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Thursday, July 31, 2014

Seth B. Darling: What climate change debate?

Case closed: Scientists agree we are changing the Earth

by Seth B. Darling, Chicago Tribune, July 31, 2014
Already in the first six months of 2014, Sunday broadcast news shows have spent more time covering climate change than they did over the past four years combined. This expanded coverage comes on the heels of reports by the National Climate Assessment that warned of the already damaging effects of disruptions to our climate and by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change alerting us — once again — to an increasingly dire future across the globe. Dig a little deeper, however, and it is clear that our civic conversation on this topic remains shrouded in misconception.
Mainstream outlets such as ABC's "This Week" and NBC's "Meet The Press" opted to provide substantial airtime to climate skeptics in addition to the climate science experts, in the misguided model of providing a "balanced" perspective. The so-called climate debate presumes that there is, in fact, debate among the scientists who study our climate.
This is simply not the case.
The truth is that there is a strikingly strong consensus among climate scientists — above 97% — that our planet is warming and we are primarily to blame. It's near impossible to get 97% of scientists to agree about much of anything beyond the basic laws of physics. The fact that the consensus is this broad tells us it is time to end the idea that there is any debate in the scientific community.
Because the mass media have propped up a false debate, the general public is understandably confused. There are things we are still learning about climate and our effect on it, but the basic concepts attacked by skeptics are those that the scientific community has established with considerable evidence. Most skeptic arguments are built on a common error: cherry-picking bits of data without seeing the big picture.
Cherry-picking lies behind the claims that the glaciers are growing and that the planet isn't getting warmer. Yes, some glaciers are growing, but many more are shrinking. Yes, there are certain times when certain regions of the world become cooler, but overall there is no doubt that the average global temperature is rising over time. It's called global warming for a reason.
It is also easy to fall into the trap of confusing local weather and global climate. The fact that last winter was bitterly cold in much of North America is not a sign that global warming is a hoax — other regions of the world experienced unusually warm temperatures in the same period, and climate change can be assessed only on much longer time scales. This is also an example of an extreme weather phenomenon we are likely to experience more frequently as climate change becomes more severe.
One of the most dangerous skeptic myths argues that we are indeed changing our climate but that a warming planet is really a good thing. No doubt there will be some limited benefits of climate change, at least in the short term. Melting of the Arctic Sea ice, for example, will open up new navigation routes as well as untapped oil and gas resources.
But the negative consequences dwarf the handful of beneficial outcomes. Agriculture will be ravaged by more severe droughts and floods, rising oceans will inundate coastal regions, geopolitical instability will be rife. Projections of costs to the global economy are in the hundreds of trillions of dollars, and the human suffering will be unprecedented — often affecting the poor more than those of us most responsible for the fossil fuel emissions.
Regardless of one's political standpoint or whether one believes it is happening, Earth's climate is changing and we are the root cause. There is no climate debate — at least not among the folks who have actually studied the science — and we should all stop pretending there is one.
The responsibility for maintaining our planet's climate lies with each of us. Power plants may represent some of the largest emitters of greenhouse gases, but we are all consumers of the power they produce.
This isn't about pointing fingers. It's about understanding the problem and, more important, taking action. There are solutions available to mitigate the worst impacts of climate change. But time is short and the task is daunting in its scale.
We can debate which solutions offer the greatest benefit but not whether there is a problem. That case is closed. Now it's time to recognize that failure to act puts our children's future — and that of all subsequent generations — in peril.
Seth B. Darling is a scientist specializing in energy research at the Center for Nanoscale Materials at Argonne National Laboratory, a fellow at the Institute for Molecular Engineering at the University of Chicago and co-author of the forthcoming book "How to Change Minds About Our Changing Climate."

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