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Is Global Warming Really Happening Essays

What I Learned about Climate Change: The Science is not Settled

- David Siegel

THIS ESSAY has had over 180,000 views. Please link to ClimateCurious.com. Welcome new readers from my Interview with Barack Obama. Enjoy!

What is your position on the climate-change debate? What would it take to change your mind?

If the answer is It would take a ton of evidence to change my mind, because my understanding is that the science is settled, and we need to get going on this important issue, that’s what I thought, too. This is my story.

More than thirty years ago, I became vegan because I believed it was healthier (it’s not), and I’ve stayed vegan because I believe it’s better for the environment (it is). I haven’t owned a car in ten years. I love animals; I’ll gladly fly halfway around the world to take photos of them in their natural habitats. I’m a Democrat: I think governments play a key role in helping preserve our environment for the future in the most cost-effective way possible. Over the years, I built a set of assumptions: that Al Gore was right about global warming, that he was the David going up against the industrial Goliath. In 1993, I even wrote a book about it.

Recently, a friend challenged those assumptions. At first, I was annoyed, because I thought the science really was settled. As I started to look at the data and read about climate science, I was surprised, then shocked. As I learned more, I changed my mind. I now think there probably is no climate crisis and that the focus on CO2 takes funding and attention from critical environmental problems. I’ll start by making ten short statements that should challenge your assumptions and then back them up with an essay.

1Weather is not climate. There are no studies showing a conclusive link between global warming and increased frequency or intensity of storms, droughts, floods, cold or heat waves. The increase in storms is simply a result of improved measurement methods. There has been no real increase.

2Natural variation in weather and climate is tremendous. Most of what people call “global warming” is natural, not man-made. The earth is warming, but not quickly, not much, and not lately.

3There is tremendous uncertainty as to how the climate really works. Climate models are not yet skillful; predictions are unresolved.

4New research shows fluctuations in energy from the sun correlate very strongly with changes in earth’s temperature, better than CO2 levels.

5CO2 has very little to do with it. All the decarbonization we can do isn’t going to change the climate much.

6There is no such thing as “carbon pollution.” Carbon dioxide is coming out of your nose right now; it is not a poisonous gas. CO2 concentrations in previous eras have been many times higher than they are today.

7Sea level will probably continue to rise — not quickly, and not much. Researchers have found no link between CO2 and sea level.

8The Arctic experiences natural variation as well, with some years warmer earlier than others. Polar bear numbers are up, not down. They have more to do with hunting permits than CO2*.

9No one has demonstrated any unnatural damage to reef or marine systems. Additional man-made CO2 will not likely harm oceans, reef systems, or marine life. Fish are mostly threatened by people, who eat them. Reefs are more threatened by sunscreen than by CO2.

10The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and others are pursuing a political agenda and a PR campaign, not scientific inquiry. There’s a tremendous amount of trickery going on under the surface*.

Could this possibly be right? Is it heresy, or critical thinking — or both? If I’ve upset or confused you, let me guide you through my journey.

I won’t present all the science. Instead, my goal is to give you a platform for investigating the other side of the debate, so you can form your own opinion. I have noted important and quick reads with an asterisk* — if you have time for further study, start with those videos and documents. Here are the sections:

  1. Critical Thinking
  2. Four Hard Questions
  3. The Climate Consensus
  4. Manufacturing Consensus
  5. Who Can We Believe?
  6. What Should We Do?
  7. Summary
  8. What Do You Think?

This nine-thousand-word essay represents over 400 hours of research boiled down into a half-hour reading experience, with links to 250+ carefully chosen documents and videos. I’m building the argument from the bottom up, so take your time and see if it makes sense. Along the way, I’ll list five “smoking guns” that I think make the argument for decarbonization unsupportable. Before we dive in, I want to talk about …

M y journey into critical thinking has taught me to hold strong opinions loosely. I’ve been more wrong in my life than I thought was possible. Now I try to put my reactions aside and look at all the evidence before coming to a conclusion.

Policy always involves politics. Governments often make policy decisions by starting with a social objective and then bring in the “facts” to justify the goal (think of the Vietnam war, the Iraq war, Prohibition, the War on Drugs, and others). We shouldn’t be surprised to find social agendas driving at least some of the “science” of global warming.

In addition, studies show that political beliefs cloud our ability to process information. Strong political beliefs can cause us to look at one side of an issue and ignore the evidence. We should try to avoid shortcuts and look directly at the data.

Forecasts are mental constructs; they are not properties of the physical world. Forecasts are tools, not truth. In most cases, the size of the error bars (uncertainty) around the number is more important than the number itself.

Consensus is not an argument for any scientific principle. Many important scientists toiled alone to make discoveries that were less than popular. One key paper can be worth more than thousands of papers reinforcing a myth. The claim that 97 percent of scientists believe in man-made global warming is one such myth. Almost all scientists expect a small man-made contribution to warming, so the claim is misleading.

Metastudies are important. One key paper can be a breakthrough, but there are very few of those. A better source of information is properly done metastudies (reviews of all the literature on a topic) conducted by qualified statisticians. They help find the signal in the noise.

