MY WORD: About those climate issues

-A A +A

By Rip Rinehart

If Rudy Wiesemann was vying for the irony award with his My Word ("No need to save the planet,” May 1), he should win it hands down. Because after grandly stating that he could not let "unreferenced misstatements go unrefuted," and that he "prefer[s] to rely on facts to expose errors, myths, [and] mistakes," he then proceeds to lay out paragraph after paragraph of unreferenced misstatements, logical errors, easily debunked myths and outright mistakes.

First Mr. Wiesemann sets up the classic straw man argument against returning "to the Stone Age" in order to save the planet, as if any serious environmentalist ever actually proposed that we should. Suggesting reasonable curbs on activities that are damaging the environment is hardly the same as suggesting that we need to return "to the Stone Age."

Mr. Wiesemann refers to CO2 as an "inert gas essential for all life on this planet." There is no debate about that. Not only do plants need it to survive, but also its greenhouse properties make the earth inhabitable. If there was no CO2 in the atmosphere, the globe would be covered in ice. And it's only taken a concentration of about 300 parts per million to provide that life-giving blanket.

Now increase that concentration by a third, as we have done, and what do you think will happen? The relatively stable climate that has allowed civilization to flourish is suddenly wrenched into a new state, and the consequences are not good.

Next Mr. Wiesemann states that "the documented rise in temperature since 1880 is 0.75 degrees Celsius. It started before the advent of CO2 emissions from the Industrial Age." At least the part about the documented rise is almost right. (It's actually more like 0.8 degrees Celsius, according to NASA and other sources.) But there is no indication that it started before that. (Some of those missing references that Mr. Wiesemann complained about might have been nice here.) And two-thirds of that warming has occurred since 1975, according to NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies.

Mr. Wiesemann then goes on to quote a paper in the journal Remote Sensing claiming that “the Earth’s atmosphere is allowing far more heat to be released into space than alarmist computer models have predicted." The author is Roy Spencer, a paid contributor to the anti-environmental, Exxon-funded Heartland Institute.

The paper has been widely criticized by other climate scientists for its deeply flawed methodology. The geochemist Barry Bickmore published an extensive critique demonstrating the models that Spencer used "don’t make any physical sense." Added Kevin Trenberth, at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, "I cannot believe it got published."

Of course, none of this has prevented it from being quoted extensively in the denialist blogosphere and by other global warming skeptics desperate to impart the illusion of scientific credibility to their unscientific arguments.

Then we move on to one of the most popular skeptic arguments: The climate has warmed before.

This is an odd argument that seems to presuppose that there can only be a single cause for a phenomenon. Because natural forces warmed the climate before, does that mean that human activities can't do it now? There's no logic to that "logic."

"Where did the forcing come from that melted the 2 miles-thick ice sheet that stopped at the Ohio River 20,000 years ago," Mr. Wiesemann asks. Well, we know where it came from: CO2 released as a result of volcanic activity.

The earth emerged from the last glacial period in spite of the fact that solar irradiance was relatively low because, as basic physics tells us, CO2 is a greenhouse gas. And there was enough of it injected into the atmosphere to trap enough heat to melt giant glaciers that covered much of the earth. Pretty powerful stuff. The same stuff that we're injecting into the atmosphere now, except that never in the long history of the planet have concentrations risen so rapidly.

Next up is a rehash of an utter misinterpretation of climate data that supposedly shows that global warming has stopped in the last 10 or 15 years. It has not.

"The first decade of this century has been, by far, the warmest decade on the instrumental record," reported the British Met Office in 2010. And even though 2012 was a La Nina year, which tends to cool things down, it was still the 10th warmest year on record globally, and the hottest ever in the contiguous United States.

Mr. Wiesemann then moves on to some breathtakingly misinformed misstatements about polar ice. He confidently states that "the Arctic ice will likely not melt by 2015, and it is not due to CO2 emissions." This is at odds with the conclusion reached by Carlos Duarte, at the Oceans Institute at the University of Western Australia, and other scientists, who do predict a complete melt or unprecedented thinning by 2015.

"The National Snow and Ice Data Center notes the decline in arctic sea ice extant is not because of global warming but of the arctic oscillation, an air pressure phenomenon that drives temperatures up," states Mr. Wiesemann.

Actually, that's not what they say. They do note that unusually strong instances of this phenomenon may be accelerating ice melt, but never state that it "is not because of global warming." In fact, many climatologists believe that rapid heating in the Arctic – the average temperature is rising four times faster than the global average – and its attendant loss of sea ice is enhancing the Arctic Oscillation by altering the course of the jet stream. This sets up a feedback loop. Warm air is pulled pole ward (and cold air is pushed south, toward us), which alters weather patterns further.

This, by the way, is why the term "climate change" is a more accurate description of what we're undergoing than "global warming." The average global temperature is rising, but warming in one part of the globe – such as in the Arctic – may lead to unusual cooling in other parts, such as the Midwest and eastern U.S., where we've seen an unusually cold winter and spring.

These frosty spring mornings and the melting Arctic are part of the same process.

Of course, no contrarian article would be complete without mentioning the E-mail between scientists that was stolen by hackers and published on the Internet. Mr. Wiesemann claims that these E-mails reveal "the true intent of those involved in the forefront of this movement."

He's actually right about that. The contents of the stolen private correspondence reveals that the true intent of those involved was to produce solid science. That there was nothing deceitful or indicative of misconduct in any of the emails has been confirmed by no less than nine independent investigations by various government and university committees. But the deniers just can't let it go.

Mr. Wiesemann wraps up with a gratuitous dig at renewable energy, complaining about the number of birds killed by windmills. This is a problem that has been greatly exaggerated by opponents of wind energy, whose newfound concern for our winged friends is perplexing since they never complain about cars, trucks, free-ranging domestic cats and even stationary windows that kill far more birds than wind turbines do.

There are other misstatements, myths and errors in Mr. Wiesemann's article, but we'll stop here.

Perhaps more troubling than these specific factual errors is the overall message of the article, which is that we should relax and do nothing. Mr. Wiesemann repeatedly uses terms such as "emotional irrationalism" and "alarmist" to describe those who put more trust in the words of scientists who have devoted their lives to studying the climate than those of talk show hosts and politicians whose careers depend on sowing doubt.

Mr. Wiesemann would have us do nothing as extreme weather events such as floods and droughts become more and more frequent, threatening our food and water supply. We should just kick back and watch the oceans rise, eventually forcing billions to relocate.

And as the oceans absorb more and more CO2 and become more acidic, disrupting the very foundation of our food chain, we should just look the other way and trust that the ecosystem will somehow "reach equilibrium."

Sorry, Mr. Wiesemann, but I'm going to side with the vast majority of climate scientists, 34 national science academies, the American Meteorological Society, the American Geophysical Union, the American Medical Association and hundreds of other scientific organizations who confirm that we have a very real and very urgent problem.

Even the Department of Defense sees climate change as a threat to national security.

Call that alarmism, emotional irrationalism, or whatever other condescending term you like.

I call it reality.


Rip Rinehart is a Kentucky native and has been a resident of Shelby County since 2004. He has a Bachelor of Science Degree in electrical engineering and is currently a software consultant.