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New book offers the facts on climate change -- without the rhetoric.
Climate change is never far from the public imagination. Whether championed or lampooned, conversation on the topic is rarely measured.
A new book, however, does just that. Written in straightforward prose and fact-checked by the world's eminent climate scholars, Global Weirdness reads like The 9/11 Commission Report: all of the facts, none of the hyperbole. In four succinct sections, its authors detail the truth about climate change: what the science says, what's actually happening, what's likely to happen, and how we can avoid potential risks.
To get a better grasp on these issues, and the forces that shape this summer's strange weather -- from floods in the United Kingdom to draughts in the Midwest -- SmartPlanet sat down with Michael Lemonick co-author of Global Weirdness. Whether clearing up common misconceptions or detailing reasons for hope, his analysis does one thing most conversations on the topic don't: enlighten you.
SmartPlanet: The title of your book is Global Weirdness. Do you think that would characterize the weather we’ve been having this summer, whether it’s the floods in the UK or the drought in the Midwest?
Michael Lemonick: Absolutely. You know hot weather in the summer is not unusual. Drought comes and goes. Floods happen. That’s nothing new. What’s clearly new is the frequency and the intensity of these events and also the fact that they’ve been building up over years and even decades. For example, if you look at high temperature records back in the 1950s we were setting about as many highs as we were lows. In the 60s it started to go out of balance, and in the 70s even more, to the point where we are setting many more new high temperature records in this past decade than new lows. That shows you that there is really a long-term trend towards these heat waves and weather extremes.
SmartPlanet: Was that the impetus for the book? People have been talking about climate change for quite a while. What was it about this particular moment?
Lemonick: I actually wrote my first major story about climate change in 1987, so you are absolutely right about that. You’ll see that the more confident scientists have become about the science of climate change over the years, the more public debate there’s been about the reality of it, to the point where a couple of years ago Thomas Friedman, in the New York Times, made a plea. He said, people are getting all this conflicting information, all this argument, all this hype, someone ought to gather together the world’s most eminent climate scientists, and sit down and write a book – I think he said 50 pages – that just lays out very simply what we know about climate change and how we know it. And why we should or should not take it seriously. It should be in language so simple that a sixth-grader could read it.
SmartPlanet: How did that translate itself into a book?
Lemonick: A book publisher said, “That’s a great idea. Let’s do this. Who can we find to do this?” Through a number of connections, they came to Climate Central. We agreed to do it. So, narrowly, it’s just Thomas Friedman who made this challenge. More broadly, that’s sort of been what our mission has been since we were founded in 2008: to cut through the partisan bickering around climate change and the hype on both sides of the debate, and really tell the basics about climate science and what the facts are. In keeping with our mission, and laid in our laps. That’s why now.
SmartPlanet: The book is that is very straightforward, but it clears up quite a few misconceptions. What would you say are some of the misconceptions you hear again and again, whether they’re from politicians, the media, or in everyday conversations?
Lemonick: I should say is that these misconceptions are based on really reasonable common sense. It’s not like, “How crazy that people think these things?” They’re reasonable and natural mistakes.
One misconception is that because the sun is the most important thing that governs our climate, that it might just be the sun – that variation in brightness – is why we’re seeing climate change. That’s actually a very reasonable idea. When they started to see the temperature start to rise markedly in the late 80s, early 90s, this is a question scientists asked themselves, “Could we fooling ourselves? Maybe it’s just the sun?” They went and looked at years of solar radiation data and addressed that very common sense question. It turns out no, the sun has not changed in a consistent way in brightness. It’s really a great question. The problem arises when people who know better, and know that’s already been done, continue to repeat it. And people who don’t know better say, “Yeah, that makes a lot of sense.” That’s one very common misconception.
SmartPlanet: Besides the brightness of the sun, what else commonly trips people up?
Lemonick: Another says, climate has varied drastically over earth’s history. If you look back 100,000 years, we were in the middle of an Ice Age -- with glaciers all over the place. If you go back 65 million years, to the age of dinosaurs, the whole planet was tropical. There were literally palm trees growing in Antarctica. There were crocodiles north of Greenland. Obviously, humans weren’t affecting climate then, so isn’t it reasonable to assume that these are natural climate variations that we’re seeing? Again. Great question. Very sensible question. Climate scientists have looked at all of the forces that we know that affect climate. Have their been an unusually low number of volcanoes, so there’s less dust in the air, so more sunlight’s coming through? Have we changed our orbit around the sun? They looked at all of the plausible explanations, aside from greenhouse gasses, and found that they do not explain the current warming.
SmartPlanet: And a third?
