Climate Change: Hoax or Real?

By now, everyone has heard about global warming or climate change from multiple sources and has developed a position.

The question is “Why are there such polarized camps about this issue?”

On one side, there are those who warn that if something isn’t done to curb the excess carbon dioxide going into the atmosphere, the earth’s population could suffer a catastrophe of some sort in the near future—96 percent of all scientists fall into this camp.

On the other side, there are those that say the earth has been in warming and cooling cycles for thousands of years, and that man is not responsible for climate change.

Dr. Ted Parson, a UCLA professor of Environmental Law and co-director of the Emmet Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, addressed the conundrum of polarized camps at a Rotary breakfast on May 5 at Aldersgate Retreat Center.

Parson, a physicist, who received an environmental law degree from Harvard in 1992, reminded the audience that “Science never proves anything; rather it describes and advances by evidence.”

He noted that although there is no absolute proof about climate change, there is extreme confidence not only in observations, but also in a few core propositions that establish the risk is real, human-caused and going to increase.

“What we know is the climate is changing and emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) are the cause,” he said. “And changes will continue and most likely accelerate.”

He pointed out that the impacts of excess CO2 in the atmosphere are diverse, but that many people do not understand or grasp the situation—or chose not to believe it.

Parson explains that CO2 in the atmosphere absorbs infrared radiation, which impedes the earth’s cooling. This makes the earth’s surface hotter and the upper atmosphere colder, which drives climate change. Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere also gets taken up by the ocean, where it forms carbonic acid, making the ocean more acidic.

“Most of the recent news is bad,” he said. “There is a vast gap between popular perception and reality.”

Parson said the most recent piece of alarming news suggests “it is more likely than we thought that the West Antarctic ice sheet might collapse within a century or so, which would mean a rise in sea level of eight feet or so.” (Visit: news.nationalgeographic.com/2016/04/160412-ice-sheet-collapse-antarctica-sea-level-rise/.)

Scientists know with great confidence that over the last 100 years, the earth’s temperature has risen by two degrees Fahrenheit. With less precision, they can track earth temperature back 2,000 years based on tree rings, coral shells in the ocean and mud sediment found in the bottom of lakes.

For the past 135 years, the temperature has actually been taken at sites around the world. Scientists note that since 1975, the heating of the globe has gone up every decade. Some years are hotter than the one before, but all decades are hotter than the previous one. Currently, the average temperature of the earth is about 57 degrees.

Scientists also know that more carbon dioxide is being released into the air, because starting in 1957, Charlie Keeling has measured the amount from the Mauna Loa Observatory on the Big Island.

“Every year it has gone up—and faster and faster,” Parson said, noting that in 1957 there was about 315 parts per million. This year it’s about 405 parts per million.

According to Parson, there are three steps that can be taken to lessen those effects: 1.) use less fossil fuel; currently about 80 percent of the world energy is fueled by coal, gas and oil; 2.) adapt to changes that we will not be able to avoid; and 3.) engineer the climate change, by capturing the carbon dioxide and storing it underground.

“Slowly, we would need to steer the world towards a non-carbon climate—using solar, wind or nuclear energy,” Parson said.

In the future, scientists might also be able to suck some of the carbon out of the atmosphere to store underground. If scientists could shade or block a little sunlight it would also slow the effects of too much CO2 in the atmosphere.

But what about China or India? Surely the U.S. leads in legislation to curb CO2 going into the atmosphere? “No,” Parson said. “China is in the course of deploying emission-control measures stronger than those in the United States, replacing coal with nuclear energy.”

Although the U.S. has strong smokestack emission control, which takes many gases out of the environment, that doesn’t apply to CO2.

The United States has become so proficient at getting natural gas and oil out of the ground with fracking, that we could become the leader in world production.

According to Parsons, the question is not about whether CO2 emissions are bad or whether there is global warming or even about who produces the most emissions.

Rather it is about the lack of outcry from the public and inaction on the part of government. It starts with the press, with Parson calling some of the news stories a “campaign to deception.”

The result is that many smart individuals don’t know who to believe and have become victim to the “merchants of doubt.”

Instead of doubting climate change, one might instead examine who profits from maintaining fossil fuel consumption at today’s level and then wonder how long they will be able to keep up the deceptive claim that there is no problem.

Parson suggested that carbon fuel producers are using the same tactic as those who were able to keep cancer warnings off cigarette packages long after the scientific evidence documentation had shown cause and effect.

It is likely that Washington, D.C. legislators have not made this a priority because oil and gas firms are among the top-three biggest lobbying industries (along with the pharmaceutical and insurance industries), paying hundreds of millions of dollars annually to Congress.

For those who still don’t know what to believe, Parson, who has written A Subtle Balance: Evidence, Expertise and Democracy in Public Policy and GovernanceThe Science and Politics of Global Climate Change (with Andrew Dessler) and Protecting the Ozone Layer: Science and Strategy, suggests a website (skepticalscience.com/) for scientific responses to questions about climate change.

Dr. Ted Parson

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