All I Want for Christmas is a Climate Treaty: Demythologizing Climate Science and Responding to Skeptics

by on December 7th, 2009

It can be hard to be a climate activist, especially nowadays. In the midst of sinking public interest and belief in climate change and the already-infamous Climategate, one has to wonder why we climate activists still show our faces in public, with our 350 T-shirts and waving our CFL lightbulbs. It can be tiring, too, to hear the same questions and statements by skeptics, which by this point are so repetitive as to be cliche. Some examples of these questions are:

1. It’s snowing in October, how can the globe be warming?

2. It’s 10 below today outside–again, how can that be indicative warming?

3. How can we puny humans be causing climate change? Sounds awfully egotistical to me.

4. Warming and cooling periods have occurred since the beginning of the Earth, why is this any different? It’s part of a natural geological cycle.

5. Carbon is not pollution, it is needed to sustain life.

6. Politicians and environmental groups created the myth of climate change (and/or our affect on it) to make money/control the public/serve some other elaborate unnamed socio-political agenda.

7. So and so scientists has published papers debunking climate change or our contribution to it.

It’s become exhausting to always explain that weather is not climate. That one day, or even several days (or weeks or months) of a weather pattern is not indicative of an overall climate trend. Years and decades are, though. Climate is a cumulation of weather patterns over a long term. When figuring global climate, it is adding up the weather patterns of the entire world for a period of decades and finding the average. (This is why people making assumptions on climate because of the things that occur just in their city or town, actually seems to me to be epitome of egotism, as though their backyard is the center of the world and should be the defining factor of our climate.) It’s pretty simple math actually. Of course, overall, the world is warming, though it’s confusing to break it down, because just because the world is warming, doesn’t mean every place is warming. Some places are even getting colder (which is why “climate change” is now considered the more appropriate term, though it’s contributed to confusing and so alienating some people, who now erroneously argue that scientists can’t make up their mind what is going on, so keep changing the name).

Then skeptics also ask how humans can be culpable of such change. We humans engage in activities (deforestation, animal agriculture and the burning of fossil fuels) that both release a lot of greenhouse gases while at the same time get rid of global carbon sinks that would other absord and offset these emissions.

Fact: Greenhouse gases (GHGs) warm the atmosphere. This is as accepted in science and in the lay public as gravity (hence, the name “greenhouse gases”). Now, at the same time we are putting in unprecendented levels of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere since humans evolved, we are experiencing a warming trend that anamolous to our understanding of historical natural cycles. It seems to make sense, then, that our activities and their associated emissions would be connected to this warming trend. Again, simple math. Oh but, the amount of greenhouse gases we put in the atmosphere is so tiny compared to what’s already there or emitted by natural phenomenons, how does is it enough to force a warming trend? Well, for one, we’ve degraded most of our natural sinks that would take it out of the atmosphere (the Amazon, the ocean) and two, a system can be strained by something that seems small but isn’t in its ripple effects. A large mammal can be taken town by one particular tiny bug or microscopic germ. The germ or bug itself is small, but the disease it causes is large, pandemic even.

Our climate system is like a scale, which had an approximately equal numbers of marbles on each side. But at one point, we humans took a few off one side (the sinks), and put a few too many on the other (GHGs–which might not seemed like a lot, but it was enough), causing the scales to tip and the marbles to spill. We don’t know where all the marbles will land just like we don’t exactly know all the effects of climate change, but that shouldn’t undermine our ability to try to adapt to it or reset the scale so it can become balanced again. Of course, some people argue scale-tipping is a natural geological event, but looking over the planet’s geological history, such drastic changes in temperature usually takes tens of thousands of years, not a century and a half, to occur.

Carbon is not a pollution in and of itself. Neither is water. Both carbon and water in moderate doses sustain life and are necessary for its endurance. But too much water can cause flooding, and drowning, as crop farms and New Orleans residents can attest. Likewise, too much carbon in a certain context can be a bad thing as well.

The argument that leaves the most bitter taste in my mouth is that climate change is a fabricated or exaggerated phenomenon to serve some evasive agenda by whacko envionmentalists or the liberal elite. I have asked skeptics on the street who stop me to make this claim, if they have ever been to Alaska or another area in the Arctic. None of them ever have. Well, I have. I ask them what agenda the indigenous peoples of the Arctic are serving in suing the U.S. in the world court to control their emissions, other than trying to safeguard their simple subsistence way of life. These peoples have lived in their regions for a millenia, they now fall through thin sea ice that their ancestors camped on for weeks or months in preparation of Bowhead whale hunts, the whales come much earlier in the season now, and the sea ice is gone. I think they know when there is climate change. A climate skeptic who is a contributor on this site once responded to this by saying “we” (meaning everyone else in the world) can’t be expected to sacrifice our ways of life for what he guessed was a few hundred or thousand people who refused to modernize.

Oh, my. Besides the fact that Arctic indigenous peoples actually number in the hundreds of thousands, I found a horrible irony in his words. The United States comprises only 5% of the world population, while it uses over a quarter of its natural resources, including its oil. The average U.S. citizens has a carbon footprint that it is about 15 to 20 times higher than the global average. We have the highest per capita emissions from home energy use, private car use and consumption of animal protein, in the world. And yet, the U.S. is the only developed country that has so far abstained from partaking in a binding international climate treaty or passing its own climate legislation mandate. All this, despite the fact that people in developing countries will suffer the worst effects of climate change. So, really, what country and people is/are truly the minority expecting the majority to suffer for its way of life?

