Remember Sarah Palin, and the gotcha questions? Climate deniers like to construct gotcha answers. Admittedly, it gets dicey sometimes, because the questions they craft in the halls of places like The Heritage Foundation, through surrogates in think tanks like AEI or Freedom works or CPN and in the oil and coal business almost necessitates a professorial expertise in meteorology, geoscience, physics and chemistry, just to name a few. Their task is to sow doubt. The devil is in the details, they say. Well there certainly is a devil in those details. I’ll get to their favorite and stickiest question in a moment.
First, some may be surprised to learn that the Earth rotates around the sun, rather than FOX News. Still not sure about Hillary and Trump, both competing to be the center of their own universes. The Right loves to sell us on logic and common sense to explain issues, including man made climate change? It is a template that should work, right? After all, two and two do make four. Simple logic. Common sense. They should rule the universe. Everything in its right place. Not so fast.
If simple logic prevailed, then why is the northern hemisphere of our planet colder when it is actually closer to the sun than in summer. If fact, it is substantially closer, about 3.1 million miles closer, or about 2.1 million miles farther than George Clooney flew in the film “Up in the Air,” or 3.099 miles farther than the dinosaur Jesus rode when he discovered the Tea Party in Texas. That’s 91.4 million on the short side and shade under 94.5 million miles at the far end.
You knew the orbit of the Earth around the Sun isn’t a circle, right? It is elliptical, with the sun not quite at the center of that ellipse. Come on, even Texas textbooks have to teach that! Is it because the north is tilted away? Well that doesn’t make sense either, since 7% more sunlight reaches the planet in winter-northern winter. Closer to the Sun, more sunlight? Logic tells us Chicago and Detroit and Toronto should be having summer temps in January. But we know that logic doesn’t hold up, because we have knowledge and data and information that confirms it, and which explains why the Volga River freezes in January and smells like warm dead in oil fish in August.
But the same can’t be said for our collective education and knowledge on climate change, its causes, what affects that change and how to survive or even reverse it. Mix that with profit and money, a corrupted government, corporatized media, embattled education system and a deluge of entertainment on a consumer-addicted society and who has time for all that science stuff? Change is hard. Reading hard. Voting hard. Hard. Supersize fast food…easy.
So it isn’t really about the science, rather it is about our understanding and grasp of the science. Full disclosure; paid nothing by Al Gore to write this piece. I don’t have kids, and generally they bug me anyway, so what should I care if BP and EXXON-Mobil turns the planet into an easy bake oven in 50 years. I’ll be long gone! But I’m not a sucker, and I don’t like when anyone punks me, on the Right or the Left.
So here is the gotcha question by the Right on climate change; if it is real, why are there fluctuations in Earth’s climate before the industrial age, and even before mankind. The answer is complex, to a point, but not as complex as you might think. The cornerstones of that argument by the man-made climate change deniers are largely over three events, the last glacial period, often incorrectly called the Ice Age, the Medieval warming period and the so-called “Little ice age around 1600.
Here in the Midwest, ensconced, yeah I said ensconced, amid the Great Lakes the last glacial period describes the Wisconsin Glaciation which, as the glaciers receded some 14,000 years ago gave us, well, you know. The question is what caused the glaciers to begin melting? The answer in part is that it here that the Right plays a trick, a slight of hand with the timeline. The truth is, the jury is still out on precise causes of each and every climate swing over the last 4.5 billion years, but it maybe more akin to asking why a particular train arrives late or early to a certain station each day. One day its a late passenger, another day a mechanical issue, the next it’s the weather and half the time it all works fine. One thing is pretty certain, it isn’t due to Michael Savage’s sunspot mythology. Sorry, sunspots really not a driver of long-term global weather patterns. For example, they hit a peak atound 1870 and the climate actually saw a slight reduction in temps. They have been declining in number since 1960, and yet global temperatures continue to rise. How much?
“According to an ongoing temperature analysis conducted by scientists at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS), the average global temperature on Earth has increased by about 0.8° Celsius (1.4° Fahrenheit) since 1880. Two-thirds of the warming has occurred since 1975, at a rate of roughly 0.15-0.20°C per decade.” This from that liberal bastion, NASA, with all their scientists and math and stuff, ya know people who study the atmosphere for a living everyday to get astronauts to the moon and to space stations and back safely, or to calculate how to land a probe on a hurtling comet, but who are they to a talk show host like mega-brain Rush Limbaugh?
There are likely and likelier culprits, all spread across the timeline of history and prehistory for billions of years. Even here the idea of a cyclical variation in the atmosphere is a false argument. Absolutely the climate has changed, and the idea that it changes daily is rather like trying to diagnose a heart patient based upon one beat, or by scrutinizing individual heart beats in order to prove a predetermined view to not treating the patient. The truth is in the trend. Is the patient sick or not, and what behaviors will increase the odds the patient will survive?
For 4/5 or more of the planet’s existence a human being was unlikely to survive very long or at least very well in an atmosphere far different and far more toxic than the one we know today. So, yeah, the climate was different. So what we really are talking about is the environment in which humans can live, or about 20 or 50 million of the last 4.5 billion years. What we are really asking is what events have the power to alter the climate and weather? The answer is, not many.
