Phillip Barlag is Managing Director of Sustainability 50, at World 50. S50 initiates and facilitates the most interesting and influential sustainability business conversations in the world by providing global executives a private forum for sharing insights on critical issues. He is also the author of How to Fix America. The opinions expressed here are his own. You can follow him on Twitter at @pabarlag.
The Earth is warming; this is verifiable scientific fact. This warming directly correlates with increased atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases. These data have been fairly consistent since the dawn of the industrial revolution, and especially in the last 150 years – when mankind began its wholesale and widespread use of fossil fuels. For many people, these factors in sequence are enough to support the conclusion that mankind is the driving factor behind climate change, and that abatement causal factors is a key step in restoring the natural cycles of the global climate system.
For others, however, this and other scientific data remain inconclusive. The Earth’s climate system is almost impossibly complex and there is no way to conclusively establish a cause and effect relationship between any two variables; there are simply too many factors in the system. As such, it is impossible to prove definitively that mankind’s activities and behaviors are directly related to the scientifically observable trends in climate change. This ambiguity gives those that are not convinced amble evidence to support their claims against climate change in general or mankind’s responsibility specifically.
It is within this gap – between what has been proven and what cannot be proven – that all of the debate about climate change occurs. Thanks to research published in the October 2012 edition of Journal of Climate, that gap has narrowed.
Many common objections are put forth to voice skepticism about mankind’s responsibility for climate change. One of these is that the warming trends are driven by a natural and cyclical relationship between the oceans and the climate, by which the oceans alternatively release into and absorb heat from the oceans. It is this relationship that is cited as behind climate change. But, according to the study, this cannot be what’s happening now. The researchers, who collaborated across universities in the U.S., UK and Germany, first looked at the trends in the oceans temperatures in the past 50 years, which have been rising in lock step with the atmosphere. The study points out that, because of this, the oceans cannot be responsible for atmospheric temperature increases. In the natural cycle, ocean temperatures would decrease with a rise in those of the atmosphere. If the ocean were releasing its heat into the atmosphere, there would then be a decrease in corresponding ocean temperatures. This study eliminates this common objection from the vernacular of climate debate.
The study also debunks a second – and stranger – objection. Occasionally, the idea is put forth that extra-planetary forces are at work, such as increased solar energy or gamma ray bursts from interstellar space. To dive into this concept, the study again turned to the oceans. The study modeled how much of such energy would have to hit the Earth in order to have the same cumulative impact as all of the greenhouse gases currently in the atmosphere. It then explored the ocean’s temperature, and modeled what the temperature impact would be in such a scenario. Based on the variance between the ocean’s actual temperature rise in the past 50 years and what the temperature would have been in such a scenario, the study found that extra-planetary factors could not exceed 15% of actual planetary warming. This means that even if Earth had been subject to such an event or conditions, it would only have a minimal impact on what we are actually witnessing the Earth’s climate system.
With these two objections solidly refuted, the gap between the provable and the un-provable has growth a bit more narrow.
Climate change is an incredibly complex scientific issue, one that no single person can understand in its entirety. Many of the policy positions advocated to mitigate the causes and the effects serve to galvanize those that remain skeptical. For those that are convinced of the urgency of the issue – I suspect most people that would be reading this blog – understanding the common objections and the science-based response is important. For those that will accept the call to serve as ambassadors for change, stay close to the emerging body of scientific literature. This will help make each conversation well informed and help us all win skeptics over, one person at a time.
© 2013 Phillip A. Barlag
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