Why would indigenous people lie? Are bugs and animals capable of lying too? I was a wildlife biology student for several years. Resoundingly, species are migrating to areas that are colder than they could historically tolerate. We find tropical sharks swimming in sub-Arctic oceans, diseases now spreading in Arctic waters that never existed because the water was always cold enough to kill the bacteria, bugs that now can live through enough life cycles which lets them eat through trees and make forests fodder for fires in formerly frigid regions. Is ice capable of lying? Ice melts at a certain temperature regardless of our ideologies. And I have seen ice melt in places it never has and is not supposed to. Not because it is following an elaborate lie or agenda, but because it inevitably melts at warmer temperatures. And warmer temperatures is what we have. I have seen houses in coastal Alaska swallowed up by rising sea waters. It is silly to think that such rises won’t eventually affect all of us. If we don’t want to accredit it to our human behavior, then we are blatantly ignoring the meaning of the word, “greenhouse gas” and how much of it we spew in the context of these effects.

Assuming a perverse agenda on the part of environmentalists is also ironic not only in its implicit and elicit disingenousness, but because it is a projection of the truth of the climate skeptic movement. The truth is, the research of most climate skeptics scientists are heavily subsidized by the fossil fuel and agribusiness lobbies, two groups that undeniably have a strong vested interest in evading the science of climate change and fueling publich mistrust and confusion to keep them paying at the pump and high revenues rolling in.

A typical annual salary for a CEO for a top national or international environmental non-profit usually lies somewhere between $100-$200,000 dollars. This includes only the top dozen or so groups with the most brand name recognition (Sierra Club, NWF, WWF). Admittedly, this is not chump change and it can be validly argued this is too high for any NGO CEO, but this figure needs to be put in perspective. Most other employees at these NGOs, even the higher ups, which form the backbone of these groups and do all of the grunt work, make middle-class wages. CEOs of smaller environmental non-profits, which comprise the vast majority of those that exist (thousands), make barely a middle-class wage, while the other workers might make meager wages at or only slightly above the poverty line. By contrast, the typical annual salary of an oil CEO is several to tens of BILLIONS of dollars, with some of the workers beneath him making millions a year. To keep making that money, the public can’t believe in climate change or that our behavior is responsible for it. Again, do the simple math and come up with who has more of a reason to have a devious agenda, and whose scientists are more apt to lie. I have never been provided with scientific research debunking climate change or human contribution to it, that was NOT funded directly or indirectly by oil, gas, coal, car, or livestock interests. However, many of the scientific reports supporting global warming were by government scientists who had their funding cut, were fired, or were marginalized during the heydays of the Bush administration, which got most of their campaign donations from the fossil fuel lobby. Whose agenda are we worrried about?

The E.U. follows something called the precautionary principle, which deems if there is enough evidence to show a connection between two things, the country will err on the side of caution in assuming the connection is not merely incidental and implement the necessary precautions in averting any adverse effect associated with that connection. In other words, the connection does not have to be conclusive, but compelling. So, if there are chemicals that have been linked to cancer (e.g. trends show people exposed to such chemicals have higher rates of cancer, chemicals cause cancer in animal tests, etc.), they regulate or ban that chemical. Similarly, they regulate carbon because of its link to climate change and the projected adverse effects of unmitigated climate change on human and non-human populations. Here in the U.S., we do not follow the precautionary principle (incidentally, we also have much higher incidences of most cancers). With the chemical/cancer connection, we could also argue the connection between climate change and greenhouse gases emitted by our activities are all incidental and there’s not enough concrete proof to warrant legislation or behavior change. I would argue, as someone young enough to be expected to live through many of the projected impacts that are though to take place over the next several decades, and who has to ponder if I want to bring children into a world of water wars, floods, droughts, food scarcity and conflict with climate refugees, that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure (and many more pounds of arrogance).

The climate change we have catalyzed is like a disease. It has its lapses of remission, where the symptoms are confusing, and sometimes seem to be absent. As with someone chronically ill, there are many good days, weeks or months. But that doesn’t mean the disease is cured or never existed in the first place. Overall, the sick person is still getting worse, as the T cells drop or the cancer cells grow, the pain is more frequent every year as it winds down to its conclusion, which may be permanent disability or premature death. Because that person has some good days, or does not “look” sick to an outside observer who isn’t a medical professional, should that person avoid treatment? Should the disease be ignored?

The good days, though we should all appreciate them, should not fool skeptics as illustrative of an Earth in balance, or even lull climate change activists into complaisancy or calmness. We should understand that answers aren’t always linear or apparent. And we should err on the side of caution, for the sake of our future. Perhaps, as Climategate showed, we do not know everything about the future effects and implication of climate change, and evidence of our contribution to it is not 100% conclusive, but is is very compelling (95% sureness among the scientific community). Can we afford our arrogance?

For more, please check out:

New Scientists: A Guide to the Perplexed:

Skeptics and Contrarians:

DeSmog Blog (find a scientist and where they get their funding):

LTEs the fossil fuel lobby sent to NYT and other periodical pretending to be regular people to argue against climate change:

Arctic Climate Impact Assessment (ACIA):

Overview of Climate Science:

Laura Kiesel