There are keys to understanding, as best we can, the planet’s climate, and to deciphering the slight of words the climate deniers use. First, we are talking about climate not weather. That’s important. So next time someone says of a cool day in Kansas in July, “What happened to your global warming?” that’s weather. We also live in a very large round world, with cold mountains, polar ice caps, rainforests, deserts, seasons, which is why-in the large aggregate of all those places and times-an overall increase of a few tenths of a degree is a very big deal. Take a tub of water and toss in a lit match and the change will be negligible. Toss in a thousand, or a hundred thousand lit matches and…
So climate describes the overall system that drives weather and the sudden rain storm ruining your BBQ. But the other key to answering the deniers is that the climate is NOT cyclical. It is progressive but with patterns. That is an important distinction.
Your life isn’t cyclical. It is progressive. You age, mature, become wiser and more knowledgeable and hopefully less apt to making the same mistakes. There are patterns, habits, personality traits, likes and dislikes that recur, but your life is on a progressive tract from birth until death. The cyclical crowd is either woefully uninformed and lacking insight, or they are selling you something. Actually they are buying something; Their oil and gas clients cash flow through duping you and the public at large.
The one thing we can feel secure about is the knowledge that in terms of geological time, on the order of tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands or millions of years, the climate tends to change slowly. Long term extremes are characteristic much larger natural processes, such as compositional aspects of the atmosphere, massive upheavals characteristic of a relatively young and still unformed planet. The shorter term and sudden climate changes, such as the ones we are concerned with here, such as the last glaciation, the so-called mini-ice age(Not really an ice age, but a series of colder than normal summers crippling crops around 1600) and whether or not we are facing a natural or man-driven rise in CO2 levels and temperatures require a catalyst of some sort.
The other denier argument frequently employed is that we are being arrogant assuming us little creatures can affect this great big old world. Anyone who has had a glass of wine knows all too well how a microscopic bacterium can affect a sweet juice environment to create alcohol. On an order of magnitude, its a pretty close comparison. To affect even a brief change requires powerful forces, whether as sudden as a lightening bolt or cumulative as a rain storm. Those forces certainly must be massive.
JPL research scientist Richard Gross indicated that Earth’s rotation changed as a result of the massive 8.0 February 27 Chilean quake shortened the length of a day by about 1.26 microseconds (a microsecond is one millionth of a second). Gross also estimated that the 2004 magnitude 9.1 Indonesian earthquake should have shortened the length of a day by 6.8 microseconds and shifted Earth’s axis by 2.32 milliarcseconds or about 7 centimeters, or 2.76 inches. The quake also shifted Earth’s axis. But now consider this, for all those who subscribe to the we’re too tiny argument: China’s Three Gorges Dam, is the world’s largest hydroelectric power station, with a man-made reservoir 103 miles LONGER than Lake Michigan. The filling of that reservoir with some 42 billion gallons of water, or a third the volume of water in Lake Erie, NASA estimated slowed the Earth’s rotation by .06 microseconds and shifted the Earth’s axis slightly. Though far smaller than the Chilean quake, still an impressive feat for what deniers describe as a small and insignificant global footprint.
But the biggest events with the ability to radically alter, at least in the short-term falls to just two; asteroids and volcanoes. I say short-term because we are blessed with a sort of filtering system. The largest and greatest of these are the oceans, which may also be one our greatest alarms to what is happening in the climate. Also, luckily, catastrophic asteroids impacts, far more common in our young solar system, are relatively rare, at least in terms of human existence and memory on the planet. Small asteroids, so called Bolide Events, collide with the Earth constantly. Most burn up or land harmlessly in the oceans. Those that do reach the surface have rarely caused any real damage, and no one has ever been killed by an asteroid. The last major impact, credited for the accelerated extinction of the Dinosaurs was some 66million years ago.
Far more frequent are volcanic events. Scientists measure the severity of an eruption using the Volcanic Explosive Index or VEI. The scale, akin to the Richter scale for earthquakes, ranges from 1 to 8, with 8 being the strongest. Each number is on a magnitude of 10 times the previous number. Luckily, within the past 10,000 years the planet, and mankind has not suffered a VEI-8 volcano, but we have come close…many times, and very close to home.
Yellowstone, which erupted 2.1 million, 1.8 million and again 640k years ago was a VEI-8. The blast was so powerful that it created the massive crater the entire park sits in, roughly 30 by 45 miles wide. These events can dramatically effect the climate, in the short term, such as South America’s Huaynaputina, a VEI-6 eruption which threw massive mud flows 75 miles to the Pacific and is believed responsible for the much bandied about mini-ice age around 1600. In 1991, the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines lead to a global temperature drops 1 degree Fahrenheit. In 1610, on the Mediterranean island of Santorini, the catastrophic VEI-7 explosion of Mount Thera, equivalent in scale to several hundred Atomic bombs(Remember nuclear winters?) drove temperature declines and may have fundamentally altered civilization.
But as I pointed out in a previous piece, while those events are dramatic and climate altering, the effects are relatively short-term. The climate is warming steadily, a trend corresponding to fossil fuel use and coal burning and rapid human population increase more than any other potential catalyst. Pinatubo drove down global average temperatures, but those effects were largely exhausted and gone within a year or two. From there the climate continued on its upward temperature trajectory, as if the massive eruption was simply a hiccup.
Should any of this unequivocally prove to you that humans are absolutely responsible for global warming? No. What it is meant to do is to show that the arguments frequently proliferated by the human warming deniers is so flimsy and full of holes that if they had truly done the research, as they claim, they would see the fatal fallibility of those arguments. That is, unless their agenda is something altogether different, in which case, they see you and I as dupes and punks, and have faith that we will remain gullible enough not to see the daylight through their B.S.