There is a big climate conference coming up in Paris in December, 2015. Diplomats will debate the merits of an agreement that promises to steer hundreds of billions of dollars toward reducing carbon emissions, mostly in large developing countries. Is it based on sound science? Let’s ask four hard questions and see what we can learn …

  1. What are the natural drivers of temperature and its variability?
  2. What does the projected natural increase in temperature mean for the environment and people?
  3. What does the increase in greenhouse gases from human activity mean for oceans, environment, animals, habitats, and humanity?
  4. Is Decarbonation the Right Solution?

Let’s look with fresh eyes and see what we can learn.

1. What are the natural drivers of temperature and its variability?

Incoming solar radiation is the primary driver of temperature. A second factor is the atmosphere, which traps heat and reflects some of it back to earth. Other factors play smaller roles. I’ll start with the familiar greenhouse-gas model and then present a more accurate picture based on solar activity.

The Greenhouse Effect
In this section, I focus on CO2 because it’s regarded as the main greenhouse gas after water vapor. Looking at the 750-million-year graph below, we see some extreme cold periods, then warm epochs punctuated by ice ages, all while CO2 (yellow) was far above what it is today. There is almost no correlation between temperature and carbon dioxide until about ten million years ago.

Starting around a million years ago, the curves start to sync up, and we see a pretty definitive supercycle of about 100,000 years for both:

Think about that: CO2 had no correlation with temperature for more than 2 billion years, and now it’s causing temperature to rise? Something’s going on, but what? Let’s zoom in:

Notice that temperature generally changes first, and CO2 changes some 800+ years later. Blue line to the left, red line to the right. This is called the temperature lag — an inconvenient truth for CO2-warming enthusiasts; it’s well known but not well understood. It could easily be a complex relationship, but CO2 changes do not initially cause historical temperature changes.

On a shorter time scale, we start to get some perspective:

At this scale of 11,000 years, it doesn’t seem like CO2 is “driving” temperature. We are in the middle of an upswing coming out of the Little Ice Age, but there is also an overall cooling trend.

Before the twentieth century, there was plenty of temperature variability, and it continues today. If you have heard about the hockey-stick controversy, it’s about whether this graph created by Michael Mann, which Al Gore likes to stand in front of on a scissor lift, represents reality:

It doesn’t. Despite what you read on Wikipedia, this graph was manufactured by carefully cherrypicking the data from tree rings. Looking at tree rings is about the least accurate way to measure ancient temperatures. Better methods involve looking at drilled ice and sediment cores. Using those methods, we see a pronounced period warmer than today from 1000 to 1300 AD, called the Medieval Warm Period, and then the Little Ice Age about 400 years ago (same time period as above):

This single issue invalidates many of Al Gore’s claims* and undermines the IPCC’s predictions of man-made CO2 catastrophe. (You’ll find a list of relevant studies at CO2Science.org*.)

Smoking gun #1: The Hockey Stick is Wrong; The Medieval warming period was real and worldwide.

Once I understood that the IPCC was playing games, I realized I had a lot of work to do to uncover the rest of the story. It starts with data manipulation.

Where Does the Data Come From?
For the last 80 years, we have far more accurate ways of recording temperature, so the far right hand side of the graph above should come from direct measurements. Weather stations that gather this data differ in quality and consistency, especially over decades as the areas around them develop. A large-scale reassessment of all US weather stations from 1979 to 2008 carefully divided the stations into five classes, from best quality (I) to worst (V). For this period of time, they calculated the per-decade average temperature increases, and found:

  • Class I and II only (most accurate): 0.155 C
  • Class III, IV, and V sites only: 0.248 C
  • NOAA 2015 “adjusted” calculation: 0.309 C

What does that tell you? NOAA is “adjusting” their data to increase warming figures far out of the realm of possibility. The IPCC relies mostly on NOAA data and other similarly adjusted data, which conveniently provides an instant doubling of temperature increase, making all the graphs much steeper after 1980.

The science is extremely complex and uncertain. If you have blind faith in the wrong numbers, you’re going to jump to the wrong conclusions.Anthony Watts has carefully reviewed NOAA’s data and found unscientific manipulation. Watch this 15-minute video* and decide for yourself*:

NOAA continues to “adjust” their data, manufacturing graphs that support the cause.

Smoking gun #2: Government agencies have rigged climate data to support man-made global warming.

Note: It’s easy to find nonscientific articles and videos that “prove” the hockey stick has been validated by updated research and that the sun’s energy doesn’t fluctuate. However, one central tenet of journalism is that you can’t fact-check a source by asking the source, and that’s exactly what most journalists are doing. To fact-check the IPCC, look at the peer-reviewed literature written by scientists who are not in the IPCC.

That’s the greenhouse-gas theory. Now on to more recent research.

Solar Forcing
Many solar variables contribute to the variance we see in temperature: distance, orbit cycles, axis tilt, magnetic fields, sunspots, solar wind, cosmic rays, the passage of earth through our galaxy, etc. Even though the total energy coming from the Sun is nearly constant, a) those tiny fluctuations can make a difference, and b) there are many other factors that can and do change. In particular, magnetic field changes can have significant influence on the shape of the jet stream, and that can influence cloud formation.

