A YouTube video, in a effort to explain the lack of interest in climate change, compares the number of articles Google shows on climate change to the number of articles it reveals about Taylor Swift’s legs. A mere 30,000 on Antarctic Ice Sheets compared to millions on Taylor Swift, most of which are focused on the beauty of her legs. The video goes on to make a case for our fetishes:
We’re not interested in Taylor Swift’s legs because we’re evil but because our minds are wired up in unhelpful ways. If people are going to be interested en masse in defrosting poles we need to take our fragilities on board.
That’s quite an interesting proposition until you get to the how part and you find useless advice on making the news “beguiling… almost as tempting to hear about as Taylor Swift’s legs”. It goes on to defend the statement by a very emotionally charged argument stating that we cannot be collectively dragged into being responsible through guilt and that people are already trying the best to be decent people. So, the solution it presents is for high-minded people to get off their high horse and “learn to charm us into goodness”. Aww how cute and thoughtful that is! To be fair, the video does not make light of climate change. But what it does is that it suggests people are stupid and don’t know climate change threatens their existence so the only way we can make them understand it is by playing to their fetishes.
I find that whole argument bizarre on so many levels. a) it fails to recognize the gravity and urgency of the issue that eliminates all time for coddling; b) it overlooks and makes light of the misery of people who have suffered and continue to suffer the worst from the immediate impacts of it 1 and those who have become ‘climate refugees’ due to inability to fish, farm and provide for themselves. And c) it insults the intelligence and efforts of so many people who are constantly doing something to save our planet (not just humans) from the destruction of climate change. Case in point is the Ogoni and Ijaw people’s fight against Shell company’s ecological wars in Nigeria. Another case in point is Germany’s fast transition to green energy where citizens from major cities like Hamburg and Berlin are voting to take power back from private energy companies and putting them under public control. Consider the lobbying of Boulder, Colorado citizens in order to make their energy supply companies switch to renewables. Or consider these Australians fighting against mining companies to protect the Great Barrier Reef (which is now unfortunately dead).
The examples of common people taking on corporate powers to protect the earth from their rapacious appetite are plenty. These are not high-minded people; these are common citizens who look around and just…feel. Creating awareness by reporting cold, hard facts about the health of our planet is not about burdening people with guilt. We don’t need to be manipulated and “charmed into goodness”. That’s what corporations do to make us comfortable with consumption. We only need to be shown the truth. I believe there’s enough beauty in nature to compel anybody to action.
Unfortunately, climate change has become a target of much public confusion and doubt. We hear all kinds of things and everybody seems to have an opinion even if they have no knowledge about it. In an effort to find the truth myself, I spent some time researching and learning about it. I learnt not just about the most basic principles of science behind it, but also the ways in which information is being used to distort public opinion by certain interest groups. I felt that there are many people out there like me who are confused and would like to know about what’s really going on. So, I decided to put together a summary of all my ‘learnings’ (in as simple a way as possible) on the science, the propaganda, and the implications of climate change.
And while you read this, I’m going to shake it off with Taylor Swift because it’s like I got this music in my mind sayin’ it’s gonna be awwrrright.
WHAT DO WE KNOW?
Our story starts with the story of water – the most essential element for our existence. Water exists in different forms as we see it in our daily lives: ice, water, steam (solid, liquid, gas). It is present all around us, in our atmosphere in the form of water vapor. Now it just so happens that water vapor is a greenhouse gas. What this means is that when earth radiates the heat from the sun back into the atmosphere, the water vapor traps some of it. This property of heat trapping (most commonly known as the greenhouse effect) is also found in many other gases in our atmosphere with carbon dioxide being the most notorious one.
As we go about our daily activities going to work, buying groceries, making food, we are releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. It comes from our vehicles that run on fossil fuels, the products we buy come from factories that run on fossil fuels, and the electricity we use comes from burning fossil fuels. Almost everything we do and consume can be linked to the burning of fossil fuels. The amount of carbon dioxide that is released in this process is called the ‘carbon footprint’. The reason it gets such a bad rap is because it can control the behavior of water vapor – the most abundant greenhouse gas in our atmosphere.
We know from the Water Cycle we all studied in school (and forgot) that when the temperature rises, water evaporates, condenses into clouds and then falls back onto the earth in the form of rain or snow. The amount of water stays the same; it just changes it guise based on the earth’s temperature. Unlike water, whose quantity remains the same, carbon dioxide on the other hand is being increasingly induced into the atmosphere by us. The more CO2 we put into the atmosphere, the more heat that is trapped by the earth (because it is a greenhouse gas). This heat in turn causes further evaporation and that means even more heat (because the evaporated water vapor retains heat). Thus, there forms a feedback loop in which water vapor amplifies the warming caused by CO2.
