Climate change can be understood and tackled

Even a highly simplified model of the Earth's atmosphere shows great complexity in jet streams and macroturbulence. Mathematical approaches that focus on average statistics rather than detailed patterns can deepen our understanding of climate and climate change. Credit: Brad Marston / Brown University

Even a highly simplified model of the Earth’s atmosphere shows great complexity in jet streams and macroturbulence. Mathematical approaches that focus on average statistics rather than detailed patterns can deepen our understanding of climate and climate change. Credit: Brad Marston / Brown University

A flaming stand-up argument, a sulky ignoring, a two-faced seeming agreement undermined by continued belief in the opposite opinion. There are many ways for people to disagree – and when it comes to climate change, surely all of them have been used. These disagreements can be good. Through them the human race progresses, with some people proposing ideas and others questioning and finding holes in them until they are well refined and hard to break down.

Over the past year, I have been writing about the latest climate research and asking the scientists doing it questions on this blog. In that time I’ve learnt a lot about global warming, and it has become clear that the evidence showing that it is happening is robust enough to stand aggressive questioning. Most recently, it’s become more clear to me that the science on which predictions of how our behaviour will continue to affect climate is also well established, even though it is still being questioned and further refined. It’s right that we question it, but where the scientists I have been in touch with differ is in the fine details rather than on the overall picture.

That’s shown, in part, by the fact that many of the explanations of climate change that the scientists have given me are similar. In the past month Simple Climate readers have been voting to choose between them to help with one aim I had for the blog when I set it up in January: to produce a single, simple explanation of climate change. It’s fitting that the ultimate winner is one of the world’s leading climate researchers: Kevin Trenberth, head of the Climate Analysis Section at the US National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder.

His explanation was:

The Earth is habitable because of a natural greenhouse effect brought about mainly by water vapor (60%) and carbon dioxide (26%). Otherwise its average temperature would be below zero Fahrenheit. Humans are altering the composition of the atmosphere, mainly by burning fossil fuels. As a result carbon dioxide has gone up over 35% since pre-industrial times and over half of that is since 1970. This changes the greenhouse effect and traps radiation that would otherwise escape to space, producing warming. The warming is manifested in many ways, not just increasing surface temperatures, but also melting ice, and changing the hydrological cycle and thus rainfall. Since 1970 the effects are large enough to be outside the bounds of natural variability for global mean temperatures, but global warming does not mean inexorable increases in temperature year after year owing to natural variability.

I had thought that it might be necessary to merge different explanations, combining descriptions of the physical effects like this one with comments on the results of climate change. However, given the overwhelming majority that this answer gained in the final poll (over three-quarters of the votes) it seems fitting to use it as that one ultimate simple climate change explanation.

If you take one thing away from this blog, I would be happy if you absorb and understand that explanation. But over the year I have also been covering how research is advancing our understanding of climate change and what can be done about it. Some findings can contradict each other: that’s all a part of how science’s big argument helps humanity understand more. Even though I have now achieved my aim of a single explanation, I will continue to cover the emerging evidence right here every week.

What I’ve covered so far makes a convincing, perhaps even daunting, case. Climate change is serious – if it progresses far enough it will cause problems ranging from interfering with food supplies to death. Yet, despite that, I feel that there still remains hope. Global warming can be slowed if we cut our greenhouse gas emissions, and that can be done. If you take two things away from this blog, make that the second – and preferably encourage your friends, family and politicians to do something about it.

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20 Responses to “Climate change can be understood and tackled”

  1. Mike Says:

    An excellent end of year blog! I’m glad you’ve decided to continue with it!

    • stefanthedenier Says:

      If science believes that; people can destroy the climate (which is correct) Should believe that people can improve the climate also. If you don’t know what is good climate; ask the trees. Shonky science has stuck with: water vapour +CO2 are bad for climate… Is it better climate in Brazil or Sahara? Saving extra storm-water on the land in dams > increases water vapour, prevents floods and droughts, improves the climate, produces more raw material for renewal of ice on the polar caps, less dry heat produced to destroy the raw material + hydro-electricity from new dams… but because of the bigotry that water vapour is bad for climate… the real issues are not addressed… like overpopulation problems..

      They are stuck with water vapour is bad; because of their original inspiration that CO2 is bad; because as water cloud traps the heat – but didn’t take in consideration that: the sunlight comes from the other side. They didn’t take in consideration that CO2 absorbs much more coldness at night than O+N. Tragedy in progress…

      • andyextance Says:

        I disagree – this is not saying that water vapour and CO2 are bad. Note the first two lines:
        “The Earth is habitable because of a natural greenhouse effect brought about mainly by water vapor (60%) and carbon dioxide (26%). Otherwise its average temperature would be below zero Fahrenheit.”
        We need water vapour and CO2 to make the planet warm enough to live on. But unfortunately *too much* CO2 is making it warmer, which poses risks and challenges to the humanity and the world overall.