Willie Soon, a solar physicist, showed that the tiny variations in incoming solar radiation can have a more direct effect on temperature than CO2 does, but it takes very sensitive measurements and careful analysis to see the signal. Willie and his team first did many months of inspecting data from weather stations in the Northern Hemisphere*, throwing out spurious and made-up measurements, to put an accurate temperature picture together (blue line):

Then they plotted total solar irradiation (TSI) and found a very good first-order correlation, much better than with CO2. The graph above is probably the most accurate picture we have for that time period. Below is a similar exercise for the United States:

Note that this graph accurately shows the most recent cooling trend since 1998 without any hand waving.

Smoking gun #3: Solar fluctuations correlate better with observed temperature fluctuations.

Not only do fluctuations in solar energy drive changes in climate, the oceans react to increases in solar energy by generating clouds that help regulate temperature. Since 2013, much research has been aimed at constructing a more accurate picture of past temperature/solar radiation correlation and developing a realistic solar-driven climate prediction model*, taking the greenhouse effect into account.

Sunspots fluctuate in roughly 11-year cycles. It’s complicated, but in general these cycles show a moderate amount of correlation with temperature. The period of no sunspot activity 400 years ago corresponds to the Little Ice Age, when winters were significantly colder than they are today.

The current cycle peaked in 2014. Solar experts speculate that the next cycle, which starts in 2020, will have fewer sunspots. If that turns out to be true, temperatures could be heading down, rather than up. Reactions to this cooling prediction range from “unlikely,” to “plausible,” to “probable.” Whatever mechanism causes sunspots could be part of the picture, but there are several different solar cycles, different research approaches, and competing theories. They are converging, but it’s a complex work in progress. A single predictive model is still years or decades away.

Hottest Year on Record?
When you hear claims of this year being “the hottest year on record,” you should understand that 1922, 1998, and 2010 were also extremely hot, and the El Niños were extreme then as well. That’s not a trend; that’s a local peak. Look at the last 18 years from satellite data:

How many peaks do you see that are higher than this year’s? Now look at the scale — it’s one degree Celsius from top to bottom. To give you a sense of how up and down this really is, I traced the graph above and put it in perspective of the 20 degrees C (36 degrees F) we might experience in a single day:

Same data, different perspective. Can you see the hottest year on record now? In any given year, several weather stations will record dramatic “all time highs” with no effect on global temperatures.

No one knows what will really happen. We can’t see the future. We know CO2 is increasing relentlessly, yet temperatures are not. If you believe in the IPCC models, then you need worldwide temperatures to start going up, and soon. A few more hurricanes wouldn’t hurt, either. If you agree that solar activity primarily drives climate changes, then you will probably agree with the current scientific consensus outside the IPCC and with the conclusions of a recent metastudy on temperature forecasts: one degree C of warming this century, plus or minus one degree. That’s the 90%-confidence prediction at this point, but there’s always a chance that they are wrong, or that things will change unexpectedly. We’ll know a lot more in another twenty years or so.

2. What does the projected natural increase in temperature mean for the environment and people?

Sea level won’t likely rise in response to increased CO2. For starters, sea level rises and falls more than people think. Global mean sea level rose about 15 cm (6 inches) in the twentieth century. The IPCC models predicted higher levels by now, but researchers have found no link between CO2 and sea level. Sea level rises linearly; the rate of rise is not increasing. Any rise so far is very much in line with natural factors, not man-made. Estimates range from 5-20 cm (2–8 inches) of sea level rise (naturally) by the end of this century.

Reef systems and marine life will not likely be harmed by additional CO2. Researchers use tank experiments and computer models to predict doom and gloom (this approach is full of errors). Despite what you read in the press, no one has yet seen any verifiable signs of manmade CO2 effects, or even pollution. Coral bleaching is a natural phenomenon caused by temperature changes, especially in El Niño and La Niña years — it’s been going on forever.Live reef experiments have shown that coral polyps adapt well to changes in pH, but sunscreen is toxic. Furthermore, a recent metastudy found no evidence of harm due to “ocean acidification” and no likely harm in the future. If you care about ocean life, stop eating it! Stop developers from replacing estuaries, wetlands, and mangrove swamps with condos. And please stop eating shrimp immediately.

Freak storms are a far bigger threat. Again, storms are not caused by global warming. Over the next hundred years, as our population reaches nine billion or so, we should expect extreme events to have catastrophic consequences around the globe as a result of massive-scale urbanization and natural variance . Damage figures will rise significantly as we build larger cities on the coasts and expensive buildings with sea views. Don’t be fooled by graphs showing rising damage figures — they are guaranteed! The science is settled on this — even the IPCC admits that none of it is driven by CO2.