This is the simplest explanation of how the earth’s temperature is rising, in other words global warming. However, the story doesn’t stop there. The climate is a complex system and greenhouse gases are not limited to water vapor and CO2. There are several other greenhouse gases released through both earth’s natural processes and human activity. Studies tell us that a simple doubling of CO2 in the environment, excluding any feedback loops, can warm the globe by around 1 degree Celsius. Throw in water vapor and this doubles the amount of CO2 warming. Add other feedback loops and the total warming from CO2 comes up to 3 degrees Celsius!
As I mentioned earlier, everything that we do can be linked to the emission of CO2 in the atmosphere. But we also know that we need CO2 to keep earth’s natural processes going. Certainly all this CO2 in the environment is used up somewhere? Definitely. But imagine what happens when you’ve had way more to eat than your appetite allows. The earth’s carbon appetite is way beyond full and that’s wrecking all sorts of havoc for us! Much like the water cycle, the earth maintains a delicate balance of the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere and absorbed back in through natural processes (respiration, consumption, and decomposition of plants, animals, and humans). The resources that enable such a balance are categorized into carbon sources and carbon sinks. Lets consider one of the biggest sinks and see what that tells us about what’s happening in our environment. Oceans are some of the biggest carbon sinks as CO2 is used by marine life not only for respiration but also for the formation of shells, reefs, rocks, and other mineral deposits. These latter store carbon but the process happens over a very long time. Climate studies have confirmed two things at the very least:
- The pace at which humans are putting CO2 in the environment is much faster than it is being absorbed by carbon sinks.
- The over-absorption by the oceans is causing them to acidify, endangering reef-building corals, disturbing the habitat of millions of species, and upsetting the marine food chain.
How do we know any of this?
That was some basic science behind climate change but I was also curious to find out how we know what we know about climate change. I used to imagine some meteorologists, marine biologists, and geologists sitting together combining their studies, concluding that things on Earth are changing for the worse and finding us to be the culprit. However, how it actually works is much more interesting. Upon doing some research I was amazed to see the detail at which each and everything is studied. It isn’t just some scientists putting two and two together based on random studies. There are people whose careers are based on testing, for instance, air quality or soil quality over a sustained period of time. They single out causes for every change and its effects. There are predictions based on historical patterns. Scientists also study and test all the assumptions behind all those predictions. The level of detail and scrutiny involved is just fascinating. All of this happens before we get any information as established facts. Amazing, right? (Sometimes this information also gets distorted and misinterpreted but let’s get our climate science base covered before we get into that).
The Climate System
Climate, in technical terms, is a representation of average weather. This average is derived from variables such as temperature, wind, and precipitation observed over a period of time. The time period could range from months to millions of years but the standard is 30 years as defined by the World Meteorological Organization. Given this definition of climate, the study of climate change is the “process of demonstrating that the climate has changed in some defined statistical sense”. Studying the cause of change comes later on and the most likely causes are established only after they’ve been tested to fall within some defined level of confidence.
Imagine for a moment that you’re color blind but you don’t know it yet. You pick up a flower thinking it’s purple (your partner’s favorite color) but your friend see it and tells you it’s red. You might think she’s pulling your leg but her insistence makes you want to double check before giving it to your partner. You show it to people around to confirm whether your friend was just joking or if you’re actually colorblind. Similarly, scientists run multiple tests to make sure what they’ve found is actually a cause and not some misleading assumption or bias.
For something as important as the climate, scientists study the whole of climate system to understand the nature and process of change. Consider the water and carbon cycles mentioned above. These constitute interactions between the land surface and above, water bodies found on above and below the surface of the earth (including frozen water) and of course, all the life on earth. These are known as the lithosphere, atmosphere, hydrosphere, cryosphere, and biosphere. This climate system evolves through it’s own internal dynamics as well as the influence of external dynamics such as volcanic eruptions, solar radiations, and of particular interest to us, human induced changes.
The word model is thrown around quite often in classrooms no matter what the subject. Whether you’re building a house, investing in a hedge fund, or just admiring the prototype of a new smartphone. Everything is modeled. Even the climate. However, climate modeling differs from the modeling one would think of for a new car that engineers aspire to build with all its fancy features.
In the scientific world modeling is quite a sophisticated activity. It is an attempt to understand something based on commonly accepted knowledge of that particular field. For instance, modeling clouds can give insight into the way they affect the earth’s temperature. Various factors such as the atmospheric pressure, relative humidity, and wind go into the formation of clouds. Modeling can help control the amount/intensity of any of these factors to see their effect on cloud formation. Such models can be thought of as lab experiments that help us make sense of and anticipate things. Climate models incorporate all known physical, biological, and chemical properties of the Climate System mentioned above. These models can be used to study the climate on various levels of complexity. And it is through this kind of modeling that we know which parts of earth will be submerged if we don’t do something about it.
