Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Getting Warmer

Recently one of my friends asked me what my thoughts on climate change were. So in a very Daniel P. Daniel fashion I crafted an unnecessarily long-winded reply to a query that, on the surface, seems like a pretty simple question: Do humans have an effect on the environment, specifically the global climate? Although my method of attack on most issues is to dive deep into the science and mathematics (you know, where the real answers lie) in this instance I wanted to keep it somewhat concise and top-level so as not to befuddle the addle brains of the conspiracy crowd, who seem to be highly represented in the climate change denier group. Alrighty then, where do we begin our voyage of discovey? Well, let’s begin at the beginning – with a cursory review of our scientific understanding of the topic at hand. Then we can get into the other nonsense.

Generally, when people bring up climate change they want to talk about one specific molecule, carbon dioxide (CO2). There are quite a lot of other molecules that affect global warming (methane, water, etc.), but for some reason people are in love with CO2. Incidentally, there are other chemicals that affect global cooling, but no one in the non-scientific community seems to care about that. For instance, smog has a large cooling effect on the environment. It just happens to be toxic to humans and is visible to the naked eye, so we try to eliminate it (mostly). Anyway, getting back to that pesky CO2. How exactly does this one molecule affect global temperatures? Well, one way is that CO2 absorbs infrared light. The Earth’s atmosphere absorbs ~150 watts per square meter (W/m2) of infrared energy. So, without getting into too much math, it stands to reason that as the concentration of an infrared-absorbing molecule increases in the atmosphere the total amount of energy absorption will increase in the atmosphere which will cause temperatures to rise globally. Not too much of a leap, is it?

In the industrial age alone we burned roughly 500 billion metric tons of fossil fuels. Why should we differentiate fossil fuels from wood or other biomass? Wood and biomass can be considered carbon-neutral since the carbon that they release into the atmosphere is exactly the amount that the tree or plant took out of the atmosphere in order to build itself. This is essentially an infinitely repeatable cycle as long as the biomass burn rate is roughly equivalent to the new growth rate of biomass. Fossil fuels are a different animal. The amount of fossil fuels that we have burned is enough to raise the global CO2 concentration up from 280ppm to ~500ppm. Some of that is absorbed by the ocean, plants and other chemical reactions, which leaves us with a net increase of ~30%. Not coincidentally, measurements taken on the carbon in the atmosphere show an exact correlation in the concentration and expected isotope from burning fossil fuels. We know the current CO2 increase is due to the human industrial revolution based on logic, mathematical calculations and chemical theories, which are consequently backed up by scrutinizing scientific measurements. Here’s something that nobody talks about: simple combustion chemistry dictates that carbon has to react with oxygen in order to form CO2 when something is burned. Thus, we should also be seeing a decrease in global oxygen levels over the same period. In fact we do. The exact decrease predicted by calculation has been measured, but we don’t really need oxygen, do we? Well, climate change deniers don’t seem to be using much anyway.

OK. So we’re pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, who cares? Not me. I was planning on drowning my kids tomorrow anyway. Plus God will eventually get around to smiting us sooner or later. However, for argument’s sake, let’s just continue with the simple science for a moment. In general it can be stated that an increase in absorbed energy in the atmosphere will directly correlate to an increase in average global temperatures. However, the planet is a quite large and very complicated organism. Anything that has an effect on it will have some amount of lag due to environmental inertia in the same way that you don’t immediately get diarrhea the instant someone sneezes in your face on the bus.  The climate has a lot of feedback loops, some positive and some negative, so the exact amount of warming is difficult to postulate. The error bars surrounding that exact number aren’t that important. Why? Because even a small increase will have a direct impact on sea levels, growing seasons, animal migrations and a host of other moderately important tidbits like that. Once the increase reaches 7°C the air can hold enough water that it will literally suck all of the moisture out of the ground leaving the Earth a barren wasteland. (Note to self: I need to stock up on vulture-feather shoulder pads and start modifications on that '73 GT Ford Falcon Coupe).

