Baxter Pharr: Climate change is a real and moral issue
In a recent letter to the editor, Dr. Martin Hertzberg questions my credentials and claims that, because I have never analyzed the evidence for a Medieval Warm Period, among other things, that I am unqualified to have a credible opinion on human-caused global warming. For starters, let me discuss my credentials. I have a B.S. in Biology, a B.S. in Geology, a M.S. in Geology, and was a Ph.D. candidate in Geology at the University of Michigan. My specialty for my five years of undergraduate work and five years of graduate studies was paleontology (the study of the history of life on our planet), specifically paleoclimatology. As a result I have read hundreds of articles and countless books on the subject of global climate change. While I don’t consider myself an expert (others have devoted their entire careers to this field), I try to read as much as I can and keep an open mind as I learn from the experts.
And what are the experts saying? There is now a consensus that global warming is real, humans are the principal cause, and its consequences are so dangerous as to warrant immediate action. According to Jim Baker, when he was head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, “There is a better scientific consensus on this issue than on any other … with the possible exception of Newton’s Laws of Dynamics.” Donald Kennedy, editor in chief of Science magazine, stated: “Consensus as strong as the one that has developed around this topic is rare in science.” A University of California at San Diego scientist, Dr. Naomi Oreskes, published in Science magazine a massive study of every peer-reviewed science journal article on global warming from the previous 10 years. Her team randomly sampled 928 articles (10 percent of the total). Of these 928 articles, one quarter had no comments on the consensus view. Of the remaining three-quarters, not a single article disagreed with the consensus view. Alongside this study, another study was conducted on articles in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the L.A. Times, and the Wall Street Journal (articles in the popular press) over 14 years. The study found that 53 percent of the randomly sampled articles concluded that humans play no role in global warming. Is there any wonder why the public is confused about this issue while the scientific community seems to be in virtual unanimous agreement?
At a recent community meeting on global warming, Dr. Hertzberg indicated that he believed the planet is warming, but that humans are playing virtually no role in this process. This view puts him squarely at odds with the world’s leading scientists. The 2007 report by the IPCC found that “most of the observed increase in globally averaged temperatures since the mid-20th century is very likely (90 percent likely) due to the observed increase in anthropogenic (human) greenhouse gas concentrations.” Furthermore they add “The probability that this is caused by natural climatic processes alone is less than 5 percent.”
The fossil record does show a period of warm global temperatures from roughly 800 AD to 1400 AD known as the Medieval Warm Period when temperatures in the northern hemisphere may have exceeded global temperatures from 1950-1990, although carbon dioxide levels in the Earth’s atmosphere were much lower than current levels. This is when the Vikings built colonies on Greenland. What global warming skeptics fail to acknowledge, however, is that there is a lag time between rising carbon dioxide concentrations and global temperatures. In other words, if every fossil-fuel burning device was turned off tomorrow, global temperatures would continue to rise (as would anthropogenic CO2) because of the delayed response of the carbon cycle. Who knows … humans may once again settle in Greenland as sea levels rise by a predicted 20 feet from the melting Greenland ice sheet and roughly half of Florida disappears under the ocean.
Ultimately this is not a political issue but a moral one. As JFK once said “Our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this planet. We all breath the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.”
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