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Providing scientific context for human-caused climate change


November 15, 2017

In light of the column submitted to the Student Voice by Jack Romanik and his statements regarding the questionable validity of human-caused climate change, I would like to take some time to stop and look through a handful of Romanik’s claims and provide scientific context.

I will mostly be focusing on the scientific side of the issue and use data provided by federal government organizations like NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Claim 1: We don’t know that climate change is human-driven

Romanik used a very common argument against human influence on climate change: “…Global climate averages have always changed, long before any industrial revolution.” That argument stems from something that is partially true, but it misses a lot of key points.

According to NASA, Earth does regularly go through fluctuations in its global climate. Sometimes it is caused by the earth’s orbit wobbling so that it is hit by sunlight at a different angle; sometimes it is caused by the sun itself changing how much solar energy it gives off; and sometimes it is due to huge burps of carbon dioxide from volcanoes.

Firstly, none of those factors are currently strong enough to result in the sorts of changes that our planet has been undergoing. Based on how much solar energy is currently hitting the planet, we should in fact be cooling down, and the amount of CO2 produced by volcanoes is nowhere near the amount produced by humans.

Secondly, Earth is heating up much faster than it ever did in the past. Normally it takes about 5,000 years for the global temperature to increase by 4 degrees Celsius after an ice age. In the last 100 years, the global temperature has increased by 0.7 degrees Celsius. That’s about ten times faster than the average ice-age-recovery warming.

Regarding CO2’s connection to climate change, Romanik said, “CO2 acts as a greenhouse gas, sure. Now explain why its levels are disconnected with temperature rises and falls. The net growth of ice in Antarctica.  The halt in the warming for a number of years.”

If you go to the page: https://www.climate.gov/maps-data, which is from NOAA, you’ll find an interactive series of charts labeled “Global Climate Dashboard.” There you can pull up any three graphs showing global data on things like temperature, sea level, carbon dioxide and arctic sea ice. The graphs will appear stacked one on top of the other, and will show you how these different factors have changed in relation to one another over the same period of time.

If you select “September Arctic Sea Ice,” “Global Average Temperature” and “Carbon Dioxide,” you’ll see that global temperature has been steadily rising since 1980, carbon dioxide levels have been rising at about the same rate and arctic sea ice is in decline. In short, they do appear to change in relation to one another.

Furthermore, the “halt in the warming for a number of years,” commonly known as a “hiatus,” results from the CO2 and heat energy being sucked up by the ocean, according to NOAA. This is also, incidentally, why climate change is linked to coral bleaching – excess CO2 raises the acidity of ocean water, which prompts the algae that give coral color (zooxanthellae) to leave. This makes the corals more likely to die out.

Claim 2: The effects of climate change are exaggerated, possibly useful

This is an interesting argument that Romanik makes: “There are benefits (to climate change) that man can take advantage of, and should.” These advantages, though potentially attractive to some, would be uncertain at best and depend on who, what and where you are.

In the Midwest, according to the National Climate Assessment from NASA, climate change will likely result in side effects like extreme heat, heavy downpours, flooding, late spring freezes, unpredictable rain patterns and shifts in pest/disease distribution.

For someone with an office job, this might not seem too consequential, but to someone who lives in close connection with the land – farmers, foresters, fishery workers – these changes will add a level of uncertainty to the job. Agricultural growing seasons might be extended by around two weeks, but extreme heat, unpredictable rain and shifting pest/disease distributions might lead to excess stress on crops that could negate whatever advantage the extended growing season offers.

On a more national scale, climate change has already led to extreme weather patterns that have proved devastating for people living along the coasts. The New York Times reports that this year has already seen 13 named storms, seven of which were hurricanes and four of which were category 3 or higher.

“Only four other seasons since 1995 have had that many by Sept. 18,” writes reporter Maggie Astor. “Just two more by the end of the year would put 2017 in the top 15 since 1851, when reliable records began.”

In the end, perhaps these changes will turn into the new “normal,” and life on earth will adapt. Farmers, perhaps, will develop new crops that can deal with the altered climate and humans will learn that they can no longer live on the coasts. In the meantime, however, things are going to be a bit chaotic.

Claim 3: “Political leftism has adopted climate change as a pseudo religious banner.”

This one I agree with. Very often people believe strongly that climate change is a problem, but have not done the research to back up their beliefs. Instead, they rely largely on hearsay and faith in their favorite news sources.

However, this is largely true of any issue that becomes heavily politicized and it applies to both sides of any argument. Anyone who recounts simplistic opinions on an issue without first doing their own research is acting largely on faith.

For anyone interested in debating the nuances of climate change, I recommend that you delve deep into the literature and data that is so readily available online. Look through government websites, as I did. Look through independent research papers and news articles from both sides of the debate. This issue is far too complex to fully explain in a format that will fit inside a newspaper, and it’s an important one to understand because of the potential effects it could have on our world.

Sophia Koch is a student at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls.