Climate change – specifically global warming – is one of the more controversial issues mankind is facing. Consensus about climate change’s definition, effects, and causes, especially the role that humans play in the acceleration of climate change, is virtually impossible to reach. The controversy is particularly clear in the energy industry, where many assert that there is no scientific agreement about the causes of global warming or its potential problems.
Differing Opinions on the Effects of Climate Change
James Taylor, senior fellow for environment policy at the Heartland Institute, claimed in a 2013 Forbes Magazine article that the majority of scientists “believe that nature is the primary cause of recent global warming and/or that future global warming will not be a very serious problem.” His conclusion was based on what Taylor stated was a “peer-reviewed survey” appearing in Organization Studies.
Further fact-checking reveals that the scientists surveyed for the Organization Studies paper were not considered experts in climatology. And despite the claim of Mr. Taylor, the study wasn’t designed to to gauge scientific belief in global warming. In fact, the study group consisted of 1,077 professional petroleum engineers and geoscientists in Alberta, Canada, and its purpose was to understand the bias and rationale of those who consistently deny a link between global warming and human activity. As such, the scientists were specifically chosen because they worked for the oil industry.
The difficulty of sourcing impartial and accurate information about global warming and its possible causes in the midst of aggressive campaigning by both sides (environmentalists and energy advocates), dilutes the importance of the issue and confuses the average citizen. And interestingly, concern about global warming and its existence is split along partisan political lines according to a Pew Research Poll released January 27, 2014. It found that:
- Eighty-four percent (84%) of Democrats believe there is solid evidence that global warming is occurring, while less than half of Republicans (46%) agree. Only one in four Tea Party Republicans believe that global warming is real.
- Almost two-thirds of Democrats believe that global warming is caused by humans, while fewer than one-quarter (23%) of Republicans believe man is the cause. That percentage falls to only one in ten (9%) of Republicans who have Tea Party leanings.
- Partisan attitudes are reflected in support for new environmental regulation: 74% of Democrats, 67% of Independents, and 52% of Republicans favor new emission limits on power plants.
- Americans tend to worry less about climate change (40%) than people around the world (52%), ranking it second to last in issues facing the country, falling behind deficit reduction, immigration, and gun reform.
How to Determine a Position on Global Warming
Determining a position on global warming – the cycle of climate change the world is currently experiencing – requires an understanding of the following eight questions:
1. What Is Climate Change?
As defined by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), climate change is a significant and lasting change in the statistical distributions of weather ranging from a few decades to millions of years. Climate change may be a change in average weather conditions, or in the distribution of average weather events, such as more or fewer hurricanes and violent storms.
The degree and speed of climate change is measured by comparing current conditions with climate data collected over millions of years, even before the appearance of humans. Evidence of climates throughout history are apparent in physical examinations of trees, coral reefs, stalactites and stalagmites, core samples of Arctic ice, the amount of carbon in the air, and salt in the oceans. The range of scientists collecting and interpreting climate data includes chemists, biologists, physicists, and geologists, as well as traditional meteorologists, astrobiologists, and paleoclimatologists.
2. Is Climate Change Natural?
Since the earth’s formation hundreds of millions of years ago, there have been multiple large-scale climate changes. In each case, there were major ecosystem changes and mass extinctions of life. For example, about 100 million years ago, sub-tropical conditions extended to Alaska and Antarctica; there were no polar ice caps, temperatures were six to eight degrees warmer, and levels of carbon dioxide in the air were five times higher than they are today.
Since then, climate has fluctuated between warming and cooling. The last cooling period, popularly known as the Ice Age, began about 110,000 years ago and lasted until 12,000 years ago. Ice sheets covered most of the northern continents and portions of the Southern Hemisphere. Early humans were confined to Africa until the warming began, but since then, their societies flourished within a relatively stable climate.
3. What Is the Difference Between Climate and Weather?
Non-scientists often confuse “weather” and “climate,” especially in discussions about climate change. Weather reflects the conditions in the atmosphere over a short period of time – days, weeks, or months. Climate reflects weather conditions over long periods, such as years, decades, or centuries. Weather can change minute-to-minute with significant variability; climate is the measure of averages over longer periods of time and space, usually over a at least a 30-year period. Climate is the conditions you expect for a year – summers are hot, winters are cold – and weather is what you experience each day – temperatures vary with storms, rain, or sun.
Climate change is measured by comparing averages to averages. For example, if a region averages 75 inches of rain per year over a 30-year period, and it only receives 65 inches this year, that signifies a variation of weather. If the average for the next 10 years is 65 inches, and it declines each year, the variation may signify evidence of climate change.
4. Are Recent Changes Outside the Normal Variations Experienced in the Past?
The current changes in climate are occurring faster than any other time in the past 65 million years, according to a 2013 study by Stanford University scientists. The report suggests the speed of change is 10-times greater than that experienced when the dinosaurs went extinct. The report predicts that this unprecedented change in temperature will result in enormous stress on ecosystems that will ultimately kill off many species.
According to NASA and NOAA, 2012 was the ninth hottest year since 1880; of the nine hottest years on record, eight occurred since the year 2000, with 2005 and 2010 sharing the title for the hottest year on record. “The planet is out of balance,” says James Hansen, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, “We can predict with confidence that the next decade is going to be warmer than the last one.”
5. Is There Scientific Consensus as to the Cause of Climate Change?
On May 26, 2014, The Wall Street Journal published an editorial that questioned the validity of Secretary of State John Kerry’s statement that 97% of the world’s scientists concur that climate change is real, man-made, and dangerous. The editorial, written by Joseph Bast, a colleague of Mr. Taylor and an employee of the Heartland Institute, used ridicule, unfounded conclusions, and obscure, questionable studies to deny the widespread agreement among climate scientists that global warming is real and primarily caused by humans.
While Mr. Taylor questioned the exact percentage of scientists who agree on climate change, Mr. Bast conceded that the 97% figure is real, as far as the existence of global warming caused by human activities. That said, he disputed whether the consequences of climate change are actually a “dangerous problem.”
Eighteen American scientific associations, including the American Meteorological Society, The Geological Society of America, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), as well as more than 200 international scientific organizations, unequivocally agree that global warming is real and man-made. Despite extensive research, there’s not one single scientific association or institute that proposes global warming is not real or man-made. The scientific community is overwhelmingly in agreement about global warming and its primary cause.
6. Is Global Warming a Dangerous Problem?
Stanford scientists project that average annual temperatures will rise five to six degrees Celsius (nine to ten degrees Fahrenheit) by the end of this century, as long as current warming continues. As a consequence, scientists predict the following adverse consequences, some of which have already begun:
- Rising Sea Levels. As ice caps, glaciers, and sea ice melt, sea levels will rise by three to four feet by 2100. A NASA article notes that if the Greenland and West Antarctica ice sheets melt completely, sea levels will rise by 10 meters (32.8 feet). In the U.S., low-lying areas, including Miami, New Orleans, Boston, and the Lower Manhattan region of New York City would submerge.
- Extreme Heat Waves. According to a report by the Global Development and Environment Institute of Tufts University, extreme heat waves are occurring two to four times more frequently than they were 100 years ago. They’re also projected to be 100 times more likely in the next forty years. As the temperature rises, wildfires and heat-related deaths will increase.
- Violent Storms and Increased Flooding. In 2007, USA Today reported that the number of severe storms – hurricanes, typhoons, and tornadoes – has more than doubled since the early 1900s. In addition to the number of storms, the power and deadly consequences of such storms has also increased.
- Expanding Drought Areas. Some experts predict that drought conditions could increase by at least 66% across the world, threatening water supplies and food production, while increasing the risk of disease due to warm environments favoring disease-carrying mosquitoes, ticks, and mice.
7. What Actions Can Humans Take to Mitigate the Consequences of Global Warming?
There’s general agreement among scientists that global warming is the result of excessive greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, including water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and ozone. The burning of fossil fuels and wholesale clearance of forest areas have contributed to a substantial increase in carbon dioxide, the gas most blamed for the temperature increase.
While there are many options to help reduce carbon dioxide emissions, the trade-offs have economic consequences. The biggest sources of carbon dioxide and greenhouse gases are automobiles and electric power plants, the latter predominately fueled by coal. As a consequence, stemming the release of harmful gases must include better management of automobile and power plant fuels, including the efficiency of burning the fuel, and the recapture and storage of emissions as the gases are produced. Potential options to reduce greenhouse gases include:
- Reductions in Hydrocarbon Fuels. Improved fuel economy, greater use of mass transit to reduce automobile use, more efficient buildings with better and greater insulation, and greater efficiency in power plants and transmission can all help reduce hydrocarbon use.