Let’s talk about polar bears. The health and numbers of the Arctic’s 19 polar bear populations are in very good shape, better than in decades*. Mitch Taylor, who has studied polar bears for over 30 years, says populations are increasing and very resilient. Each year at least 600 polar bears are shot, killed, and eaten by hunters — did your favorite news source tell you that? Arctic sea ice grows and shrinks by an area almost the size of the continental United States every six months. As the planet gently warms, the overall trend for slightly less ice each year continues; all the animals who live there have been dealing with this kind of fluctuation for millions of years. International fishing and seal hunting quotas have more to do with polar bear numbers than temperature does.

Furthermore, Greenland is not melting into the sea because of global warming. Greenland’s temperature fluctuates all by itself and always has.

Far from the land of polar bears, we hear tales of extreme temperatures melting Antarctic ice sheets the size of Wyoming. Despite the fact that glaciers fall into the ocean dramatically each year, Antarctica’s ice is actually increasing (reason: it snows in Antarctica, but snowfall doesn’t make good news footage). Imagine a time-lapse movie of Antarctica over the past million years or more: we see huge amounts of ice accumulating, moving, dropping into the sea, over and over. We shouldn’t be surprised to watch the Larsen B ice shelf fall into the sea — it should take extraordinary evidence to convince us that this is not natural. To think Antarctica should stay the same as it was when we were children is to commit the error of base-rate neglect. Remember this: the Arctic is losing a bit of ice each year, and the Antarctic is gaining a bit.Not much. And not quickly.

If the worst isn’t going to happen, a small rise in temperature should benefit society. CO2 helps plants grow. Excessive cold kills far more people than excessive heat does.

3. What does the increase in greenhouse gases mean for oceans, environment, animals, habitats, and humanity?

This is the domain of climate models. I could write twenty pages, but I’ll summarize my research:

  1. According to Bob Tisdale, a researcher I respect after reading his book Climate Models Fail, the IPCC models simply aren’t skillful. They failed to predict the past twenty years, they don’t realistically model the cloud response, and there is simply too much uncertainty about the inputs to get decent outputs.
  2. NASA GISS, in realizing that global temperatures refuse to conform to their models, has said that the increase in heat is trapped in the oceans. This bit of model trickery also does not stand up to careful analysis.
  3. The IPCC models are falsifiable — if temperature doesn’t go up over the next ten years or so, we will have to agree that the IPCC models are, and always were, dead wrong. It is not looking good.
  4. According to J Scott Armstrong, all climate models so far don’t meet the minimum criteria for a skillful forecast. He has testified before congress on climate forecasts, polar-bear counts, and other misconceptions. Here is his 15-minute talk:

Armstrong and other modeling experts say the simple “no change” prediction is often far superior to a complex one with many independent variables. In that case, we can predict about another one-degree C rise for this century, and another 3–7 centimeters of gradual sea-level rise.

Smoking Gun #4: Rigged Inputs and Wrong Assumptions About Feedback Lead to Computer Model Failure.

Correlation is not Causation
Killer storms. Bee colony collapse. Mosquito-borne diseases. Ticks heading south for the winter. Heat-related deaths. Arctic lobster populations. Algae blooms. Global temperatures. These things may or may not be increasing, but let’s assume they are. Atmospheric carbon dioxide is also increasing. So are the number of toilets made every year and the number of vinyl records sold. When a particular scientist issues a press release describing the future collapse of ecosystems, I recommend asking “What evidence do you have?” When they say something we can see today is due to “anthropogenic global warming,” they are saying that the extra 120 parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere — about 30% of the total — are causing the phenomenon right now, as opposed to all other possible natural explanations, including variance. I recommend asking, “How can you be sure?” Just because we haven’t seen something in the past century doesn’t mean it wasn’t going to occur anyway.

This is the scientific method — ask hard questions, develop hypotheses, and try to disprove them. Not only do we need better models, we need to be empirical, not hysterical. We need to look at the data and separate the signal from the noise. The majority of single papers showing research results are simply wrong. To get a better picture of scientific findings, one of the best tools is the metastudy.

Smoking Gun #5: All metastudies so far disagree with the IPCC projections.

We only have two so far, but they are significant: one on temperature, and one on ocean acidification. Anyone who claims otherwise is going to have to explain why his/her claim invalidates the metastudies. That’s a lot to ask, but this is the level of proof science demands.

4. Is decarbonization the right solution?

Okay, but even if there’s a lot of uncertainty, what about the small possibility that something really bad could happen? Shouldn’t we put money and resources into doing something, just as an insurance policy?

We could, but we have to balance that against buying other things with the same money and effort*. Right now, some ecosystems are fragile and threatened by humanity, while many others are already repairing themselves*. The focus on CO2 may be misplaced. It’s not the CO2 that causes choking smog in Los Angeles, it’s the rest of the mix that comes from the power plant and out of exhaust pipes. It’s the fact that China needs to build a new city the size of Phoenix every month for the next 15 years. More people are eating a western diet, contributing to deforestation and wasting resources. Overfishing is a crisis in progress. This and much more is actually happening today, not in a computer model.

The Bush administration held up the Kyoto agreement, yet they spent trillions on a war based on no verifiable evidence to prevent a future that was never going to happen. Should we really do the exact opposite?

