There are people who still believe that the earth is flat. They have theories and web pages. There’s even a Facebook page. They draw maps with the north pole in the center and a great wall of ice on the edge (i.e. Antarctica). They have explanations for the seasons that would imply that the seasons in Australia and Canada are the same. They come up with complex theories to explain eclipses and conspiracy theories to explain NASA missions. So they have theories and explanations for everything, it’s just none of it makes any sense or is consistent with detailed observations. And it’s all much more complicated that the heliocentric world view, but for some reason they prefer to believe that the world is flat.
Several recent news stories make me think that climate change deniers are starting to look as crazy as flat earthers: totally unhinged from data and any kind of understanding of science. They use terms they don’t understand, throw-out theories that sound reasonable but are inconsistent with the data, and ignore the data they can’t explain. I prefer to write about how we can reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but there are so many recent stories that I thought it was worth collecting a few of them.
What prompted the post was the flooding in Louisiana where 13 people have died and tens of thousands are displaced. At least a foot of rain has fallen on most of Louisiana in less than a week, with some places getting as much as 30 inches. That’s almost as much rain as Seattle gets in a year (38 inches). More rain is expected before the water level starts to drop. We’ve been hearing about 100 year floods for awhile, but this one has been described as a 1,000 year flood. There is no precedent in any record for this kind of flooding in Baton Rouge, which was founded in 1699.
Since most of the area was not in a designated flood plane, most of the home owners don’t have flood insurance. Some feel that the rest of the country just wants to abandon Louisiana, though the reality is the Army Corp of Engineers has spent over $14 billion protecting New Orleans. But the average height of New Orleans is 0.5 meters below sea level and the state is losing a football field of land to the sea every hour. Add in a storm like we had this week or another Katrina on top of sea level rising and there may be nothing we can do about it.
I heard a woman on the radio say that “It’s a natural disaster, there’s nothing anyone can do about it”. She was referring to the storm itself and the inadequate response. How does a government prepare for a weather event that has never occurred in 300+ years? But this storm and others like it aren’t really “natural” disasters: our burning of fossil fuels is resulting in stronger and more deadly storms. According to The Human Cost of Weather Related Disasters, a study by the UN, “the number of floods per year rose to an average of 171 in the period 2005-2014, up from an annual average of 127 in the previous decade.” Average death rates were 34,000 deaths per year over the last ten years, including a single storm, Cyclone Nargis, which claimed 138,000 lives in Myanmar in 2008. The climate is changing and is making these storms more common and more deadly. The mechanism is straightforward: a warmer atmosphere can hold more moisture, creating opportunities for unprecedented flooding. If leaders, like Louisiana’s former governor Bobby Jindal, deny climate change is real, how will be able to properly prepare for the coming changes?
The other issue that drove me to write this post was the fire in Southern California that has forced over 80,000 people to flee their homes. This is the second huge fire in North America that has driven tens of thousands from their homes this year: the Fort McMurray wildfire in Alberta took two months to contain, burned about 1.5 million acres across two provinces, destroyed about 2,400 homes and led to the evacuation of over 100,000 people. It’s likely that the city will never completely recover and that the production of oil from the tar sands is down 20% from a year ago (so there’s some good news).
Though there is no way to prove that climate change caused any particular fire (or flood), more intense fires are expected due higher temperatures leading to decreased snow pack (which also means more flooding) and increased evaporation. Also warmer temperatures during the winter is resulting in insect infestations that weaken trees, also resulting in more fires.
Record breaking heat
Headlines like “Hottest ever June marks 14th month of record-breaking temperatures” have become such the norm that it would be bigger news if we didn’t break a record. When climate deniers say that the world stopped warming, I just wonder what world they’re talking about. I took data from NASA and highlighted the years of the supposed climate warming pause. They start in 1997, which was a particularly warm El Nino year. When you plot all of the directly observed data going back to 1880, the trend is unmistakable.
About a third of the carbon dioxide that has entered the atmosphere has been taken up by the world’s oceans, changing the pH (making it less basic and more acidic). This has a negative impact on many forms of sea life, especially those that make shells out of calcium carbonate, including plankton, the base of the food chain.
Most of the “theories” of the climate change deniers (e.g. sun spots) ignore ocean acidification.
As the surface water becomes enriched in carbonic acid (that’s what CO2 becomes when it dissolves in water), the oceans can’t absorbed atmospheric CO2 as easily. With nowhere else to go, CO2 will build up in the atmosphere more quickly, accelerating climate change even if we reduce CO2 emission. It will take centuries for the surface water to mix enough with the deep ocean to bring the pH back to normal, assuming we stop putting CO2 into the atmosphere.
I could go on
- CO2 levels in the atmosphere increasing
- Glaciers melting
- Ice caps shrinking
- Sea level raising
- Habitats moving towards the poles
- Species becoming extinct
but it becomes a bit tiresome. You get the point. Saying the climate isn’t changing due to human activity is akin to saying the Holocaust didn’t happen or that the plantation system in the south prior to the civil war was a good thing for the slaves. It’s a sign that the speaker is either ignorant (which is solvable), delusional, or has a hidden agenda and is lying. In any case, they’re living in a fact-free world and can’t help solve the problem.
A recent poll showed sixty-four percent of U.S. adults say they are worried a “great deal” or “fair amount” about global warming. This compares to Congress, where 34% of the members are climate change deniers and almost none of the Republicans believe we should take action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. That’s led to lots of local action, like a state-wide initiative for a carbon tax, fighting the infrastructure to export fossil fuels, efforts to get cities and Universities to divest from fossil fuel stocks. When someone says, “climate change is not a local issue”, a correct response might be “no, it’s a human issue, to be fought and solved at all levels” or “I’ll stop working at the state or local level once Congress actually acts.”. The correct answer is not “Yes, it’s best dealt with by an international treaty that is ratified by the US Congress, and I’ll work on nothing but that”.
The good news is that work at a local level can have a significant impact. There was interest in shipping coal to Asia through Washington and we’ve stopped 4 out of 5 proposed terminals (the fifth is a zombie proposal that is likely to be killed soon), successfully fought against drilling for oil in the arctic, and are currently fighting against oil exports. No one thinks we’re going to stop using fossil fuels overnight, but we have reached the point where we should stop building new infrastructure to extract, transport, and consume fossil fuels. Now is that time to wean ourselves of our bad habits. The sooner we start, the easier it will be.