Climate change deniers often like to spout the nonsense that there is still an argument in the scientific community about whether or not human caused global warming is actually occurring. This is because they are mouth-breathing dipshits that lack the ability to think critically. Since January 1st 1991 over 14,000 articles have been published in peer-reviewed scientific journals relating to and supporting the idea of global climate change. Of those 14,000 or so articles, exactly 24 dispute that the current climate change is human-related. Twenty-four. Out of 14,000+. Any idea who funded those 24? This cuts to the quick of the denier’s argument. Is there in fact a global conspiracy by tens of thousands of financially unconnected climatologists, geologists, physicists, biologists, oceanographers, chemists, and local weathermen to create a better, more stable, sustainable, less polluted planet that supports human health and well-being, or are there a few very large and very politically influential energy corporations that stand to lose something if the general public stops buying their products? OOH! PICK ME! I KNOW THIS ONE! Any semi-literate individual has to ask themselves the question: why do non-scientific people that are not climatologists have an opinion on this topic at all? I'll give you a little example. Try saying the following next time you’re stuck in a conversation with one of them, “I see you’re well informed on the conspiracies supported by so-called ‘scientific literature’. What’s your take on the controversial finding that phthalimides with trimethylsilyl-substituted alkynes can undergo decarbonylative alkylidenation over a nickel catalyst? Oh, I’m sorry, what was I thinking?!? I meant to ask what you thought about Bigfoot and vaccines.” Smell what I'm stepping in? I recently read an article that showed that climate change deniers were more likely to believe in any conspiracy theory handed to them than critical thinkers. They also happen to be more religious and have poor critical thinking skills. Hrmmm, imagine that. 

Let’s get even more simplified. No, there is no conspiracy or disagreement among scientists. Yes, humans have an effect on the climate. What the exact meaning of that change will be for the human race can be intelligently discussed, depending upon present company, of course. However, let’s grant the idiots’ premise for a moment. Let’s say that this is just another global burp that has nothing to do with humans at all – that the current rise in temperatures is just Earth being Earth over geological time. Nothing that we can do about it. Well, then why the fekk aren’t we moving away from coastlines, building effing biodomes, underwater cities, crops that can grow without water, or some other kind of life raft that will save us when the icecaps melt or when the next ice age comes? The answer is that most people really don’t care what happens to the human race in the future as long as it doesn’t happen to them now. They just like to have uneducated opinions about things without extrapolating what the long-term consequences or solutions might be. It sucks, but it’s true. On that note I’ll leave you with a quote from one of my heroes:

There exists in society a very special class of persons that I have always referred to as the Believers. These are folks who have chosen to accept a certain religion, philosophy, theory, idea or notion and cling to that belief regardless of any evidence that might, for anyone else, bring it into doubt. They are the ones who encourage and support the fanatics and the frauds of any given age. No amount of evidence, no matter how strong, will bring them any enlightenment. They are the sheep who beg to be fleeced and butchered, and who will battle fiercely to preserve their right to be victimized.James Randi

Extra credit - some references and useful articles for your brain: 
  1. http://www.jamespowell.org/index.html 
  2. http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1849713367/ref=as_li_ss_tl?ie=UTF8&tag=skeptscien-20&linkCode=as2&camp=217145&creative=399349&creativeASIN=1849713367 
  3. Lewandowsky, S. (2011). Popular consensus: Climate change set to continue. Psychological Science, 22, 460-463. 
  4. http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2004/12/how-do-we-know-that-recent-cosub2sub-increases-are-due-to-human-activities-updated/ 
  5.  http://tigger.uic.edu/~pdoran/012009_Doran_final.pdf 
  6.  http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2010/06/04/1003187107.full.pdf+html 
  7.  http://med.ucsd.edu/documents/Oreskes_2007_MIT_Press.pdf 
  8.  http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2007/08/the-co2-problem-in-6-easy-steps/ 
  9.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Relative_humidity#Other_important_facts
  10.  http://www.climateemergencyinstitute.com/atmos_oxy_karen_v-t.html
  11.  Geophysical Research Letters (DOI 10.1029/2002GL014687)

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