We need a real dialogue about climate

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Early in December, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt told lawmakers he intended to organize a “Red Team vs. Blue Team” exercise to debate climate change.

Pruitt is being willfully blind to the fact that the scientific aspects of global warming have already been thoroughly debated by experts. It’s expected that Pruitt will orchestrate a lawyerly winner-take- all debate. One that’s based on rhetorical trickery and a ruthless disregard for facts.

It’s a shame, since we Americans need a constructive, educational dialogue. A debate where honestly representing your opponent’s arguments and data is as important as honestly representing your own data. One where objective learning is the goal, and where truth matters.

Speaking of honestly representing the science, on Nov. 9 Dr. Kevin Trenberth (the senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder and a lead author for IPCC’s Scientific Assessment in 1995, 2001, and 2007, a giant in the field of climate assessment) gave a talk at the Fort Lewis College Climate Symposium explaining what scientists have learned about our planet. It sounded to me like a potential Blue Team opening statement.

Since climate scientists and the science itself are under attack today as never before, it’s critical for more citizens to become aware and engaged. That’s why I want to share what Trenberth explained to us, along with some additional facts that make clear what an internally consistent understanding researchers have achieved.

Trenberth underscored that pretty much all climate scientists agree. As for the few outliers, they are driven by other causes, such as religious and political inclinations. He explained, “As a whole the data are of mixed quality and length. If you were to look at one little piece of it you might be able to be skeptical that climate change is happening, but when you put it all together there’s no doubt whatsoever that this is happening.”

Trenberth went on to use a metaphor of Earth as a patient obviously running a fever. If Earth could go to a doctor, that doctor would start by diagnosing her symptoms, such as the composition of key components. One of the first symptoms noted would be the atmosphere’s rapidly changing composition.

These increasing greenhouse gases, particularly carbon dioxide, happen to be our planet’s insulation regulator. At around 180 parts per million of CO2, Earth experiences Ice Ages; at roughly 280 ppm it’s nice temperate periods, such as those our society evolved in. Today, it’s past 400 ppm.

The physics of this earthly insulation blanket are understood so thoroughly that a great assortment of modern marvels such as satellite imagery and heat-seeking air-to-air missiles would be impossible without it. That is to say, “Atmospheric GHG Theory” is as certain as certain gets!

We also have a clear understanding of why these greenhouse-gas molecules are increasing. We know how much fossil fuel humanity has been extracting and how much has been burned and injected into our atmosphere (and oceans).

We also know how much atmospheric concentrations have risen. That reality was driven home when Trenberth showed us the Keeling Curve of atmospheric CO2 levels being collected at Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii since 1958.

On close examination the line graphically illustrates the seasonal ebb and flow in Earth’s respiration. Think inhalation and exhalation of life’s sustaining molecules. What’s terrifying is when zooming out and averaging those fluctuations, the line goes from 315 ppm in 1958, to beyond 400 ppm currently – an increase of 85 ppm in 60 years. Compare that to younger Earth which was used to taking around 50,000 years to go up or down by 100 ppm.

The doctor’s prognosis is that more warming will be disruptive to our particular biosphere, the one our current climate regime created, the one it has supported for thousands and tens of thousands of years. The one we are absolutely dependent on. Change is constant, but what’s happening to our Earth this time is something extraordinary. Trenberth then superimposed global mean temperatures on the Keeling Curve and explained how their similarity was no coincidence. The overall CO2/ temperature correlation is obvious, although there are sections where the two are clearly out of sync.

This is because greenhouse gases aren’t all there is to global temperatures. While Earth’s atmospheric insulation regulates the overall temperature setting, it’s a dynamic living planet with many age-old cycles and rhythms interfering and converging with each other.

For example, our oceans contain over 90 percent of our climate engine’s heat. That heat gets moved about in dozens of different currents and oscillation patterns that have profound but short-term effects on the atmosphere, weather and local temperatures, even global temperatures.

But in essence that’s only moving heat around the globe, impacting weather but not Earth’s overall temperature – that is done by our atmosphere.

In fact, you could say Earth is not heating, Earth is accumulating heat. Increasing GHG molecules are increasingly intercepting and slowing the escape of infrared radiation, thus allowing more to accumulate within our biosphere.

But climate changed before, you say? Yes, it did. Looking back into Earth’s deep-time, natural variations caused by geologic, planetary and solar forces had big impacts, but none of those factors are in play these days.

Yes, volcanoes drive natural variations with cooling caused by emitted aerosols. Aerosols that have short atmospheric “residence times” measured in weeks.

On the other hand, volcanoes also emit massive CO2, which has an atmospheric residence time measured in centuries, producing long-term warming. Incidentally, today human CO2 emissions dwarf current volcanism on the order of 60 to 1. What about the mid-21st century global cooling? Well, that cooling trend ended as nations took steps to clean their smoggy skies. It turned out sulfur aerosols acted as tiny reflectors mirroring a fraction of the sun’s ultraviolet rays back into space before those rays had a chance to convert into infrared radiation which warms our biosphere, thus driving that not-so-natural cooling trend.

What about last decade’s “warming hiatus”? That was a media farce, the “missing” surface heat was found where geophysics dictated it would be found, in the oceans. No hiatus, our atmosphere’s insulation works 24/7/365.

In a serious debate the Red Team would now need to respond to these facts, not with distractions and drama, but with facts and realistic, clearly enunciated challenges and a willingness to learn.

Peter Miesler writes from near Durango, Colo. His essays, along with global-warming information, are posted at Citizenschallenge.blogspot.com.

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From peter-miesler.