- Replacement of Coal With Natural Gas. While coal and natural gas are both hydrocarbons, natural gas releases fewer emissions into the atmosphere than its counterpart. According to the EPA, natural gas produces half as much carbon dioxide, less than a third as much nitrogen oxides, and one percent as much sulfur oxides as coal, the predominant fuel for electricity generation at power plants.
- Carbon Capture and Storage. Sometimes referred to as “carbon sequestration,” the process requires the capturing and liquefying of carbon dioxide at the power plant, then transporting – sometimes over several hundred miles – and burying it in suitable geological formations, such as deep underground saline aquifers or disused oil fields. In the latter, through a process called “enhanced oil recovery,” carbon dioxide is pumped into older oil fields to force out remaining pockets of oil that are difficult to extract.
- Expanded Use of Alternative Energy Sources. Wind, solar, nuclear, and hydrogen are all potential sources of energy, each with its own benefits and costs. According to GreenPeace USA, an environmental advocacy group, renewable energy sources, such as wind, solar, and geothermal, can provide 96% of electricity needs and 98% of heating needs, accounting for almost all of the primary energy demand. Investing in renewables could jump-start a flagging economy, creating millions of jobs that can’t be shipped overseas. It could also place the U.S. at the forefront of the 21st century economy, in front of China, which in 2009 became the largest global investor in renewables.
- Reforestation and Limited Deforestation. Richard Houghton, an expert at the Woods Hole Research Center, recently estimated that planting trees on roughly 500 million acres would have a significant impact on carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere within a few decades. The world currently has about 10 times that amount of pasture land, so Houghton claims it wouldn’t require planting trees in the desert or on lands used for crop production. Approximately 25 million acres of forest are lost to deforestation each year; reducing the rate of loss would impact global warming almost immediately.
8. What Are the Obstacles to Taking Action?
Opposition to concerted greenhouse gas reduction arises from four basic perspectives:
- Financial. Billions of dollars and thousands of jobs are invested in current energy sources (petroleum and coal exploration, refinement, and distribution) and infrastructure (electrical utilities), which could be lost if significant transfers to other energy sources occur. As a consequence, these industries and their affiliates actively resist the validity of global warming and its cause. A typical tactic is to aggressively challenge whether there is a consensus within the scientific community for the cause or magnitude of consequences that could result in the future.
- Economic Standing. Lesser developed or emerging economy nations (LDCs) question the motives of industrialized countries that promote worldwide restrictions on carbon fuels. Since LDCs produce carbon emissions per capita well below the per capita rate of industrialized countries, they feel LDCs should not be required to reduce emissions. The United States has refused to sign any treaties or agreements without limits for LDCs.
- Philosophical. According to a 2013 study, American conservatives increasingly distrust science and its findings. In particular, data regarding genetically modified foods, vaccinations, and climate science is suspect. Graham Readfern, columnist for The Guardian, states, “if you’re a conservative who believes the world runs best when businesses operate in a ‘free market’ with little government interference, then the chances are you don’t think human-caused climate change represents a significant risk to human civilization.”
- Political. Efforts to pass meaningful climate change legislation have been futile during the Obama presidency and the Republican-led House of Representatives due to hyper-partisanship. Worries about increased electricity costs and job losses, especially in coal-producing states, encourage politicians to avoid controversial issues that may affect their re-elections. There is also doubt that the environmental benefits are worth the economic costs as stated by Alabama AFL-CIO President Al Henley. “For every coal plant… closed in the U.S., several more open in developing countries like India and China.”
French professor Mason Cooley is purported to have said, “Procrastination makes easy things hard, hard things harder.” It’s a human tendency to deny the unpleasant and delay the difficult. There’s also a shared belief that the future is less important than today, and the further away the future, the less important the results.
Because the more dramatic effects of climate change are decades in the future, there is little energy or motivation to make significant change. Nevertheless, most people have a stake in the future – the decisions and non-decisions made now will directly affect the environment inherited by future generations.
What’s your stance on climate change? How do you think the U.S. should proceed when handling this controversial subject?