Politics can’t hide science of global warming

Published 9:36 am Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Global warming. These two words incite greater passion than almost any other phrase in our current political environment.

They have become part and parcel of the culture wars that pit Republicans versus Democrats, and liberals against conservatives.

What is lost in this argument is that this is, first and foremost, a scientific debate. Admittedly it is a scientific debate with political ramifications, but the essential questions all fall within the realm of scientific inquiry.

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Ironically, while the political debate is complex, the basic science is rather straight forward.

In 1859 John Tyndall discovered that water vapor, carbon dioxide and other carbon molecules could trap heat. It was recognized as early as 1899 that the burning of fossil fuels would elevate CO2 levels in the atmosphere and could lead to increased temperatures.

Examination of ice cores in Antarctica going back 800,000 years in time show the correlation between rising CO2 levels and temperature is nearly perfect.

In the past these changes were driven by subtle shifts in the earth’s orbit which gradually increased earth’s temperature and released stored carbon from arctic tundra and the earth’s oceans. Now CO2 levels are rising at a much faster rate largely because of the burning of fossil fuels.

Ice core records from Antarctica show that prior to the industrial revolution CO2 levels had not gone above 300 parts per million in 800,000 years, but just this year we reached 400 ppm. This level had not been seen since the Pliocene era three million years ago when world sea levels were at least 30 feet higher and world temperatures were 3.6 to 5.4 degrees warmer.

Even worse, unrestrained burning of fossil fuels will lead to CO2 levels of 600 ppm by 2050.

While one would not realize it by reading the mainstream press, the consensus on climate change among scientists is remarkable. Every National Academy of Science from every major country, and every scientific society that studies climate have concluded that man-made climate change is underway.

Two recent reviews of the peer-reviewed climate literature found that more than 97 percent of scientific articles on the subject agreed that human activity is warming our planet.

The scientific debate is over, but the political debate continues, and it is driven by powerful special interests seeking to protect their enormously profitable industries. They seize on isolated facts and distort them to mislead the public, just as tobacco companies for years distorted the science on the harms of smoking.

Climate scientists like Michael Mann have been vilified by politicians, despite being vindicated again and again by their universities. Those who deny climate change almost never publish their findings in peer-reviewed scientific journals. In fact a recent review of climate literature found of the 13,950 articles on climate change from 1991 to 2012 only 24 challenged the idea that climate change was real, and that it was driven by human activity.

In other words the scientists who support man-made climate change could fill Ohio University’s Convocation Center, while those who deny it would not fill my high school classroom (there would be six seats left over).

This does not have to be a culture war issue. Simple steps taken by our government can unleash the creativity of our entrepreneurs and the power of capitalism and the market place. Most of all, if we do not begin to act now the steps we will be forced to take in the future will be far more drastic.

The real question is can America still deal with big, complex problems rooted in science. I believe in American democracy. I believe we can.

Robert McCollister