  2. stefanthedenier Says:

    Oxygen and nitrogen (from which 99% of the atmosphere is made of) are Greenhouse gases, not CO2. They let the sunlight /radiation to the ground, radiation produces heat; then oxygen and nitrogen as perfect insulators = slow cooling. Same as transparent glass on a normal greenhouse. Lets the sunrays trough – they produce heat on the ground. Then the glass sealing slows cooling = same as O+N do in the atmosphere. If you want to prove what CO2 does up in the air – sprinkle some soothe from your chimney on the top of the glass of a normal greenhouse = inside will get colder! Because CO2 is not a greenhouse gas! CO2+H2O are. H2O+ CO2 are most beneficial for milder climate ‘’SHADECLOTH AFFECT GASES.’’. Not a Greenhouse affect gases!
    2] When in a normal greenhouse air warms up, it expands, percentage out the door- loses quantity, volume stays the same. b. In the Kyoto’s Greenhouse (in nature), when air warms up, volume and quantity increase = big difference! Plus extra CO2 increases by fraction the volume of the atmosphere. That increase of volume in the atmosphere goes into space of -90⁰C. Time for characters preaching GLOBAL warming, to start learning about those basic factors, the laws of physics! Professions with knowledge in the laws of physics should step in ,
    1. Dirty cloud (or water cloud) reflect some heat, intercepts some, where cooling is much more efficient than on the ground, during the day (Nuclear Winter effect). 2. At night slows down cooling, by slowing the vertical wind (global warming effect) to compensate. THOSE TWO FACTORS CANCEL EACH OTHER. The bigger dirty cloud = milder climate. 3. When for any reason the air warms up – expands. 4. Where the atmosphere expands up, it is colder than on the ground by 105°C (on the ground +15⁰C, on the edge of the troposphere – 90⁰C = 105°C. They believed first in factor one, that: CO2 reflects and intercepts heat, where cooling is more efficient. They believed in factor one, and promised us a Nuclear Winter for the year 2000. Because they didn’t take into account the other 3 factors. Now they promise global warming by disregarding the other factors and using only what CO2 does during the night. Global warming is as real as their Nuclear Winter for 2000. Emphasizing one factor and disregarding all other factors used to be called cherry picking, and then became Shonky Science at its best. It’s same as saying: it will be daylight 24 hours – of course will be global warming. Or: it will be 24 hours from now with no sunlight = will be cooling. Only flat-earth believers can believe that is possible 24hours sunlight on every square meter on the planet. Confusing normal / permanent climatic changes with the phony GLOBAL warming will backfire. Google keeps all on record.

    • andyextance Says:

      I think you’re confused between carbon and CO2. Soot is essentially black carbon – solid particles that absorb light. But CO2 is a gas that is transparent to sunlight, but absorbs the heat that the Earth re-emits after absorbing sunlight. The figure at this link explains it well:

      http://clivebest.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2010/01/595px-atmospheric_transmission.png

      The x-axis is different wavelengths of light/radiation. The coloured upper part of the graph shows what wavelengths of radiation can get through the Earth’s atmosphere. The grey lower part shows what radiation is absorbed in the atmosphere. Greenhouse gases – which do not include nitrogen, incidentally – let light through but absorb and re-emit up to 90 per cent of the heat emitted by the Earth back into the atmosphere. These absorption studies are fairly straightforward physics/chemistry. Their influence on climate was first realised back in the 19th century:

      http://www.aip.org/history/climate/timeline.htm

      I’m afraid there’s 150 years of science arguing against your idea that CO2 is not a greenhouse gas, Stefan.

      • stefanthedenier Says:

        Andy, CO2 molecule is same as H2O molecule – not visible to the naked eye, unless large amount; but is visible to the UV. CO is more visible, but doesn’t go high up. If you put visibility on side; experiment in darkness: CO2 will absorb more heat than O+N (represents daytime) CO2 will absorb more coldness than O+N (represents night-time) Because CO2 goes up during day > dimming – intercepts sunlight that comes from the other side; up where cooling is much more efficient.

        Andy, methane is a large subject. On the tread you had given me is completely back to front. It is ESSENTIAL to produce as much as
        possible methane; because we burn lots of natural gas! Every molecule of gas burned collects 4 oxygen atoms from the atmosphere. Every new methane molecule produced, reverses the damages. Methane is heavy > sinks in the ground. and stays there. Methane is the most flammable; if in the air, UV burns it in a jiffy. Methane is essential in the digestive system for few reasons. the best is, if you go to my website and read the article on methane – will see how much your friends are misleading you, all proven: http://globalwarmingdenier.wordpress.com You will be shocked.

  3. stefanthedenier Says:

    Andy, marry Christmas and a happy new year, to you and to all the visitors to your blog!

    Andy, let me point you few things: nitrogen + oxygen are transparent – same as glass on a normal Greenhouse. They coined the therm Greenhouse affect, without thinking of the meaning. N+O are slowing cooling, same as glass on the greenhouse, nothing to do with CO2 2] You say that: 90% of the heat is re-emitted… Endyyyy, my English is bad, but not my science. 1: if only 90% of the heat is re-emitted; in 10 days the atmosphere would have accumulated double the amount of heat – in 30 days, doubling the heat again…?! Don’t listen to them

    Please listen very carefully: planet earth will have same amount of heat tomorrow, as she had yesterday! EVEN THOUGH TODAY THE SUN RADIATION WILL PRODUCE TREMENDOUS AMOUNT OF HEAT, tremendous amount, but ALL WILL BE WASTED. Because extra heat in the troposphere is not cumulative! Actually, more heat will be wasted than what the sun produces heat on the earth. People disregard the tremendous amount of geothermal heat, that is adding extra – including that heat – will not be left enough extra heat in the troposphere, to boil one chicken egg. Andy, this year will be 3 cornered contest. Analyse my formulas; you will see that I will win on the end. I don’t believe what naive Skeptics believe; they are just as wrong as you people, the Believers

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  12. Hank Roberts Says:

    Your left sidebar “ultimate simple explanation” heading used to lead to a really clear explanation — now it links to this topic; can that be fixed?

  13. Hank Roberts Says:

    oh, wait, my bad, it’s down in this topic. okay.

  14. What’s hot in climate change | Rhymes with Linnaeus Says:

    […] The winning explanation, by Kevin Trenberth, one of the world’s leading climate researchers, is succinct and to the point without any dumbing down. Now I get it. And, thanks to Mr. Extance, I’m learning more about what can be done about it. […]


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