In February of this year, the climate change debate reared its ugly head again in the United States Senate. This time, however, Senator James Inhofe, chairman of the Senate’s committee on the Environment and Public Works, found a way to highlight his position: bringing a snowball into Congress.
Inhofe’s position against climate change is not unique, but it is pretty illogical. Over 97% of scientists agree that climate change is real, is directly impacted by human action, and is immediately a threat to the wellbeing of mankind as we know it. The science is there. A quick Google search of “climate change explained” renders 85,900,000 results in 0.40 seconds — articles and Youtube videos and organizations who have taken this research by scientists and condensed it down into consumer sized pieces. Take this one by the Youtube channel “It’s Okay To Be Smart”:
The host, Joe Hanson, holds a Ph.D. and does a really fantastic job of explaining what exactly is going on with our little blue planet. We’re dying.
The Carbon Cycle
Now, we know we have all this excess carbon dioxide. But why isn’t it being absorbed? After all, plants use carbon dioxide to make oxygen and other carbon sinks absorb this gas in different ways. Why can’t the Earth compensate for this human overproduction?
Well, for one, the carbon cycle is a delicate, complex, and hugely important thing. Below is a photo showing how exactly it works:
This chart explains how carbon enters the atmosphere via fossil fuel burning, plant respiration, deforestation, and human/animal respiration and is then absorbed by photosynthesis and enters the soil via organic matter. From here, the carbon becomes fossil fuels. This chart makes it immediately clear how human consumption of fossil fuels has added carbon emissions, such as carbon dioxide, to the atmosphere and therefore changed the manner in which this system functions. Before humans, before the industrial revolution, when plant and animal life began to decay, it became fossil fuels and stayed where it had decomposed, removed from the rest of the cycle and allowing it to continue without the reintroduction of that carbon. Now, there is no removal of excess carbon. Instead, the human race has reintroduced it and dramatically altered this natural system.
The point of this argument isn’t that carbon dioxide has entered the atmosphere — it has done this since the beginning of Earth itself. This fact is not contested. The rate at which carbon dioxide is entering our atmosphere: this is what keeps climate scientists up at night. The climate here on Earth is changing 10,000 times faster than we’ve experienced before. We’ve never seen anything like it. We can’t find any indication that something like this has ever occurred. We know nothing of what this will do to our planet, our world, us — but the predictions are pretty terrifying.
According to SinksWatch, a carbon sink is “anything that absorbs more carbon that it releases.” The most special and unique carbon sinks are fossil fuel deposits, removed from the atmospheric carbon cycle. When humans began to burn fossil fuels during the industrial revolution, they introduced even more carbon to the atmosphere cycle. This is no disappearing trend either. SinksWatch states: “We are still adding roughly 6 billion tonnes of carbon per year to the atmospheric carbon cycle.”
To add to this, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), 18 million acres (roughly 72,843 square kilometers, just under the size of South Dakota) are lost each year to deforestation (Conserve Energy Future). Not only are humans putting out extraordinary amounts of carbon dioxide emissions, but we’re also purposefully losing a potential ally in this solution. Below is a map of the world’s deforestation epidemic:
Meanwhile, as Joe Hanson discussed in the “It’s OK to be Smart” video, our oceans are bearing the brunt of these carbon emissions, and they’re hurting.
Carbon Dioxide Emissions
We all know carbon dioxide can be bad for us. We’re exposed to it in our groundwater, our Coca Colas, and our gas. Every time we pop up a bottle of Crush, Pepsi, Root Beer, some of this gas is finding its way into our lungs — but that’s okay because it’s a vital part of our ecosystem here on Earth (Clean Air Strategic Alliance). Without it, we’re in trouble. But if you’re exposed to enough of it, it can be fatal.
The same goes for our atmosphere. Green house gases like carbon dioxide provide a vital service to the Earth by allowing heat to enter the atmosphere, but blocking it when it rebounds so that it stays trapped on the planet rather than escaping back into space. These gases allow the Earth to stay at a habitable temperature and ensure life exists. However, as the abundance of green house gases rises in the atmosphere, more heat is being trapped on Earth. As more heat is trapped, the temperature steadily rises (National Centers for Environmental Information). It functions a bit like a car in the summertime. The greenhouse gases are the glass and the sunlight is still the sunlight. When the sunlight enters the car, it is trapped (for different reasons than heat is trapped on Earth, but that’s another blog post) and it collects inside of the car, gradually, but most definitely, raising the temperature. Then, when you slip back in with your grocery bags and your hair all sticking to your forehead, you almost burn yourself on the seat buckle. Earth doesn’t have a seat buckle to let you know not to park your car in the sun anymore, but it does have natural disasters and we are wont to notice them.