Lemonick: Another popular misconception or popular myth that is repeated is that clearly we did go through great climate swings, modern humans emerged maybe 200,000 years ago, and we had a couple of ages go by, and we survived just fine. So we can survive this, right? That sounds good until you thing about that 10,000 years ago, our population was very small and mostly nomadic. You know, if a glacier is coming at you, you can move ten miles a year and stay ahead of it. If the sea level is rising or falling, you can move your camp. The difference now is that we’ve got seven billion people. We’ve built cities along the seashore. We’ve created farmland infrastructure to get food to market in fertile areas. We’ve got all of this fixed infrastructure, and we can’t just move it ten miles per year. That would be ridiculously expensive. Beyond which, back when the last Ice Age began, we don’t know how many humans died during that transition. Maybe it was half the population. Who knows? If a significant portion of the human race died during this transition that would be a big deal. Just because we have no record of the human tragedy that might have happened 10,000 years ago, doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. If you think it through, these common-sense objections don’t hold up. We wanted to acknowledge them in the book, and say, “Yes, that’s reasonable.” Here’s why that’s probably not true.
SmartPlanet: Part four of the book is talking about solutions or the way out. What do you think might be a reasonable approach?
Lemonick: As I think we made clear in the book, geoenginnering of various kinds is a very risky proposition. It could have all sorts of consequences that nobody would anticipate, and could be very bad. It’s something we should only resort to in the event of an emergency. We also came to the conclusion that a lot of the feel-good things that people do – changing their light bulbs, buying a more efficient car, or insulating their house – are helpful, but they won’t make enough of a dent in the problem to avoid real potential disasters.
SmartPlanet: What will make enough of a dent?
Lemonick: Fundamentally, what it will take to cut back our carbon emissions is a revolution in the way we produce and use energy. This is something that will not happen without government incentives. Not enough people will do this just because it is a noble thing to do. Not enough people will do it because it saves you money. People just have a really hard time coming up with that money up front. Yes, I could buy a Prius, but I really can’t afford a car right now.
Unless the price of energy is slanted away from fossil fuels, maybe by a carbon tax or some type of penalty for emissions, enough people are not going to change your behavior. I think it is going to take that level of action. Politically, that seems pretty hard to imagine right now. We had eight years of Al Gore in the vice-president’s chair and we didn’t do anything about climate change. He couldn’t do it. The climate for political action is worse now.
SmartPlanet: Is there a model we could learn from?
Lemonick: I liken it to the anti-smoking campaigns that started in 1964. Yes, they got certain people to stop smoking, but not all people. Anti-smoking legislation – banning smoking in restaurants, in airplanes, in trains, and hotels – would have been unimaginable in the 60s and 70s. You know, “It’s my right to smoke. How dare you.” The real impact of those campaigns was to make enough people aware of how harmful this really was so that governments felt they had the faith to create these laws. We’ve made smoking socially unacceptable, which I think is more powerful that just saying, “This is bad for you. You’re going to die.” I think that if enough people read our book, absorb the lessons, and absorb the lessons taught by other people, and believe on a fundamental level that it’s unacceptable to emit carbon, then governments will be able to take action without worrying that they’ll be kicked out of office.
SmartPlanet: Any idea if Thomas Friedman is going to pick up a copy and read it?
Lemonick: I certainly hope so.
Photo: Andrea Della Adriano/Flickr
Jul 24, 2012
Reads like the 9/11 Commission report? All the facts? Give me a break, if it is anything like the 9/11 report it has more holes than swiss cheese with so few questions asked, or answered. As it was said above; this is nothing but a religion of control and power. We have huge problems with the environment, yes, but they are not solved by thousands of beaurocrats jet setting across the world a couple times a year spewing tonnes of carbon dioxide for a party! They are not solving anything at these climate conferences. It's time to wake up people!!!!!
That you guys, deniers (with supposedly scientific background) could continue to argue... 10, 000 years ago even thousand years ago, even hundreds for that matter, you didn't have tailpipes (just to give only one example of our technological achievements since ice ages) spitting out their poisons into the air we (and all the rest) breath. When we had 100 millions of them it was a non-issue but when it's half a billion it starts to get disturbing, approaching a billion these days (and it will continue anyway you look at it) well I see collective suicide pattern. Allright if you want to continue to live your life as it was before, but please do not make shadow for others trying.
For the deniers it boils down to any excuse to just keep living our wasteful lives. Never mind the climate change element, we only have a limited amount of resources so, either way, we have to change our approach to living.
The broad subject basically says we have insufficient evidence to make any real conclusion on anything. All quality data is pretty limited, and open to interpretation. The world people trying to protect is wildly different - Oil in Middle East millions of years ago was Ocean, the Sahara Desert was forested, and 10,000 years ago much of Northern Hemisphere was under Ice. I would think however the drive towards clean energy, low carbon economy, safe nuclear energy, high efficiency cars/electricity/electrical appliances is a good thing as it massively extends the life of finite earth resources, and put energy security beyond the religious crazies in the Middle East. It also makes a cleaner and more sustainable environment - sorry if that is bad for 'Big Oil', but fundamentally tough shit.