Enter Bjorn Lomborg, the “skeptical environmentalist, who has spent his mediagenic career trying to prioritize our efforts to save the earth and humans along with it. According to his calculations, the EU’s goal of spending $250 billion per year until the end of the century will result in — and this is not a typo — 0.1 degree lower temperatures.

Lomborg’s book, Cool It, and movie of the same name, are excellent (though for some reason he believes the IPCC projections). He says we should switch to renewable sources of energy, but for the right reasons at the right price.

That’s my attempt to answer the four questions. For a good summary, see Nir Shaviv’s paper or Bob Tisdale’s excellent ebook. In the next three sections, I’ll quickly list people not to listen to and why, then I’ll list people I think we can trust.

This section is a guide to the IPCC and people sounding the alarm of impending climate doom.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
The “mainstream climatologist” view is generally embodied by the IPCC. In 2007, the IPCC shared the Nobel Prize with Al Gore. Once I started to learn about the IPCC and the people who have left it and why, I started to question their motivations. The big shift came when I read a book called The Delinquent Teenager Who Was Mistaken for the World’s Top Climate Expert by Donna LaFramboise, detailing the methods and motivations of the IPCC. I highly recommend reading Laframboise’s book*; here are a few highlights:

  • The IPCC operates in secrecy, leaves out critical pieces of data, relies too heavily on unproven measuring schemes, and tends to make unsupported sensationalist claims that support a politically-motivated, pre-determined agenda.
  • Chris Landsea, a hurricane expert, resigned from the IPCC after a lead author for the IPCC and its chairman claimed that there would be more intense and more frequent storms as a result of man-made greenhouse gases. In his resignation letter, he wrote “I personally cannot in good faith continue to contribute to a process that I view as both being motivated by pre-conceived agendas and being scientifically unsound.”

This summer, on movie screens around the world, it’s not Godzilla or space aliens that will make headlines as larger-than-life villains. Instead, abrupt climate change will have the role of shocking moviegoers in the upcoming Hollywood film, The Day After Tomorrow, which opens on May 28 in the United States.

In the movie, global warming triggers an extreme change in ocean currents, which in turn prompts an ice age to blanket North America—all in just 96 hours. With killer hailstones, monstrous tornadoes, earthquakes, and more, this film is expected to be a global blockbuster.

Worldwatch has assembled this fact sheet to explain what climate change and global warming are, how these trends affect people and nature, and what people can do to slow warming and climate change. If you have a question that’s not addressed in this fact sheet, we encourage you to join in our live online discussion on The Day After Tomorrow on June 4 at 2:00 PM EDT.

Worldwatch has assembled this fact sheet to explain what climate change and global warming are, how these trends affect people and nature, and what people can do to slow warming and climate change.

The Science of Climate Change

1. What are climate change and global warming, and how are they related?
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A. Global warming refers to an increase in average global temperatures, which in turn causes climate change.

Climate change refers to changes in seasonal temperature, precipitation, wind, and humidity for a given area. Climate change can involve cooling or warming.

Temperature readings taken around the world in recent decades, and scientific studies of tree rings, corals, and ice cores, show that average global temperatures have risen since the industrial revolution began, with increases accelerating over the past few decades. The overwhelming consensus among climate scientists is that most of the increase is due to human economic activity, especially the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation. These activities contribute to a build-up in carbon dioxide (CO2) and other gases in Earth’s atmosphere.

Our atmosphere is made up of gases, such as nitrogen, oxygen, and CO2, and water vapor, which act like a “blanket” draped around the planet. Some of these gases—such as CO2, water vapor, and methane—absorb heat, reducing the amount that escapes to space, and increasing global temperatures. This is what is called the “greenhouse effect,” and these gases are often referred to as “greenhouse gases.”

Without this process, the temperature of Earth’s atmosphere would average about 30 degrees Celsius (50 degrees Fahrenheit) colder than it is today, making it difficult for Earth to sustain life as we know it. However, if this blanket were to become too “thick,” with too many gases trapping too much heat, Earth would be uninhabitable. In the atmosphere of Venus, for example, a buildup of carbon dioxide has led to a broiling temperature of 500 degrees Celsius.

2. What is abrupt climate change?
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A. While most climate change generally happens slowly over time, there is evidence that episodes of rapid cooling have occurred in the past, with temperatures falling dramatically over periods of 10 to 20 years. Scientists have found evidence that this has happened at least twice within the past 12,700 years.

3. Can abrupt climate change really happen in a matter of days?
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A. There is no scientific evidence that abrupt climate change can happen in a matter of hours or days. What is true is that climate change is real and it’s already happening. It’s a big problem, but one that we already know how to address on both the societal and individual levels. (See “How does climate change affect ME” and “What can I do?”)

4. Can global warming lead to an ice age?
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A. According to the best available science, this is very unlikely. Here’s why:

Around the globe, a natural ocean “conveyor belt” slowly winds its way through the oceans, helping to regulate our planet’s climate. For example, it brings warm waters from the tropics to the North Atlantic, making places like Iceland and Western Europe warm enough to be comfortable.

