Climate change is a fact, not a theory
I was not going to respond the June 17 letter “Academia’s arrogance reflected in climate change debate,” but as a science educator and author, I feel it is my duty to respond.
First, over 97 percent of scientists agree that climate change is happening “unequivocally,” as noted in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Report. All scientific research papers undergo peer review. When only 3 percent of the scientific community question the accuracy of the research, it is far from a debate (source of statistic is from NASA).
When the new National Standards for science education called the Next Generation of Science Standards (NGSS),” mentions climate change over 16 times because the evidence supporting it is as strong as that supporting the theory of evolution or Einstein’s theory of relativity, including it as an integral part of the standards was essential to science literacy.
Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas that has increased by over 42 percent since the Industrial Revolution (from 280 parts per million (ppm) to over 400 ppm). However, this does not mean there will be an immediate corresponding increase in temperature of our atmosphere. Climate on Earth is too complex for that.
There are many variables that impact climate, such as topography, large bodies of water, El Nino (warming) and La Nina (cooling) in the Pacific Ocean, volcanic eruptions and the oscillation of Earth as it rotates on its axis.
The increased heat captured by greenhouses gases is causing our oceans to warm. Remember, our planet is 70 percent water. Water has what scientists call, a "high specific heat." It absorbs and releases heat slowly. It acts as a huge sink to deposit heat energy. Thus, its capacity to store and release heat is immense. Heat transfer depends on differences in temperature. As the temperature differences between the oceans and atmosphere increase, so will the amount of heat energy they transfer. Hence, the 42 percent increase in carbon dioxide is very significant; it will just take a while to fully experience its impact.
The main difference between natural climate changes and anthropogenic changes is the speed by which it is taking place. Climatologists are most concerned about the greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, because it stays in the atmosphere much longer than the other greenhouse gases, giving it the greatest radiative forcing potential. Radiative forcing is the ability of a greenhouse gas to radiate heat back to Earth.
According to NASA, “As the Earth moved out of ice ages over the past million years, the global temperature rose a total of 4 to 7 degrees Celsius over about 5,000 years. In the past century alone, the temperature has climbed 0.7 degrees Celsius, roughly 10 times faster than the average rate of ice-age-recovery warming.” Hence, when we talk about climate change induced by human activity, it is the speed in which it is taking place that separates it from our planet’s history of glacial and interglacial periods.
The author of the letter I am responding to suggests the increase in our global temperature is because we were coming out of a mini ice age. Climatologists know that. Their concern is that the temperature of our planet never changed that fast naturally.
I would like to close with a statement from the late Stephen Schneider, one of the coordinating authors of the IPCC Report. I coordinate speakers for the Science Teachers Association of New York State (STANYS), and he was the keynote speaker in 2007. It was fun for me because he would share some of his emails with me from those working on the IPPC Report. He explained to the audience that climate change is based on consensus science. When thousands of research papers were reviewed by over 2,000 scientists from around the world, they concluded that climate change was “unequivocally” happening.
For the skeptic in the audience, Dr. Schneider provided this metaphor. He asked the audience of over 1,000, “How many of you carry fire insurance?” Everyone raised his or her hand. Next he asked, “How many of you had a fire?” About three to four people raised their hands. “So,” he continued, “You are willing to purchase fire insurance when there is a very low probability you will have a fire, but you are not willing to do something about climate change when its probability of happening is extremely high!”