The controversy surrounding climate change has a long, twisted history, polluted with fear. People on both sides of the issue seem completely convinced that the opposing side is out of touch with reality. It probably does not help matters that so much of the debate around a changing climate is packed with political and ideological rhetoric.
Humans are very good at taking a potentially legitimate cause and distorting it to serve their own purposes, so that it is not exactly surprising that many Americans doubt climate change. Recently, President Obama stated that “climate change is a fact”, and also linked it to such things as increased droughts and floods. Of course, when a politician says these things, many listeners are automatically wary. When most Americans think of climate change, they usually think of the more traditional term “global warming”.
That phrase was coined by Wallace Broecker, a geochemist, in 1975. Technically, “global warming” simply refers to the increase of the allegedly average global surface temperature caused by human greenhouse gas emissions. However, “climate change” refers to all of the affects that this warming might have on the climate. A “greenhouse gas” is a gas that absorbs energy from the sun and re-emits it in all directions, including down to earth. The process is fairly complicated, but the basic idea is that an increase in greenhouse gases will cause the earth to heat up and, by extension, produce numerous changes in the earth’s climate.
Carbon dioxide is, of course, a greenhouse gas, so the fear is that human activity could have long-term environmental consequences for the world. The problem is, this process is not as simple as it seems and there seem to be a lot of potential unknowns. The most obvious unknown is how much do changes in weather really have to do with the greenhouse effect? Another issue surrounds the role of water vapor. Water vapor is itself a greenhouse gas and is the largest contributer to the greenhouse effect. On the surface, this would seem to imply that the greenhouse effect is mostly caused by natural processes. However it is asserted that carbon dioxide emissions actually increase the amount of water vapor in the air, thus the results of human activity are actually amplified by water vapor.
Apart from Obama’s claims in his State of the Union address, the most recent instance of climate change in the news involves the death of penguin chicks in southern Argentina. Essentially, the penguin chicks do not yet have water-proof feathers, so a sudden rainstorm can cause the young birds to die of exposure. The penguins actually nest in a fairly arid environment near the coast and the leading cause of death is predation by animals such as sea gulls. However, the fear is that if storms become more frequent and unpredictable it will become even tougher for the birds to survive to adulthood. A scientific study concluded that magellanic penguins breeding in Punta Tombo, Argentina have declined by 20% since 1987. The study does point out that there are a number of factors that have contributed to this decline, so it should not be conflated entirely with bad weather.
Although the majority of scientists are basically in consensus about climate change, it should not be assumed that there is no dissenting opinion in the scientific community. As with the decline of magellanic penguins, it can be difficult to determine the exact cause of environmental events. This is partly why well known scientist Freemon Dyson is a climate change sceptic. He asserts that the computer models used to predict climate change do not necessarily work for predicting things in the real world. There are a lot of possible factors that such models don’t take into consideration. Dyson also states that the proposed solutions to climate change will end up having a high cost for people, perhaps a higher cost than climate change itself. It seems that the fear and speculation surrounding climate change will not go away anytime soon. The situation is very complex and it’s difficult to get easy answers. It remains to be seen what the future holds in this regard. The controversy of global warming and climate change continues.
By Zach Kirkman