As Earth’s average temperature increases due to global warming, melting glaciers and increased rainfall and runoff will inject additional freshwater into the North Atlantic. The saltiness of the conveyor current is critical for maintaining the flow, and an influx of freshwater, which significantly reduces the salinity of the North Atlantic branch of the current, can slow the movement of the conveyor belt. In theory, a major reduction or halting of this flow—especially if it happened suddenly enough—could destabilize the global climate, causing some regions of the globe to become much cooler, even as average global temperatures continue to increase.

However, the general climate conditions during the two most recent episodes of abrupt cooling were vastly different than they are today. For instance, those episodes were probably triggered by sudden, massive injections of freshwater into the North Atlantic, released when melting ice dams collapsed and vast quantities of freshwater from pent-up glacial lakes were rapidly dumped into the ocean. That can’t happen today, because those lakes are all long gone.

There is some evidence that the water in the North Atlantic seems to be growing less salty due to global warming and that the conveyor belt may be slowing. But scientists currently believe that even if part of the ocean conveyor were to fail, it wouldn’t be for several decades, and any cooling effects would be overpowered by the continued general warming over the same period.

There is little disagreement that the real concern is climate warming, which is real and will have serious consequences. That’s what we need to worry about—and work to fix—right now. (Learn what you can do to curb climate change.)

5. What is the scientific consensus on the causes and consequences of climate change?
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A. Global warming is real. The global average temperature in 2003 was the third hottest since record keeping began in the late 1800s (1998 was the first, 2002 was second), and the ten warmest years on record have occurred since 1990. The 1990s was the warmest decade in the Northern Hemisphere in the past 1,000 years.

What some scientists continue to debate is the extent to which humans are affecting global temperatures and causing climate change. But the majority of scientists who study these issues around the world—including those with the World Meteorological Organization, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and the U.S. National Academy of Sciences—agree that humans are the main force behind the sharp global warming trend of the past century.

Most scientists agree that the climate changes caused by global warming will never be completely predictable, but that they present serious risks—more extreme temperatures (hot and cold), greater storm intensity and frequency, more frequent droughts and floods, and rising sea levels—that warrant immediate efforts to reduce emissions from fossil fuels.

6. What role does human activity play in the current global warming trend?
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A. A variety of heat trapping—or “greenhouse”—gases collect in Earth’s atmosphere and keep the planet warm enough to sustain life. This occurs through natural processes. For example, humans and animals inhale oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide (CO2). Plants absorb CO2 while growing, but release it as they decompose. The decomposition of cattle manure and peat releases methane, an even stronger, but shorter-lived heat-trapping gas.

Human activities also produce greenhouse gases. Carbon dioxide is released when we burn fossil fuels to produce electricity; heat our homes with oil, coal or gas; drive our cars; or switch on our natural gas stoves for cooking. And landfills release methane into the air as our garbage decomposes. Such activities have significantly increased the quantity of several heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere over the past few centuries. For example, carbon dioxide concentrations in the Earth’s atmosphere are 34 percent higher today than they were at the onset of the industrial revolution in 1750—higher than at any time in the last 400,000 years.

Scientists have determined that as atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide have increased, largely due to human activities, the average global temperature has risen significantly. In 2003, the average global temperature was the third highest ever recorded, just slightly below the 1998 and 2002 averages. Scientists predict that average surface temperatures will increase during this century at rates unprecedented in the past 10,000 years.

7. What role do natural forces play in the current global warming trend?
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A. While some scientists continue to believe that global warming could be due to changes in sun spots, natural cycles of warming and cooling, or other factors, most scientists who study this issue now agree that it’s extremely unlikely that these changes in temperature are wholly natural in origin. Instead, they believe the warming we are experiencing today is due to rising concentrations of heat-trapping gases that form a “blanket” around Earth. These gases are put into the atmosphere primarily by human activities—particularly the burning of fossil fuels.

8. Will climate change actually bring benefits to some areas?
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A. As a result of global warming and climate change, some regions—such as Siberia—will likely become warmer and more habitable. The growing seasons in some regions will lengthen, as spring arrives earlier and winter frosts set in later.

But betting on the climate is like a game of Russian roulette. Our planet’s climate is a highly complex system that we still don’t fully understand. Likewise, we do not know exactly what the impacts of climate change will be on particular countries or regions. Even an area that welcomes warmer days and lighter jackets might also experience more frequent and intense storm activity, or the arrival of tropical diseases like malaria. At the same time, other places might experience problems like rising sea levels or more extreme heat or cold. And as temperatures rise and become more “comfortable” in some regions of the U.S. or Europe, for example, the number and range of agricultural pests such as insects and diseases will increase, counterbalancing benefits due to warming.

Developing countries will likely be hit hardest as warming continues because they have fewer resources with which to address and adapt to the impacts of climate change. But residents of the United States and other industrial countries will also experience negative consequences, such as increased coastal flooding and more frequent and intense heat waves, droughts, storms, and wildfires as well as the associated economic and health costs.

Most scientists believe that, at least on a global basis, the costs of climate change will far outweigh any benefits that it might bring to a given region.

