Climate Change Science - Reframing the issue so we can agree on the basics
A couple weeks ago, the Energy and Commerce Committee held a markup hearing on legislation to curtail EPA regulation of greenhouse gases (GHGs). Part of the legislative hearing was a series of amendments stating three basic aspects of climate science that Congress should agree upon:
- The climate is warming, which is known from long-term meteorological observations
- Human-caused emissions of GHGs are the primary cause of recent climate changes
- Together, climate change and rising levels of GHGs are a danger to our current and future health
The Republican Party, including our very own Cory Gardner, voted against each amendment. They denied that we can see what is happening, they denied that we know why it is happening, and they denied that it is a problem.
Given the total dismissal of the issue of climate change by Cory and the GOP, I think what is needed is a simpler explanation that frames the problem in a way they can’t avoid. I think we need to reverse the usual discussion. The normal debate frames climate change as the problem, and as the Cory and the GOP have shown, it is a complex topic that they can easily ignore. I think we need to reframe it so that GHGs – a topic more easily understood and less easily manipulated by people with limited scientific understanding – are presented as the problem.
When the issue is framed with climate change as the focal point, the opposing sides simply bicker about the possible causes (“GHGs!” “No, volcanoes!”) and extents (“Rising sea levels and massive famine!” “More beaches!”). There are essentially no end to the number of causes and effects that can be proposed, and no good way to compare their validity. No wonder there has been no consensus!
To make matters worse, the GOP and people like Cory couch any debate about science in terms of cost. As a result, they’re willing to find and look for any other alternative to the problem of climate change, as long as those alternatives are less expensive than reducing GHG emissions.
It seems that a flip in our thinking needs to be done. At present, we argue from the top down: starting with the messy topic of climate change and working down to the simpler issue of GHGs. Instead, we need to educate policymakers from the bottom up. Instead of asking if climate change is a problem, we need to start with asking, “Do GHGs affect the temperature of the atmosphere?” When starting with the basics, one quickly realizes that there is far more consensus on GHGs and their atmospheric effects than Cory, the Republicans, and their corporate sponsors would like to admit.
Do Greenhouse Gases Affect the Temperature of the Earth’s Atmosphere?
I want this question brought up for a vote before the Energy and Commerce Committee. The question is about pure science. There are no politics, there is nothing about the source of greenhouse gases; there’s only a yes/no question, and surely Republicans wouldn’t simply disregard 150 years of scientific knowledge! After all, the scientific basis for our knowledge of GHGs dates to the 19th century and since has been proven true in experiment after experiment.
In articles from 1824 and 1827, Joseph Fourier calculated that the warm temperature of the Earth was impossible if warmed solely by the solar radiation. He proposed that the gases mixing in the atmosphere created a sort of blanket around the Earth, giving it a habitable temperature. This was generally regarded as the first hypothesis of a “greenhouse effect.” In short, we have nearly 200 years of science saying that, basically, the Earth is warm because of GHGs.
A few decades later, find Irish physicist John Tyndall, who conducted extensive experiments on thermal radiation. Of particular interest to the topic at hand were his experiments on various atmospheric gases. He published works detailing for his 19th century colleagues the thermal radiation absorption of water vapor, carbonous oxide, and carbonic acid or, in 21st century terms: water vapor, carbon monoxide, and carbon dioxide. He wrote extensively on the capabilities of these gases to catch and release thermal radiation, preventing heat from escaping the atmosphere. As a result, for over 150 years science has said that the more GHGs in a volume of gases, the more heat that volume retains.
In experiment after experiment, and even into the age of modern observation equipment, laboratory tests, and supercomputers, the evidence that greenhouse gases affect the temperature of the Earth’s atmosphere has only become stronger and more irrefutable.
Have we answered the question of whether greenhouse gases affect the temperature of the Earth’s atmosphere? Well, we’ve known for almost two centuries that the Earth is warm because of gases. And for a century and a half, we’ve known that greenhouse gases absorb and emit heat. And we’ve known for millions of years that when we add heat to something, it warms up. I’m no scientist, but it certainly seems to me as if we’ve answered the question. I’d like to know if Republicans and Cory would agree.
In the closing years of the 19th century, Swedish scientists Svante Arrhenius and Arvid Högbom were both working on studies related to CO2. Arrheniuis was working on the effect of CO2 during ancient ice ages and calculated that a reduction by half of atmospheric CO2 could cool the Earth by nearly 10 degrees Farenheit. Högbom, meanwhile, was calculating the volume and effects of CO2 emissions from the growing number of factories and industrial sources. Based on Tyndall’s not-yet-50-year-old research, both scientists knew that if the amount of these gases in the atmosphere changed, the heat level of the atmosphere would also change respectively.
At first, these scientists made clear that human-made CO2 could cause atmospheric heating, but found little cause for alarm, simply because they didn’t predict the enormous growth in anthropogenic emissions. In an 1896 study, Arrhenius thought climate change due to emissions might occur after several millennia. In 1908, however, he had already revised his prediction for human-emission-caused climate change from a few thousand years to just a few hundred, based on the exponential growth in coal burning and emissions. In the last century since that study, industrial emissions have grown beyond his wildest imagination. In short, for over 100 years, scientists have realized that human-caused emissions could change the Earth’s climate. The science behind every aspect of the GHG debate is rock-solid and generations-old.
In the time period from 10,000 years before the start of the industrial revolution until the start (basically 8250 BC to 1750 AD), CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere grew only 7.5% (260 to 280 parts per million - ppm). In the next 200 years, they grew about 13% (280 to 318 ppm). And yet, in the 50 years since (1960 to 2010), they have grown more than 20% (318 to 388ppm).
Phrased another way: carbon dioxide levels have grown more in the past 50 years than they did in the preceding 10,000. Something is causing the amount of GHGs in the Earth’s atmosphere to rise dramatically; could it maybe, possibly be the 31.8 gigatonnes of CO2 released by fossil fuels each year?
Reframing the issue
We must reframe the entire climate change debate. Thus far, it has been framed in the wrong direction: “Climate change is the problem, therefore we must reduce anthropogenic emissions that are the main cause of this problem.” This order of arguments results in the first debate being over whether climate change is a problem at all. This is a debate over different predictions for the future, and as Arrhenius showed with his failure to realize that coal emissions at the turn of the 20th century would increase at the rate they did, predicting the future isn’t easy.
Instead, the debate should be framed so that objective science, and not prognostication and political judgment, is the beginning (and unfortunately often the end!) of the debate. “Increased greenhouse gases are a major problem because these gases directly affect the temperature of the Earth’s atmosphere, therefore we should take steps to prevent the buildup of these gases that might change the climate catastrophically.”
So, let’s do that. Let’s reframe the debate, and let’s make the Energy and Commerce Committee vote on a new trio of amendments. Let Congress recognize that:
- Concentrations of greenhouse gases have an impact on the Earth’s atmosphere;
- Concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere have increased substantially in the past 50 years; and
- Increasing the temperature of the atmosphere will have negative consequences for the planet.
That seems pretty straightforward, and to vote “No” would require willful ignorance of centuries of scientific research (research upon which entire departments at NOAA, NWS, NASA, and the USAF are based). Let’s work toward agreement on the science and then let’s start working on what needs to be done as a result of logical conclusions from the science.
Republicans and Cory may think that the fix will be too expensive, but ethically and logically agreeing on the science doesn’t mean agreeing about money or anything other than the science. And while the fix may indeed be expensive, that doesn’t mean we don’t have a problem… but I’ll say more about that later.