Climate Change: A scientist helps separate facts from fiction

University of Iowa’s Dr. Peter Thorne is also a member of the U.S. EPA’s Advisory Board.

Of the 17 record-setting hottest years, 16 have occurred since 2000. This year, 2017, is expected to continue the trend—although it’s not expected to top 2016, which took the gold for hottest year on record. Despite this increasing urgency, 2016 marked another year of disconnect between science and politics. The current president of the United States has repeatedly stated that climate change is a hoax—although he has issued contradicting statements—and listed pulling out of the Paris Climate Agreement as part of his 100-day plan for his first days in office.

Although a page about climate change was removed from the White House website under the new administration, climate change remains a worldwide issue rigorously being pursued by the scientific community. One leader in this community is Peter Thorne, Ph.D., a University of Iowa professor and head of the UI College of Public Health’s Department of Occupational and Environmental Health. Thorne also serves as chairman of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Science Advisory Board. Thorne sat down to discuss some of the key arguments swirling around about climate change.

Conspiracy Theory

“When a person makes an effort to look at the scientific information, they will see that climate change is a phenomenon as real as gravity,” Thorne said. “The problem is when people do not make the effort to look at the science, or get information from sources that are not reliable.”

He said there are some individuals who, after looking at the science, remain skeptical of climate change. Some have argued that climate change research findings are part of a conspiracy theory. One article published last year by Breitbart (which Donald Trump’s top adviser, Steve Bannon, used to run) called climate change “the greatest-ever conspiracy against the taxpayer.”

“This minority has a large vested interest in denying the science, believing that research findings are all part of a conspiracy, or honoring another conflict of interest that opposes the concept of global warming,” Thorne said.

Along these same lines, there are arguments that scientists are getting rich over the climate change discussion. However, Thorne noted that scientists who work for organizations studying climate data, like NASA and the National Oceanic Atmosphere Administration (NOAA), draw their regular salaries, while, for academics, research grants go to the university.

“Many people don’t understand that when a professor gets a federal research grant, it goes to the institution,” Thorne said. “There are people who may write a book about climate change, but making the point that climate scientists are getting rich over this worldwide discussion is a ludicrous argument.”

Thorne did cite one case of questionable funding, but on the other side of the climate change discussion. A scientist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, Wei-Hock “Willie” Soon, gained prominence publishing papers denying climate change and arguing that global warming is driven by changes in the sun’s energy. It was later discovered that he had accepted more than $1 million from the fossil fuel industry, which he did not disclose in his scientific papers.

Validity of Models

Some critics of man-made climate change also question the validity of the models used in climate change research, arguing, for example, that they fudge to fit with past observations but don’t necessarily predict future temperatures. However, according to Thorne, the science surrounding climate change has advanced to the point where researchers have many direct measurements of global temperatures that support the veracity of the models.

“Where the models might have some challenges is the geographical scale. For instance, you may not be able to predict the climate of Iowa City, but you can for the Midwest or the nation as a whole,” Thorne said.

However, deniers of man-made climate change constitute a small proportion of climate scientists. Depending on what study you look at, the number of climate scientists who believe humans contribute to climate change can be as high as 97 percent, but it is always an overwhelming majority.

“In any scientific discourse, there is always someone who is going to challenge the status quo, and it’s good to have some people who take the other side,” Thorne said.

Science Has Been Wrong in the Past

Some climate change deniers point to the historic example of the previously-held geocentric model of the solar system—the sun revolving around the earth—as support for the argument that global warming may be false even if most scientists believe in it. However, Thorne pointed to the many advances in science since the age of Galileo.

“The technical level of the science currently conducted is above the level of science multiple centuries ago. At that time, there was a complete melding between religion and science,” Thorne said. “So much of that historical discourse was a religious argument. With climate change, we are talking about a different plane.”

The evidence in support of the existence of global warming is only increasing, with noticeable signs worldwide, including the trend of rising global temperatures, melting glaciers, rising sea levels and extreme weather events.

This chart shows how climate has risen since 1850.

Accuracy of Measurements

Critics have also raised questions over temperature measurements, with some claiming that the earth has stopped warming in recent years, and others citing slight discrepancies in data. But Thorne said the scientific methodology used is comprehensive and unbiased.

According to the NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center, the earliest records of temperature measured by thermometers are from the late 17th century. Although there are some variations in the data from the two often-cited climate research programs (the National Climatic Data Center and the U.K.-based Climate Research Unit), those variations are attributed to slightly different ways of processing the data. The overall warming trend matches up.

“There is a worldwide network of reporting stations—in the U.S. it’s part of the National Weather Service. Other countries have similar entities, and there is a national consortium,” Thorne said. “The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has several programs that are responsible for collecting this data, [including] one called Argo that has over 3,000 probes that are moving through the ocean.”

These probes float on the service and then dive down 2,000 meters into the sea. Beyond these probes, there are sophisticated satellite systems that monitor temperature and other metrics, such as greenhouse gas levels.

What’s at Stake?

The present and future consequences of man-made global warming can be catastrophic.

“We don’t have to talk about two decades from now. We can talk about today,” Thorne said.

Warmer air can hold more moisture. That, along with changes in weather patterns, means that rainstorms can be more severe and cause more flooding, Thorne said.

Global warming will also affect insect populations and vegetation, boosting the growth of plants like ragweed and poison ivy, and spreading the incidence of diseases like malaria, dengue fever and the Zika virus.

“There are public health aspects that become important—individuals with allergies, for instance, will suffer longer,” Thorne said. “Diseases from ticks and mosquitoes will be traveling northward. Worst of all, when a disease expands to a new area, the incidence can become a lot higher.”

Moving Forward: Mitigation and Adaptation

To address the causes of global warming, the discussion is focused on mitigation and adaptation. Mitigation refers to reducing the global carbon footprint and reducing dependence on energy sources that release greenhouse gases. Adaptation is how the world adapts to changing ecosystems, like rising sea levels.

“Research in the mitigation area is focused on renewable energy systems, and changing towards solar, wind and geothermal and moving away from coal,” Thorne said.

There are some almost sci-fi concepts being researched, like solar umbrellas to block sunlight. The idea is that reducing the amount of sunlight that reaches the Earth could offset global warming from increasing greenhouse gases. However, ideas such as this would not address carbon dioxide problems and the loss of biodiversity. Solutions require broad, far-reaching changes.

“Resilience is one of the key words we use in adaptation research,” Thorne said. “This is part of the landscape of city planning and urban land reform.”

That resilience may be tested. Looking at the records of some of the appointees of the current White House administration—including Trump’s pick to head the EPA, Scott Pruitt, who has a track record of suing the agency—it is easy to believe that this administration could lead a reduction in efforts to address man-made global warming.

Kasra Zarei is a freelance science writer. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 215.

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