How Does Climate Change Affect ME?

1. What are some of the impacts we can expect from climate change?
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A. The impacts of climate change will vary from place to place, but we can expect more severe and frequent storms (such as hurricanes and ice storms), heat waves, floods, droughts and wildfires. Warmer temperatures will increase the range of disease-bearing mosquitoes, while also increasing the range and numbers of insects and other agricultural pests, such as weeds. Melting glaciers and expanding sea water (water expands as it warms) will further raise sea level, inundating low-lying islands and flooding coastal areas, while warmer ocean temperatures will kill many if not most of the world’s coral reefs. Such events, in turn, will influence our food supply, our access to clean water, our health, and the economic and social conditions of families and communities around the world.

As ecosystems become further stressed by climate change, species extinction will accelerate. Many of the species lost will be seemingly “insignificant” plants and insects, but we will also lose plants that could cure diseases, and large animals such as polar bears, which rely on winter ice as a platform to hunt for food. Warmer winters could mean reduced snow pack for some regions, reducing water supplies and the output of hydropower dams in the northwestern U.S., for example, and shortening if not eliminating ski seasons in some regions such as New England. The regional or national economic impacts of such changes could be significant.

Many such changes are already being seen around the world. For example, the number of weather-related disasters experienced worldwide every year has been increasing over the past few decades. In the United States, the number of such disasters experienced each decade has risen fivefold since the 1970s. During the course of this century, average global surface temperatures are projected to increase at a rate unprecedented over at least the past 10,000 years, and scientists believe that rising temperatures could further increase the intensity and frequency of extreme weather events.

2. Could climate change ever “wipe us out”?
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A. Past changes in climate have caused glaciers to advance and rivers to freeze. Even regional temperature fluctuations have contributed to the deaths of millions of people and the demise of civilizations, as in the cases of the Irish Potato Famine and the Vikings’ departure from Greenland. But humans can move and adapt far more easily than most other species, and are unlikely to be wiped out—even by abrupt changes.

At the same time, it’s important to realize that even relatively small changes in average global temperature can have significant impacts on weather patterns, agricultural productivity, water resources, and the spread of disease—and thus on millions of individual people. Climate change will have a lot of negative impacts, like the extinction of many plant and animal species, the spread of disease carrying insects, more frequent and intense heat waves, floods, droughts, and wildfires. Already, the World Health Organization blames climate change for an estimated 150,000 human deaths every year.

3. Should I be worried about climate change? Will it affect me personally?
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A. Rising global temperature means more than just extra time to wear shorts and sandals. An increase of just a few degrees in average temperature can cause dramatic changes in conditions that are important to the quality of life—and even the Earth’s ability to support life. We may not always see or feel it directly, but climate change affects us all. For one person it might mean paying more for food because flooding or drought has damaged crops. For another it might mean a higher risk of contracting a disease like malaria, which spreads more easily in warm, wet climates. Someone else might face losing her home or even life in a catastrophic weather disaster made worse by global warming.

Almost everyone is vulnerable to the effects of weather-related disasters, but people in poor countries face a far greater threat due to risk factors that include inadequate housing located on flood plains and steep hillsides, weak healthcare systems, and heavy economic dependence on agriculture. It is not uncommon for single weather events, such as tropical cyclones and floods, to kill thousands of people in regions such as South Asia, southern China, and Central America. If the warming continues for years and sea levels rise as predicted, then a great many people will become climate refugees—because their homes and countries will be under water. Rising sea levels will also affect people in U.S. coastal regions, from the Outer Banks of North Carolina and much of Florida, to Louisiana, to California. Already, rising seas are forcing communities in Alaska to move inland, at very high cost to the state.

What Can I Do?

1. What can we do right now to slow climate change and make a real difference?
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A. While it’s impossible for any one individual to prevent global warming, we each have a direct impact on the conditions that allow warming to occur. We can pledge to do our part to conserve energy and pollute less. Whether at home, on our commute to work or school, in the office, or at the store, there are things we can do to lessen our contribution to climate change.

Examples of things you can do include turning off lights and computers when they are not in use, using public transportation or carpooling, driving less, recycling, purchasing energy efficient appliances (in the U.S., look for the Energy Star label) or a more fuel-efficient car, buying food grown locally, insulating your water heater and home, and choosing “green” electricity from a company selling power generated from renewable sources such as the wind or sun, which is now possible in many areas.

For additional practical ways to lessen your impact on global warming see Worldwatch’s guide to consumer items, Good Stuff, at www.worldwatch.org/pubs/goodstuff/. Also, see the Green Ribbon Pledge at www.greenribbonpledge.org/pledge/index.html, and the Center for a New American Dream’s Turn the Tide Campaign at www.newdream.org/turnthetide/. These two sites will allow you to calculate your energy savings and track the positive impact you are having on the planet as you make better choices.

Another important way to act on climate change is by voting and supporting candidates who are serious about reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Also, encourage your current state and national legislators to support legislation that will slow climate change.

