predictions of the future.

There is no model of climate change that can approach the observed facts without including a major impact from human activity. That's why scientists agree: It's what the facts tell them. Human beings are screwing with the climate. Period.

What does that mean for us? In a report issued on November 9, the National Research Council, as the result of a study commissioned by the CIA and other US intelligence agencies, declared that climate change will create more frequent but unpredictable crises in water supplies, food markets, energy supply chains, and public health systems, crises that will place unparalleled strains on American military and intelligence agencies. That is, climate change is a national security issue.

Appropriately, the report was released 10 days late due to the disruptions caused by Hurricane Sandy.

Meanwhile, a new study out of the US National Center for Atmospheric Research, also released November 9, finds that the climate change models which have been the most accurate in accounting for humidity are also on the high end of the range of projected temperature increases, up to above 7 degrees Fahrenheit - about 4 degrees Celsius - by the end of the century.

By the way, the US National Center for Atmospheric Research is a collaborative, multi-institution climate research initiative that came out of the National Science Foundation in 1960. They've been around a long time.

Now, remember what I told you last week: Climatologists have agreed for some time that to head off significant impacts from global warming, the temperature increase would have to be held to less than 2oC. I also told you that it's too late for that. Carbon dioxide produced by the burning of fossil fuels is a major driver of global warming. Concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere are already so high that even if we stopped the use of fossil fuels today, it's too late: The amount of CO2 we've already put into the atmosphere will cause the temperate to continue to rise for a few decades. Worse, the effect of already planned burning of fossil fuels will push the increase beyond 2oC. It is too late to head off significant impacts from climate change.

So what are we facing? According to the latest assessment by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, an increase in global temperatures of 2oC by the end of the century will mean water shortages in already-arid areas, more floods in low-lying coastal areas, coastal erosion in small island states, and the extinction of up to 30 percent of animal and plant species. It will also mean storms like Sandy coming more frequently and being more damaging. The effects on ocean life, such as on coral reefs, on the animals that depend on the coral, on the animals that depend on the animals that depend on the coral, will be severe.

With three degrees of warming, to all that we can add heat waves across Europe and the Mediterranean of the sort that killed thousands just a few years ago becoming the norm.

And so 4oC, the prediction of that latest study, what does 4oC of warming by the end of the century mean for us?

With four degrees of warming, we will begin to see a world that is unrecognizable to us today - lands where one billion people now live will be awash; some major coastal cities will have to be abandoned; devastating droughts will hit Africa and Asia as deserts expand; Scandinavia will be the new home for Caribbean-style resorts.

And what if it goes beyond that, what if that estimate proves to be too low, as other estimates of the extent and speed of climate change have already proven to be, what if the temperature increase reaches five degrees? At that point we could well see human society breaking down under the stress of droughts, floods, water shortages, loss of arable land, disruption of food supplies, the spread of disease as insects and other pests increase their range, and even wars and civil wars over dwindling resources in the face of hundreds of millions of environmental refugees.

That is the future we are setting ourselves up for when we refuse to recognize that we are screwing with the climate and therefore it is what we have done and are doing - not the Sun, not cosmic rays, not any of the rest of the nonsense - it is what we have done and are doing that matters the most and so it is what we will do from now on that will determine what our future will be.

Will we do what's necessary? I have my doubts. I really do. Consider this:

The International Energy Agency, which is a part of the multigovernment Organization for Cooperation and Economic Development, the OCED, issued a report on November 12 that opened by saying
The global energy map is changing, with potentially far-reaching consequences for energy markets and trade. ... Taking all new developments and policies into account, the world is still failing to put the global energy system onto a more sustainable path.
It also noted that fossil fuels received $523 billion in subsidies worldwide last year - a 30% increase and six times the subsidies for renewable technologies - and referred to a projected 3.6oC increase in temperatures by the end of the century.

So what did the media say? How was this covered?

The Los Angeles Times ignored all that to lead with the report's prediction that within five years the US will pass Saudi Arabia to become the world's top oil producer. The question about a sustainable path wasn't even mentioned until the 12th paragraph of a 14-paragraph story.

And the LA Times was hardly alone: Reuters, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the New York Daily News, Bloomberg, ABC, the Voice of America, CNBC, the Christian Science Monitor, they all headlined the bit about oil production as if that, the increased production of greenhouse gas-producing fossil fuels, was the big important story that everyone should know about. Interestingly, the one source I came across that lead with the issue of being on an unsustainable energy path was Forbes - the business magazine.

We are so very, very screwed.

And as a footnote to this, which you might title We're Screwed, Redux:

As I noted earlier, only 42% of Americans believe humans are responsible for global warming. At the same time, 57% believe in the reality of demonic possession. More than 2/3 of GOPpers believe in demonic possession, while fewer than half of them believe the world is even warming at all.

We are indeed so very screwed.


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