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The debate on man-made climate change

You really just have to sit back and admire the hole most Republicans have dug themselves into on climate change. The question isn’t whether they’re right or wrong in denying that it exists — they’re wrong, and 97 percent of climate scientists agree. The environment is being changed by human hands, and, as Fox News host Marc Morano recently said, “You’re entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts.” Of course, he followed that up with “it’s a concept not everyone’s comfortable with” and dove into accusations of Google’s new accuracy-based ranking system somehow being fascist, but the point stands. The sky is blue. The grass is green. Human action is changing the climate. Period. We shouldn’t take those who deny the last claim any more seriously than we would take those who deny either of the first two.

The funny part, as evidenced by the number of Republicans jumping on the “I’m not a scientist” question-dodging bandwagon, is that the GOP’s leadership surely knows this. It just doesn’t seem to think that cutting its losses and moving on is a good move. Republicans’ confession that they don’t know what they’re talking about is clearly a step up from their previous tendency of outright climate denial, but it underscores the fact that their party is simply in too deep to admit fault. The “not a scientist” movement and the attitudes that drive it thus leave us in a race to see which will cave first: the Republican Party or the earth. But if 2013’s government shutdown is any indication, we shouldn’t be so sure that sanity, public opinion or the undeniably real effects of our environmental complacency will be enough to sway the right.

Still, some continue to deny both climate change and humans’ causal role therein. There are those who argue, for example, that human-based climate change is too difficult to predict or examine, making assertions of its existence groundless. Indeed, climate change is extremely hard to predict; a fairly consistent rule, in fact, is that our models have tended to underestimate how bad climate change really is. But to argue that there is some “missing link” between extant changes to our planet and human causality (as Senator James Inhofe has, lamenting, “The arrogance of people to think that we, human beings, would be able to change what He [God] is doing in the climate.”) is, again, completely false. Science has firmly established that humans are not just witness to but are the direct cause of climate change. I challenge you, reader, to convince an Earth Systems major or a professor in the department that climate change is simply too hard to observe for our science to be accurate, or that the work of these scientists is meaningfully negated by the fact that you don’t like it. My email address is under this article. Message me if you succeed.

Then there’s the assertion that our planet has been going through such cycles all its life and that this is simply some puberty-like awkward hiccup in the Earth’s life cycle. Of course, there is little doubt that our planet has known tropical periods and ice ages. But at no period in its history has a quarter of atmospheric carbon (an unbelievably powerful trapper of heat) been man-made, nor has an increase in the Earth’s temperature ever coincided with a decrease in solar activity. Our planet’s surface and lower atmosphere are warming while its outer atmosphere is cooling, a process that is exactly what we would expect to see from human-caused climate change. Climate skeptics have no answer to the question of how greenhouse gasses wouldn’t be affecting our planet if changes being seen now were due only to cycles. Perhaps these pollutants were buried in the sand alongside the GOP’s heads.

Others go on to point out that other countries have done more environmental damage than the U.S., but, aside from the extent to which that argument ignores the previous assertion that man hasn’t altered the environment in the first place, the point is a complete red herring. It’s far too late to quibble about who did it worse; the fact of the matter is that global warming is an absolutely alarm-soundingly urgent issue, and that every single person in the world will be affected by it. Perhaps if Republicans jump ship now on climate denial, they can save some amount of face; surely they could maintain base support by framing the issue as a chance to push for a private-sector boom in green innovation. Is there truly no tax break that could turn this into a conservative issue, no big-government-bogeyman fear-mongering that could make the battle against pollutants a battle for individual liberty? Is it not one already? Isn’t it a shame that the survival of our race is coming down to such petty political calculations?

Or perhaps global warming denial will simply be added to the Conservative Hall of Shame, taking a spot alongside resistance to civil, women’s and gay rights. I hope the museum isn’t close to sea level. Maybe they’ll add a water slide.

Contact Ben Kaufman at bkauf614 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Good morning, Stanford! It’s another beautiful day out here on the west coast: sun shining, skies blue and balmy, temperature in the 60s and, well, about perfect. Yes, it’s certainly easy for us to forget the terrible winter storm pounding up and down their side of the country. Apparently it’s a real doozy this time, striking as far south as Texas with sub-freezing temperatures while winter storms Juno, Remus and now Thor blast New York and New Jersey with ice and snow. Even the inner states (Arkansas, Georgia and the Carolinas) aren’t immune this season.

And now the same thought just crossed all of your heads: Surely it must be due to global warm— climate change.

Yes, the first label’s somewhat fallen out of fashion by now. The most recent satellite data lists a lack of any sort of warming trend since 1997, when the recurring El Niño weather pattern drove global temperatures up approximately 0.3 degrees above the previous average. In the past decade or so, we’ve hovered around or slightly below this point, even as worldwide carbon dioxide levels have continued to rise. Despite all the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) computer models predicting a three- to four-fold temperature increase over this same period, the Earth has stayed a pretty even course, barring the fluctuations typical of any large, complex and still not fully-understood system.

So then, climate change. A much broader, more ambiguous label encompassing not only predicted temperature variations but also environmental anomalies that, while no scientist or researcher ever thought might occur, can nonetheless be sheltered under this umbrella term and pointed to proudly as another unfortunate result of carbon abuse. Ignoring that the U.S. has been fairly constant in greenhouse gas emissions since 1990 and actually reached a peak in 2007 (pat yourselves on the back), it seems there is no acceptable solution to some environmentalists other than to throw the full weight of public policy behind the ultimate goal of a zero-carbon footprint. Which then leads to cap-and-trade, risky federal investments in green energy enterprises and a general feeling of shame for anyone who dares drive unaccompanied to work.

I can understand the motivations behind these techniques, if not their methods or goals. Ours is a beautiful country, with resources meant neither for neglect nor exploitation, but instead for management and cultivation. It’s a balancing act, as are many ideas within our system of government; on the one hand are the tree-huggers and green crusaders, on the other hand are the clear-cutters and strip-miners, and out of their bitter dislike comes that magic word we all champion: sustainability. We harvest, but we replant. We mine, but we refill. We do things like attach scrubbers and baghouses to our coal-fired plants, the dirtiest means of power generation, and go above and beyond the call of duty.

However, the latest effort by the EPA seems a bit too much. In September 2013, an addendum to the Clean Air Act was put forth that proposed newer, more stringent carbon pollution standards for future power plants. With this, the EPA essentially classified carbon dioxide — odorless, flavorless, non-toxic to humans and absolutely vital to the existence of all plant life on this Earth — as a pollutant. Last year, more ambitious plans were announced to apply such regulation to existing power plants, with an option to comply or shut down. It’s directed mostly at the coal-fired plants that provide 39 percent of the U.S.’s electricity, in particular in the Midwest region, where this figure approaches a higher number. But coal is cheap, and thus electricity from coal is cheapest of all sources (notwithstanding natural gas). The result? Skyrocketing energy prices and a huge blow to our economy.

Let’s move to a bigger scale. Though climate change is championed as a global problem, other superpowers seem to be doing very little at the moment to match our rather strenuous efforts. China in this respect immediately comes to mind, though not with any idea of hope attached. In 2007, they overshadowed the U.S. as the largest producer of carbon dioxide in the world, and while our numbers have dipped since then, theirs have only grown. This past year, China pumped nine billion metric tons of carbon dioxide into its skies, along with particulate matter, soot and other toxic chemicals like mercury and sulfur dioxide that the U.S. has long since heavily regulated but that go unchecked across the Pacific. The air quality in larger Chinese cities is practically legendary (once described by the U.S. Embassy as “crazy bad”), and others cities like New Delhi are not too far behind them. Unfortunately, the borders of a country don’t matter much to smog and smoke.

It seems that, once again, we’re asking the wrong questions. Rather than, “How can we force ourselves to curb our already decreasing carbon dioxide levels, regardless of the economic impacts on a cheap energy-dependent country?”, it should be, “In what ways can we adapt to a continuously changing environment?” No one doubts that the Earth’s temperature is in a state of oscillatory flux; even without any kind of ice-core data listing its repetitive cycles of heating and cooling, the evidence of the most recent Little Ice Age demonstrates how such century-wide fluctuations are common to our planet. Some of them are more distressing than others, causing mass freezes across farmland and locking down transportation. Others are gentler. Do we prepare for them, or do we vainly try to stop them in their tracks?

It is a great folly to assume mankind can control something as complex as weather, and one only slightly less to presume we know everything there is to know about it. Carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases may influence the Earth’s meteorological systems, but the evidence to such is inconclusive at best and downright manipulative at worst. A better understanding, an unbiased understanding, should always be pursued before major, potentially damaging policies are enacted across our country (which tries hard enough as it is). There is no religion here, only science. Let us treat it as such.

Contact Wyatt Smitherman at wtsmith ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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