Rough Guide to Climate Change
Sunday, December 20, 2009
In our continuing conversation about the existence of climate change, I recently mentioned that one point in favor of an anthropogenic cause could be found within the colleges and universities across the planet.
Let us first agree that these institutions of higher learning have always served as the ultimate repositories of current human knowledge, whatever the subject. With that in mind, I am confident that classes in relevant science courses taught in bachelor's or post baccalaureate degree programs in the universities of the world accept the essential facts of human-caused climate change.
As is true within the scientific community, the debate in our classrooms is not about whether humans are altering the climate but how bad it will get before we finally decide to act.
To state it another way (please forgive the double negative), there is no evidence that science students taught in serious, conventional academic programs are instructed that our current climate is not changing, that these changes are natural or that these changes are not extremely serious.
Of course, it is still debated among non-scientists, the lay public, the muddled media, the confused, the misinformed and the internet on blogs like this but not among real scientists or within real science textbooks.
To test this theory, I took a look at one prestigious college, the University of California at San Diego (UCSD) and within that school, the Scripps Institution of Oceanography (SIO). I then explored the instructional programs offered this next term. I found only one relevant course called Climate Change and Society, taught by Dr. Jane Teranes and one textbook listed for this class.
The text is called the Rough Guide to Climate Change by Robert Henson.
The forward to the book is written by James Lovelock, the originator of the Gaia Hypothesis and the inventor of the electron capture detector which was critical in the discovery of the relationship between CFC's and the ozone hole.
Later this century when it is three degrees hotter glaciers everywhere will be melting in a climate of often unbearable heat and drought, punctuated with storms and floods. The consequences for humanity could be truly horrific; if we fail to act swiftly, the full impact of global heating could cull us along with vast populations of the plants and animals with whom we share Earth. In a worst case scenario there might--in the 22nd century--be only a remnant of humanity eking out a diminished existence in the Polar Regions and the few remaining oases left on a hot and arid Earth."
Students in Dr. Teranes' class will learn the following basic facts from Henson's first chapter:
The planet is warming. Over the last century the Earth has warmed over 1.3°F. The growing season has lengthened across much of the Northern Hemisphere.
"Mosquitoes, birds and other creatures are being pushed into new territories, driven into higher altitudes and latitudes by increasing warmth."
Over the last 150 years we have released a "staggering" amount of CO2 into our thin shell of an atmosphere. If the Earth were represented by a soccer ball, our "atmosphere would be no thicker than a sheet of paper wrapped around that ball."
And into that shallow pool of air, we pour 30 billion metric tons each year. Averaged across the planet, that is four metric tons per person per year. It is an undisputed scientific fact that CO2 traps heat. The heat of the sun radiates from the Earth's surface and is absorbed by CO2 and other critical greenhouse gases.
"Starting in 1958, precise measurements of carbon dioxide confirmed its steady increase in the atmosphere."
Thousands of independent scientists have released repeated reports over the last twenty years which state with increasing certainty that "Human-induced warming of the climate system is widespread."
Attribution studies tell us that "the signature" of global heating is critical. In other words, global computer models suggest that human-caused warming will be more intense at the poles and at night, which is exactly what is occurring. Natural causes or solar activity would have a different signature.
One study looked at five possible causes of global heating including volcanoes, sulphate aerosol pollution, solar activity, greenhouse gases and ozone depletion. They found the only factor consistent with the current warming could be attributed to greenhouse gases.
The destruction of the rainforests accounts for twenty percent of global warming. As we continue business as usual, a warming of between 2 and 11°F is expected this century, depending on how soon we act.
The poorest people on the planet, for example in Bangladesh and Africa, are the least responsible for emissions but are expected to suffer first and worst.
"Scientists consider it likely that the Greenland ice sheet will begin melting uncontrollably if global temperatures climb much more than 3.6°F."
Critical tipping points or positive feedback processes mean that as this continues to enfold, it amplifies the negative impacts. For example, melting ice means less reflection and more absorption of heat which in turns leads to more melting. Eventually this means unstoppable warming and melting, no matter what we do.
There is enough ice in Greenland and West Antarctica to raise the world's oceans more than 23 feet, which could take centuries but would be devastating to coastal communities.
All of this is still fixable but our time to act is growing shorter. Our biggest obstacle is ourselves. Are we willing to study the facts and come up with a solution that benefits everyone or do we remain stuck in a perpetual denial and avoidance? Our scientists and students see the truth. They are waiting for us to see it too.