Here’s a very simple climate model that simulates CO2 emissions to understand its affect on the earth’s temperature.
This model is borrowed from the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR). 2.
The Scientific Process
Science is the most common yet the most misunderstood subject. One hears people passing on poorly put together pieces of information in the name of science; mainstream magazines capitalizing on the ignorance of people with headlines like, “science has revealed” or “scientists have discovered” so and so. I believe that a lot of times it is used as an intimidation tactic because, well, who bothers finding out what’s behind those dark curtains of science. It seems obscure and beyond the comprehension of the common man. I used to fall for that tactic all the time. I used to think that if mainstream magazines, websites, newspapers are saying something then it ought to be true. And how was I supposed to verify that information anyway? Not everybody has the time to go look up research papers on Google scholar and reading them correctly is a skill on it’s own. One of my friends, a heavy smoker, once emailed an article to me stating the benefits of tobacco proved by scientists. At the end of the email was a winking smiley saying “You can get Google to agree with you on anything”. Ironic but true. There’s plenty of bad science out there and you can get ‘Google search’ to corroborate pretty much all of your preconceived notions.
The problem with climate change is the same. There are all sorts of articles and opinion pieces and few of us are trained in science enough to fully understand them. However, just understanding the scientific process dissipates much of this confusion. That is why I want to emphasize on the importance of the scientific process. Contrary to common belief, it is quite simple and straightforward. Most of it is self-correcting i.e. every finding is verified through the feedback of several other researchers working in the same field. These are critical checks that come from scrutiny and questioning of every minute detail. Micheal E. Mann 3 explains the process very succinctly in his book on climate change denial called The Madhouse Effect:
Scientists write up their findings and submit them to journals. The journals select several other scientists with expertise in the field to critically evaluate the submission. If they find flaws in data, underlying assumptions, the experimental design, or the logic, the authors must revise and resubmit. This process might be submitted a number of times for a single article… [it] is published if an only if the editor determines that the authors have satisfactorily addressed any concerns or critiques raised during the process and that the manuscript represent a positive contribution to the existing scientific literature.
However, this system of peer review is not fool proof. That’s why some journals have more credibility than others for their accuracy and thoroughness. There is even a peer review of peer review that evaluates the collective evidence on a particular topic and summarizes the state of knowledge on that topic. Despite all of these checks, weakness in the scientific process is exploited and mostly by playing on the ignorance of public. Consider the following headlines:
The research was designed to study the effect of blood cholesterol lowering drugs in 1000 adults from San Diego. The BMI of the participants was observed and it was found that adults who ate chocolate more often had lower BMI than those who ate it less often. While the researchers admit to several limitations of their study they go far as to say, “in the case of chocolate, this is good news –both for those who have a regular chocolate habit, and those who may wish to start one”.
Anybody in the right mind wouldn’t even dare experiment this on himself. The article released by the University of California San Diego itself does not state the research design, explain the methodology, or name the limitations of the study. How was the sample of 1000 adults selected? Is it a certain age group this study caters to? What kind of chocolate were they eating? How accurate were participants’ reports about they food consumption? Without knowing any of this one you wouldn’t just pick up a chocolate habit unless you’re like my smoker friend trying to make yourself feel better about your guilty pleasure.
And this is where you need to remind yourself that the scientific process is also quite a rigorous one. No one scientist has monopoly over an idea, neither absolute knowledge of all aspects. There is a logical sifting of ideas and theories by the whole of scientific community in that field. Over a period of time each idea is tested and re-tested until the scientists are left with only one that continues to make the most sense, explains additional phenomena, and can make powerful predictions. It is only then that the scientists stop contesting and achieve a consensus. Therefore, if we’re getting a piece of information from one study, it can always be verified by checking the consensus of scientists on that topic.
How does then the science get misrepresented? Are mainstream news reports about benefits of smoking or picking up a chocolate habit just there for people looking to appease their conscience? Perhaps. What we know for sure is that there are interest groups that benefit from the misrepresentation of science. Can you think of the chocolate or the tobacco industry benefiting from people consuming less of those? And can you think of fossil fuel industry (the industry upon which most others are built) benefitting from people switching to alternative sources of energy? This is what brings me to the most important part of the whole climate change debate in public and political sphere.
What I find most boggling about climate change is that it is up for debate. Our existence is hanging by a literal thread but it is up for debate instead of action. There is 97% consensus of the scientific community on human caused climate change yet confusion abounds!