Getting Down to Businesses and Governments

1. What role can businesses play in curbing climate change?
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A. There are a number of ways that corporations as well as other large institutions like hospitals, universities, and government agencies can curb the amount of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases they emit into the atmosphere. At the production and manufacturing level, for example, companies can save energy and other resources by designing products with fewer materials and less packaging, and by making new products out of recycled materials.

Through their formal purchasing channels, institutions can commit to using energy-efficient office equipment or fixtures, and can use recycled materials such as paper, which require less energy to produce. Some businesses have already committed to reducing their greenhouse gas emissions by purchasing energy from renewable sources, and by choosing fleets of low emission vehicles. Businesses can also provide benefits that encourage employees to use public transportation, and facilitate telecommuting. (For more examples, see www.worldwatch.org/press/news/2003/07/22/.)

Individuals can play an important role in encouraging corporations to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by patronizing businesses that have committed to polluting less, filing and voting on shareholder resolutions, or participating in letter-writing campaigns or boycotts.

2. What role can governments play in addressing climate change?
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A. Governments can enact laws and tax policies that encourage energy conservation; the development and use of more energy-efficient cars, buildings, and appliances; and the development and use of renewable energy such as solar and wind power and bio-fuels. Governments can also increase investments in public transportation and encourage development patterns that minimize sprawl. Today, the policies of most countries favor the most intensive forms of transportation (such as auto and air travel), and are biased toward conventional energy over renewables, and toward new energy supplies over efficiency measures. But, driven greatly by concerns about energy security and climate change, several countries have begun to promote the sustainable use of energy through green taxes, which shift the tax burden from labor to energy, and by enacting strong policies to advance the development and use of renewable energy and energy-efficient technologies.

3. Which countries contribute the most to global warming?
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A. Wealthier industrial countries contribute the most to global warming since they use most of the world’s fossil fuels. Europe, Japan, and North America—with roughly 15 percent of the world’s current population—are estimated to account for two-thirds of the carbon dioxide now in the atmosphere. With less than five percent of world population, the United States is the single-largest source of carbon from fossil fuels—emitting 24 percent of the world’s total. U.S. automobiles (more than 128 million, or one quarter of the world’s cars) emit roughly as much carbon as the entire Japanese economy, the world’s fourth-largest carbon emitter in 2000. China, despite being home to one-fifth of the world’s population and its heavy dependence on coal, ranks a distant second behind the U.S., emitting 12 percent of the global total. The average person in China produces less than one-eighth as much carbon dioxide as the average American.

4. What is the Kyoto Protocol and what can it do to curb climate change?
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A. The Kyoto Protocol is an international agreement, initially negotiated by government representatives meeting in Kyoto, Japan, in 1997, that sets targets to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions causing climate change. It requires a variety of actions by governments, including specific emission reduction requirements for industrial countries, as well as provisions to assist developing countries in limiting their emissions.

For the Protocol to “enter into force,” it must be ratified by at least 55 nations representing 55 percent of industrial-country 1990 carbon dioxide emissions. As of as of 15 April 2004, 122 countries (representing 44.2 percent of industrial country 1990 emissions) had ratified or acceded to the Kyoto Protocol, including those of the European Union, Canada, Japan, and a host of developing countries. But because the world’s largest emitter—the United States—withdrew from Kyoto, the 55 percent threshold that allows the treaty to enter into force will be crossed only if Russia ratifies the agreement.

According to many studies, enforcing the Kyoto Protocol would protect the environment, reduce air pollution, and create new jobs in industries such as energy conservation, solar energy, wind power, and hydrogen technology, all of which could become powerful growth sectors in the decades ahead.

The Kyoto Protocol, during its first phase (through 2012) is a modest, yet important first step. Perhaps its greatest contribution in the short term will be to put in place mechanisms that can be built on, such as emissions trading and the transfer of clean technologies (such as renewable energy) to the developing world. Even though it hasn’t yet entered into force, it is already spurring corporations and governments to action, from the U.S. to the E.U. to Japan, and many developing countries as well.

5. Why won’t the U.S. ratify the Kyoto Protocol?
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The Kyoto Protocol was signed by the U.S. government during the Clinton Administration in 1997. However, in March 2001, the Bush Administration withdrew its support for the agreement over concerns that the treaty would cause undue harm to the U.S. economy. The treaty requires that the U.S. cut its greenhouse gases to 7 percent below 1990 levels by 2012. The Administration claimed this put too heavy a burden on the U.S. economy, arguing that there was too much uncertainty around climate change to make the economic changes that would be necessary for such emissions reductions. The Administration also argued that the treaty does not require developing nations to curb their emissions.

The vast majority of governments, ranging from Great Britain to Japan, disagree with the Bush Administration, and believe that the Kyoto Protocol represents a moderate step that will not only be affordable, but will actually spur the market for cleaner and more energy-efficient technologies and thereby strengthen economies. Many nations are enthusiastic about the international emissions trading system that would be created by the Protocol, which ironically is an idea that originated in the United States and was adopted in response to the lobbying of the U.S. government. In addition, there is a growing sense that the costs of curbing emissions and reducing the threat of climate change will be far lower than the costs of inaction.


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