Friday, September 20, 2013

Climate Change Workshop, part 1.

It is Friday night, and the Climate Change Workshop is about to begin. It is sponsored by Oklahomans for Excellence in Science Education (OESE) and the Oklahoma Climatological Survey. About 30 high school teachers and several instructors are waiting for the introductory session to begin. For many years OESE has led teachers' workshops about evolution; this is our first year to address climate change. Even though Oklahoma is famous as the place that is most hostile to climate change science, there are a lot of Oklahomans (and some Texans are here too) whose views are not at all represented by the famously anti-scientific views espoused by our two Senators, Inhofe and Coburn.

Climate change is a controversial topic. Not because of the science--the science is beyond dispute: the climate is changing and humans are causing the major portion of this change. It is a political controversy, mainly because if we reduce our carbon emissions, the fossil fuel industries will earn less money. As a matter of fact, I heard on the news just today that the federal government wants to require higher standards of air quality for new power plants. Loud objections came from the conservatives. What was their argument? It was that reducing carbon emissions would hurt the profits of the coal companies. No mention was made about the profits of utilities, or profits of alternative energy companies, or the costs paid by citizens, or the effect on the economy as a whole. Just the coal companies, as if the purpose of the United States is to make coal companies rich. The conservatives had nothing whatsoever to say about environmental consequences of climate change.

Our first session was led by Dr. Kevin Kloesel, director of the Climatological Survey. His job is challenging and interesting: Oklahoma is the most conservative state in the country. Every county voted Republican in both of the last presidential elections. And conservatives overwhelmingly oppose what climatologists like him say about global climate change. He began by inviting all the teachers to contact the Survey whenever they have questions, since there is no way a three-day workshop can tell you everything.

Climate, Kloesel said, does not exist. You cannot feel climate. Only weather exists. Climate is a large-scale long-term average of weather. But if you use averages, you are ignoring a great deal of variability. Oklahoma City and Charlotte, North Carolina, have the same average annual temperature, but the climates are very different. Kevin got all the teachers to imagine situations in which an average does not adequately reflect what their classes are actually like. For example, the average score on Exam 2 in your class may increase over the average score on Exam 1, even though for some students scores may decrease. Similarly, global warming is occurring on the average, even though in some places it is not or even getting cooler.

Kevin used a lot of lively metaphors to explain the basic concepts. Carbon has a budget of input and output just like a bank account. And Earth's carbon budget is not in balance. The Keeling curve shows a consistent increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide. There is no debate about this even among the climate denialists. And we can find out how much carbon dioxide there was in the air thousands of years ago because atmospheric gases are trapped in ancient ice, just like old food can get trapped in the ice in your freezer. That's how we know that the atmosphere has more carbon dioxide now than any time in the last several hundred thousand years.

Most climatologists believe that most global warming has been caused by humans. But, Kevin said, suppose that only one percent of the warming is caused by humans. But even if there is only a one percent risk that humans are causing global climate change, then we should do something about it. After all, there is only a tiny risk that your house will burn down, but you get your house insured, don't you? Why do we insure our houses--why do banks require mortgage holders to insure their houses--against a tiny risk of fire, and not "take out Earth insurance" for a much larger risk that our activities are putting the Earth at risk? Even if the risk is much lower than what most climate scientists think it actually is.

Carbon dioxide production per person actually leveled off from 1970 to 2000, largely because of energy conservation, especially the increase in fuel efficiency. Then in 2000 we went on a binge of carbon emission, especially from coal-fired power plants. But we have already seen that we can reduce our emissions by energy efficiency.

Scientists use data sets to understand current conditions and to make projections. But people outside of science may think that there is nothing wrong with taking just a couple of data points and projecting from them. So if, anywhere or anytime, temperatures decrease, some people can point to that as evidence that global warming is not occurring. For example, the eastern United States was cooler than normal this spring; and in Washington D. C. they assumed that if it is cooler in D. C. then it must be cooler in the whole world. The same thing happened in Europe. But in nearly all the rest of the world, 2013 was a hotter year than usual. Our lawmakers in D. C. stick their heads out the window and say "it's not hot" and ignore the rest of the world. July 2013 was cool in Oklahoma, but in the rest of the world it was a hot July.

Where is the extra carbon dioxide coming from? The carbon-14 content of the atmosphere is decreasing. Carbon-14 decreases over time by radioactive decay. This means that the new carbon dioxide is  from old sources--that is, fossil fuels.

So there are some things we know for certain. We know carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas and it is increasing and that most of this increase comes from fossil fuels.

A problem hanging over all of this is that the problems of global warming do not fit into the 2, 4, or 6 year time frame that politicians care about. It is ignored in favor of more immediate political crises. As I write, the main news from Washington is whether the Republicans will threaten to shut the government down unless the Democratic majority in the Senate destroys Obamacare. They have created an artificial crisis and it is taking up everybody's attention. In such conditions of continuous artificial crisis, how can the real long-term crisis of global climate change even be discussed?

Dr. Kloesel left us with a very clear sense that, despite some uncertainties of climate science, there are enough things of which we are absolutely certain that there is no doubt that we must take action.

Our workshop will continue tomorrow morning. I will report on it at that time. Good night.

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