Why is it so and where is it coming from? The simple answer is Big Business. If the tobacco industry can get away with denying that smoking tobacco causes cancer then why would industries created by and fully-reliant on burning fossil fuels shy away from denying that global warming is due to human-caused CO2 emissions. Reducing fossil fuel consumption poses an existential threat to our economy built on constant consumption made possible by big industries. The denial (of climate change) movement is far from an organic convergence of skeptical scientists 4. Think of the rigorous scientific method I mentioned earlier. If global warming was a hoax we would have known by now. If CO2 levels were not rising due to human activity we would have known by now. Within the scientific community the issue of global warming due to human activity is settled. So the denial movement is, “a creature of ideological network” as Naomi Klein puts it.
This denial movement is hugely reminiscent of the tobacco industry’s denial of tobacco’s harmful effects. Here’s what the World Health Organization’s report tells us:
At the beginning of the fifties, research was published showing a statistical link between smoking and lung cancer. At the same time the tobacco industry’s own research began to find carcinogens in smoke and began to confirm the relationship between smoking and cancer. This posed a serious problem for the industry: whether to admit to the health problems and try and find marketable solutions, or whether to basically deny everything.
In the face of mounting damning evidence against their product, the companies responded by creating doubt and controversy surrounding the health risks. At the same time they responded to the growing public concern by putting filters on cigarettes and promising research into the health effects of smoking. They lulled the smoking public into a false sense of security, because, whilst this had the hallmarks of responsible companies acting in the public interest, it was actually a public relations strategy to buy time, at the expense of public health. Here’s an interesting piece of information on that 5:
And here’s what the cola industry has to say about its role in the spread of obesity and diabetes 6.
The fossil fuel industry is the backbone of not just these industries but of our entire global economy as it stands. Now just try to imagine what it would do if it’s told that what it’s doing is wrong. It is not surprising then that a 2013 study by Riley Dunlap and Peter Jacques revealed that 72% of climate change denial books published since the 1990s were linked to ring-wing think tanks backed by corporate power. The figure rises to 87% if self-published books are excluded 7. Dunlap finds that 8:
90% of denial books do not undergo peer review, allowing authors or editors to recycle scientifically unfounded claims that are then amplified by the conservative movement, media, and political elites.
So, we see a pattern of blame-shifting, denial, and eventually mass misinformation campaigns to confuse the public and delay action. A report from the Guardian throws light on the climate denial funding from fossil fuel sources. Between 2001 and 2010 a network of conservative US billionaires had donated nearly $120 million to more than 100 groups casting doubt about the science behind climate change 9 . This “ready stream of cash set off a conservative backlash against against Barack Obama’s environmental agenda that wrecked any chance of Congress taking action of climate change.
With all this doubt and misinformation of which the mainstream media is an unwitting accomplice, willing to emphasize conflict over consensus and controversy over comprehension 10 what is one supposed to believe? Mann offers a simple remedy:
Where there is doubt about the facts, if you do have some respect for the scientific method, look to the scientists who are doing the hard work of measuring, analyzing, understanding. Where there is apparent disagreement or continuing uncertainty, go with the preponderance of evidence.
The fact of the matter is that decisions in our life that require us to make big changes in our behavior and lifestyle are extremely hard for us. We want the thing that reminds us of our wrong choices to go away. We don’t want to be feeling guilty about using our car instead of the public transport or about buying plastic wrapped veggies from the supermarket. And the industries provide enough misleading articles with meaningless hypotheticals and arguments to keep us in that gray area of indecisiveness. That is the biggest problem. Indecisiveness keeps us from bringing pressure on our political representatives who should be dealing with climate change as the topmost priority for policy and action. The implications of delaying action are as many as they are grave. Climate change is already causing thousands of deaths a year due to heatwaves, floods, storms, and forest fires. This is not just about the future generations anymore. We are besieged – food, water, land, health, economy, national security, everything is being affected by it. We can do something about it and that something starts with educating ourselves.
… to be continued
- think Superstorm Sandy or 108 inches of snowfall in Boston in winter 2014/15
- You can also see more interactive models, and a sample of scenarios used by the IPCC here
- He is one of the scientists behind the famous Hockey Stick Curve depicting temperature trends over the past millennium
- You can read a synthesis of consensus estimates on human-caused global warming here. Notice that the greater the climate expertise, the higher the consensus is among scientists surveyed
- Now Fox News is Defending Tobacco-Cancer Denial
- To divert attention from the sugar content of the beverage, Coca-cola has been arguing that the obesity problem is mainly because people are eating too much and not exercising enough. You can find out the truth behind ‘Getting Families Get Fit’ campaign here
- Klein, Naomi, This Changes Everything : Capitalism vs. the Climate. New York :Simon & Schuster, 2014
- Explore the connection between ‘Climate Change Denial Books and Conservative Think Tanks’
- Secret Funding Helped Build Vast Network of Climate Denial Think Tanks
- Mann, Michael E., and Tom Toles. The Madhouse Effect: How Climate Change Denial is Threatening Our Planet, Destroying Our Politics, and Driving Us Crazy. Columbia University Press, 2016