I'll grant you this book is a far from unbiased: "For example, if you look at high temperature records back in the 1950s we were setting about as many highs as we were lows. In the 60s it started to go out of balance, and in the 70s even more, to the point where we are setting many more new high temperature records in this past decade than new lows. That shows you that there is really a long-term trend towards these heat waves and weather extremes." Anyone that thinks that 50-60 years is a long term trend in climate change essentially isn't qualified to discuss the subject. There are distinct problems regarding the accuracy of measurements used in the evaluation of climate affects, on the other hand at least this book gets one sides reasoning on paper and in one place. Unfortunately, in books like this you won't get counter arguments like sea bed fossil records also indicate that warm water pulses (like this years) into the Arctic are relatively frequent events: "Oceanographers have previously shown that sometimes pulses of warm water penetrate along the Norwegian coast and into the arctic basin; such pulses have occurred in the 1920s, 1930s and 1950s. Further, the authors say that well-dated fossils of foraminiferaprotozoans closely related to radiolariafound on the arctic seafloor suggest that warm-water plankton may have temporarily established themselves at least several times beforearound 4200 and 4100 BC, and again around 220, 370 and 1100 AD. "All the evidence is that this isn't necessarily immediate evidence of global warming of the ocean," http://phys.org/news/2012-07-tropical-plankton-invade-arctic.html#jCp Of course even if we had completely accurate data and rates of anthropogenic warming, when have you heard any leader discuss controlling the primary cause - too many humans/critical resources. Not to worry though, it's a self-limiting problem.
This article is another global warming farce. Listen to the conclusions. It's not normal change, it's never happened before. The answer is always to give more money to government. Don't be fooled. This is a kind of religiion designed to fleece you!
We had none of what you speak of yet multiple times the planet warmed to warmer than it is now. How and why need to be explained so we can honestly determine what is happening. The most telling FACT to come out of the global warming crowd recently was a report that even if we stopped all man made CO2 emissions the planet would continue to warm. Only if we paid them to reverse the effects would it stop warming. That sounds like people looking to make a buck since just a few years ago they said stopping emissions would allow the planet to heal and naturally stop warming. Well which is it guys?
There are strong arguments to be made for stopping real global pollution. The fight over CO2 and alleged warming has distracted people and allowed nations like China, India and Brazil and others to pump millions of tons of proven toxins into the air and water from unregulated power stations and factories. Long before rising seas cause significant problems we will be choking on real pollution. Is it any surprise global asthma rates have climbed over the past 20 years? China, India and Brazil and the rest want you to keep squabbling over CO2 while they roll on with unregulated pollution. Affordable clean energy is the way to a better environment. You do not need to fight over the as yet unproven science behind man made warming to know that. And for the record. I have never advocated continuing our wasteful ways. I dare anyone to find a post I have made that says we should continue polluting and being wasteful. You will not find one. Affordable clean energy supplies has been a stated goal since the founding of the Department of Energy. A goal I agree with because clean energy means a healthier planet. Which is good for all of us. The affordable part is what has always eluded renewable energy proponents. It cannot be cleaner at any cost, yet, because cleaner cannot drive a majority of the worlds population into poverty while making a few controlling the technology rich. The people already in poverty cannot afford it, period. Affordable clean energy has to be the goal. If it takes baby steps to get there than start walking.
Not even worth discussing this. People who cling to the hoax of man made global warming remind me of little ankle biting yapper dogs. At this point it is simply annoying to deal with them.
Any time someone starts worrying more about the money than the science their objections become ideological, not scientific. And I'm not saying money isn't important, just that the baseline reality has to be known before a realistic cost/benefit analysis is possible. The reason that the warming wouldn't stop immediately if we quite adding CO2 is because of thermal inertia, primarily in the oceans. It takes time for them to catch up with the actual forcing. The majority of the lag is 30-40 years but things like ice sheets may take several hundred years to reach a new equilibrium state. The climate we're seeing now is about where it would have stopped if we'd quit adding CO2 in the early 1980's. At this point there's no going back to where we were in the middle of the 20th Century. Unless we start actively removing excess CO2 from the atmosphere it will be with us for over 1000 years.
There's a difference between pumping SO2 into the stratosphere and dumping it into the troposphere and I doubt the scientists proposing that bit of geoengineering would say the climate we have now is a direct result of having removed sulfates from the troposphere. As they say correlation is not causation so you need to do a lot more work if you want to tie the reduction of sulfate emissions to a major part of the climate change puzzle. To me it just looks like you're grasping at straws. And just for the record, I'm not in favor of pumping SO2 into the atmosphere. At best it's only a stopgap measure.
If you believe the scientist who want us to pay them to pump sulfates into the atmosphere, the climate we see now is a direct result of our fight to remove sulfates from car emissions and other sources to fight acid rain. The thermal lag you speak of fits nicely into the time line for when the acid rain efforts were first implemented. If your theory and the scientist proposing the sparying are correct we should see accelerating warming as a result of the improved sulfur filtering implemented in the 1990s taking effect now.