Friday, September 26, 2014

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 20 high school teachers and several instructors are waiting for the introductory session to begin. As explained by the workshop organizer Rich Broughton, a zoologist from the University of Oklahoma, for many years OESE has led teachers' workshops about evolution; this is our second 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. When conservatives object to restrictions on carbon emissions, 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. Just today I heard that only about 10 percent of Americans deny climate change, while 42 percent believe that climate change is an imminent threat. But, if you look at Congress, you would get the impression that all Americans reject climate change.

After introductions, our first session was led by Dr. Kevin Kloesel, director of the Climatological Survey. He is a very enthusiastic speaker. His job is challenging and interesting: Oklahoma is the most conservative state in the country. Every county voted Republican in the last three 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. Oklahoma has one of the best meteorological surveys in the nation: hundreds of weather monitoring stations provide data to the website every five minutes to update the maps.

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. When we are confronted by messy overlapping data sets, we can easily get confused, and be misled when outliers capture our attention. Outlier events are what make the news, whether it is weather events or basketball scores. And how much more complex is weather and climate than what happens on a basketball court! Similarly, global warming does not mean that everyplace in the world is getting warmer. What do you hear on the news? Whether it was cold or warm in the United States, which is not representative of the world. What we need to know is that August 2014 was the 353rd straight month with global temperatures above the 20th century average! Meanwhile, our perception changes. We got used to extreme heat waves in 2011 and 2012 in Oklahoma, so a mere 90 degree F day in summer seems cool, even though it is well above the 20th century average.

Kevin then pointed out that one main reason that our temperature projections are getting better is that we now include the effects of carbon dioxide from human activity. If we only included natural processes, we find that the globe should be cooling. We can explain the current global warming only if we include anthropogenic (man-made) carbon dioxide and other pollutants. Last year the atmosphere surpassed 400 ppm of carbon dioxide, but there were no headlines "Earth shatters career record for carbon dioxide!" And most of this is from human sources: the decline in carbon-13 content of carbon dioxide in the air shows it is coming from coal, not from volcanoes.

But this makes little difference to climate change deniers. Kevin suggested we read at least a little of Senator James Inhofe's book, which shows that his reasons for denying climate change has absolutely nothing to do with what is happening with global temperatures. His opinions are based solely on his political beliefs.

We are conducting an experiment with the Earth, our only Earth, with no backup.

Kevin encouraged teachers to use data sets, even from basketball, that will help kids to understand how tricky it can be to draw conclusions by looking quickly at a complex data set.

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. The most important word in the phrase "global warming" is not warming, but global.

Our workshop will continue tomorrow morning. I will report on it at that time. Good night. I think the people are getting restless for conviviality.

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