Writing about climate research has revealed a generation gap within my own family, made obvious this weekend by wine-fuelled dinner-table debates. Visiting my nearest and dearest over the Easter national holiday for the first time since I started Simple Climate, they grilled me on the research I’ve covered.
In the UK daffodils are often associated with spring and Easter, but have been late to appear this year thanks to an especially cold winter. Both my parents and my girlfriend’s strongly dislike the cold. Therefore, like so many people across Europe and the US, they currently find it hard to accept that the world is warming overall. However, when I pointed out that climate researchers assess average temperatures across the planet, my stepmum did recall her friends in Australia complaining about January to March being exceptionally warm.
Simple Climate has published graphs over the past three months showing how temperatures have risen over the past decade – with 2009 being the second warmest on NASA’s records – and century that offer a wider perspective. Nevertheless, it was tough to try and argue against our families’ first-hand evidence. So, I told them about Louis Codispoti, the University of Maryland scientist who’s been visiting the Arctic for 47 years and has also seen the disappearance of ice there first hand. For other evidence, both Jane Ferrigno of the US Geological Survey and Huw Griffiths of the British Antarctic Survey pointed to maps of retreating glaciers in the Antarctic.
“So, even if the world is actually warming up,” my girlfriend’s parents wondered, “could this not be part of some natural process, rather than being caused by people?” I recalled the rising atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) levels that both Potsdam Institute of Climate Research’s Georg Feulner and US Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s Paul Hanson had mentioned. CO2 is known to trap heat that would otherwise escape into space. “We know how much fossil fuel we burn and these rates are in agreement with the measured rise in atmospheric CO2 concentrations,” Feulner points out.
Much of that fuel has been burnt by people during my parents’ lifetime, a time of great prosperity in the developed world. They have worked hard to contribute to this prosperity, and grown accustomed to the way of life that it has brought. Yet this way of life has inadvertently set in motion a chain of events that seems likely to cause environmental upheaval if action is not taken. Having worked hard, my family, and many other people, are understandably reluctant to make any more sacrifices than necessary. As a result, they question whether the scientists professionally conducting climate change research really have their facts right. However, the science that I have covered since beginning Simple Climate has overwhelmingly been in agreement that they do. As fellow retiree Louis Codispoti points out to the likes of my parents, “If I visited 100 doctors and 95 of them said that I needed an operation, would it make sense to ignore this advice?”.
It is my generation and the generations after that will have to deal with the consequences of the fossil fuels that are burnt. The purpose of speaking with these scientists over the past three months has been to produce an accurate but brief explanation of climate change, and what it might mean for the planet’s future. Feulner’s explanation, previewed above, seemed especially clear to me, so I intend to replace the attempt I made in January with his, barring some small edits. That explanation is:
Every day humans burn large amounts of fossil fuels like coal, gas and oil to produce energy and goods. These fossil fuels contain carbon atoms which are converted to carbon dioxide (CO2) when burnt. This CO2 is released to the atmosphere where it acts as a ‘greenhouse’ gas: CO2 traps outgoing radiation and leads to a warming of the atmosphere.
Since humans begun to use fossil fuels to power industry, measurements show that CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere have increased by about a third, and that global temperatures have increased by about 0.8°C. If CO2 emissions continue to rise as in the past, temperatures could be several degrees higher in the year 2100, which would negatively impact the environment and human societies. We know how much fossil fuel we burn and these rates are in agreement with the measured rise in atmospheric CO2 concentrations, once ocean uptake is considered. Because we know the greenhouse-gas effect of CO2, we know this increasing CO2 concentration will cause global warming.
Does this seem clear to you? Feel free to comment using the tools at the end of the post.