You want a really good example of how climate change (read: global warming) can effect even winter weather? Anyone from the American northeast could tell you how much snow they shoveled last year and it could hardly escape their lips without a groan. This is the snow that Senator Inhofe referenced in his note to Congress and this is the snow that has so many people convinced that climate change can’t exist.
Boston, and the rest of New England bore the weight of record breaking snowfall this past winter, as shown in this table from the National Weather Service in Boston:
According to Penn State climate researcher Michael Mann, these records are a direct result of global warming. Mann states in an interview with the Washington Post: “We also know that ocean surface temperatures off the U.S. east coast right now are unusually warm, and there is no doubt that a component of that anomalous warmth is due to human-caused climate change. Those warm ocean temperatures also mean that there is more moisture in the air for this storm to feed on and to produce huge snowfalls inland.” He goes on to explain, “Sea surface temperatures off the coast of New England right now are at record levels, 11.5C (21F) warmer than normal in some locations … There is [a] direct relationship between the surface warmth of the ocean and the amount of moisture in the air. What that means is that this storm will be feeding off these very warm seas, producing very large amounts of snow as spiraling winds of the storm squeeze that moisture out of the air, cool it, and deposit it as snow inland.”
This sort of weather phenomena is not unique to the United States or this type of event, either. Articles in Nature indicate that global warming may contribute to increased rain and snowfall in the Northern Hemisphere and an increased chance of flooding in the United Kingdom. While no specific weather program can predict or measure exactly how climate change is altering weather patterns, through the “combination of climate models, weather observations and a good dose of probability theory, scientists may be able to determine how climate warming changes the odds. An earlier study, for example, found that global warming has at least doubled the likelihood of extreme events such as the 2003 European heatwave” (Nature).
These extreme weather events are not new, are not unexplained, and are not going away. For a better understanding of just how much impact climate change has on weather, please refer to this very well done feature by Climate Central.
So how is it, with all this evidence and all this truth, that something isn’t being done about climate change? How has some legislation not been passed? How has the United States and other governments made this issue a back burner one when it is, quite literally, menacing lives? This is a complex issue, steeped in the fallacies of a democratic system and larger human motivations. But what I want to focus on is the science: how can humans deny their own impending extinction?
The answer lies in our heads: that is, our evolutionary tested, tried-and-true survival skills, passed down from generation to generation of human. These skills, as described by Joe Hanson in this video, are most interested in P.A.I.N., the acronym developed by psychologist Daniel Gilbert. This discusses which threats we perceive as most important. See below:
- P: Personal
- A: Abrupt
- I: Immoral/Indecent
- N: Now
Climate change doesn’t fall under this umbrella of threat. It’s a slow sort of danger, one you can’t point to on any specific day as changing, and can’t offend our delicate sensibilities.
Hanson goes on to explain that our one brain is actually split into two parts, with two very different weights: the rational part of our brain is disastrously tiny compared to the emotional part. It’s this emotional part in control and it’s this emotional part which listens to the P.A.I.N. of our existence.
Psychologist Daniel Kahnemen, Hanson says, has an expansion to this thought: when a human is faced with a threat which may be detrimental in the future, they’re much more likely to create excuses not to act today.
It’s with this thought that Climate Reality’s video “DOUBT” becomes so convincing:
With every climate denier pointing to their “sources” more, fodder for the emotional section of our brains only expands. With every crooked politician and bold faced lie, the average American is falling into that tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow. And we’re still dying.
- Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) Snowball in the Senate (C-SPAN)
- Senator James Inhofe’s website
- “Bill Nye Film– Climate Change“
- “Climate Science: What You Need To Know“
- It’s Okay To Be Smart
- Wikimedia Commons
- Scottish Carbon Capture & Storage
- “Bill Nye Film– Climate Change”
- Conserve Energy Future
- The Atlas of World Statistics by Victor L. Vescovo
- Clean Air Strategic Alliance
- National Centers for Environmental Information
- “All Growing Up”
- “Global warming could make blizzards worse” by Chris Mooney
- “What the massive snowfall in Boston tells us about global warming” by Chris Mooney
- National Weather Service, Boston
- “Human contribution to more-intense precipitation extremes”
- “Anthropogenic greenhouse gas contribution to flood risk in England and Wales in autumn 2000”
- “Increased flood risk linked to global warming”
- “A Timeline of 2013 Extreme Weather and Global Warming”
- “Why People Don’t Believe In Climate Science“
- Daniel Gilbert’s website
- Climate Reality