Stop arguing about the science of climate change

Oct. 01, 2013 @ 11:01 AM

Make no mistake -- climate change is real, and we humans are the drivers.

That is the thrust of a new report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the latest attempt by experts from more than 100 countries to generate a consensus of the science behind changing global temperatures, sea levels and environmental patterns.

Unfortunately, nothing even close to a consensus exists regarding climate policy. Should we implement a carbon tax? Should government provide subsidies for alternative energy companies? What is the proper role of the United Nations in addressing the climate problem? Policy experts remain sharply divided.

No political party or special interest group can claim ownership of the ideal climate policy. Moreover, meaningful debate over climate policy is possible only if all parties first acknowledge what we know. And climate science has only become clearer.

For example, scientists are now virtually certain that human activity drives almost all climate change -- mostly through burning fossil fuels, with some deforestation. Any activity that puts carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere augments the problem.

One way to understand the magnitude of our global predicament is to compare the concentration of atmospheric greenhouse gases to the amount of water in a bathtub. Just as opening a drain would reduce the amount of water in a bathtub, so removing carbon from the atmosphere would drive global cooling. Our atmospheric “drain,” otherwise known as the ocean, sucks a small, relatively fixed amount of carbon from the atmosphere every year.

Unfortunately, our atmospheric “faucet” of greenhouse gas emissions is much larger than our drain, and we increase the size of the faucet every year. Recent declines in U.S. emissions have been swamped by rising emissions from China and other developing nations. Even if global emissions peaked in 2014 and remained constant thereafter, the planet would continue to warm indefinitely because of the continuing mismatch between the sizes of our atmospheric faucet and drain.

The effects of climate change -- both positive and negative -- are understood less well by scientists. The Arctic Ocean soon will be ice-free during summer months, facilitating important new shipping routes. Plenty of dramatic weather-related events are consistent with climate science, such as recent floods in Colorado, last year’s Hurricane Sandy, and record droughts in Texas. The environmental and social costs of climate change will be monstrously high, though predicting exact costs will remain difficult.

Further complicating the politics of climate change is the fact that fossil fuels have done such a remarkable job of fueling prosperity over the last several centuries. Consumption of abundant and affordable fossil fuels has been synonymous with industrialization in nearly every country. One could even make the argument that fossil fuel consumption has done more to end human poverty than any other activity.

Unfortunately, the environmental and social costs of climate change have never been included in the price of fossil fuel. We are rapidly unleashing a climate never before encountered by civilized humans. Notwithstanding their short-term benefits, virtually everyone agrees that a long-term transition away from fossil fuels is essential.

This transition will require remarkable human creativity. Liberals might push for governments to step in and fix what many economists regard as the worst market failure ever. Conservatives might advocate for untangling the regulatory knots that often strangle entrepreneurs in the alternative energy sector. Hammering out climate politics should be lively and full of surprises.

But could we please move beyond pointless uninformed debates questioning the science of climate change?

Dave Gammon is an associate professor of biology at Elon University. He can be reached at dgammon@elon.edu.