The State of the Beloved Planet: What Science Tells Us

earth photoVery few of us can claim to be true experts on more than a one or two topics.  On a broad range of other matters, we rely on dedicated authorities, researchers and trusted elders for most of what we accept as fact in our daily lives. We believe that our groceries are free of toxins because government regulators have inspected them; or that a given medical treatment is good for us because a trusted doctor has prescribed it; or that financial disclosures are reliable because a CPA has audited the books.

Sometimes, these authorities let us down, and we suffer as a result. But our reaction is not to dismiss expertise as useless, but rather to look for better, more credible information and guidance.

Nowhere is this truer for most of us than in the realm of science. In this opaque world, few of us have the hubris to believe that we can independently verify the assertions of theorists and researchers. So we look for credible authorities – academies, university faculties, research journals and even Nobel laureates.

There are plenty of credible authorities on climate science.  Here are a few we might begin with:

  • First, we could look to peer-reviewed science research journals like Nature, Science, and many others. In these we find the actual research papers of climate scientists 97% of whom confirm that the earth is warming, and that such warming is caused by human activities.[i]
  • Second, we might look to the national science academies of the industrialized world – the leading G-8 countries plus China, Brazil, India, S. Africa and Mexico. Together, they have warned: “The need for urgent action to address climate change is now indisputable.”[ii]
  • Third, we could listen to the Nobel Prize-winning U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. It has concluded: Warming of the climate system is unequivocal…. Most of the observed global warming is very likely due to increases in anthropogenic greenhouse   gas   concentrations….  Global mean temperature will continue to increase, about 3.2 to 7.2°F over the next century. [iii]

But there are contrary voices as well. In recent years, we have often heard that great controversy rages over the basic findings of climate science – including the warnings that the climate system is being thrown fundamentally out of balance by human greenhouse gas emissions.

For example, there is the “Information Council on the Environment” and the “Advancement of Sound Science Coalition”; or others like the “Global Climate Science Communication Action Plan” and the “Friends of Science”; or even the “Natural Resources Stewardship Project” and the “International Climate Science Coalition.” But as authoritative as these names sound, caution would be in order here.

Despite their science-friendly names, these groups are funded by industry principally to influence public opinion. The first was created by American coal companies to spread the idea that global warming would actually be a good thing; the second was founded by tobacco giant Phillip Morris to undermine confidence in both cancer research and climate science; the third was created and funded by the American Petroleum Institute to sow public doubts about climate change; the remaining three are funded principally by Canadian oil and mining companies to oppose or undermine the Kyoto climate treaty, environmental legislation, and the UN’s periodic climate science reports.[iv]

We may dismiss these entities as fronts for polluting industries, but their spokesmen are often scientists.  Even though they generally do not conduct primary research in climatology or related fields, their status as scientists conveys a certain level of credibility. As such, these industry groups have had a considerable impact on the U.S. climate debate. Many of us now treat climate science as a matter of controversy to be avoided – like discussing politics around the Thanksgiving table.

As non-experts in a very technical arena, we have to ask: Who can we believe?

U.S. National Academy of Sciences on Climate Change

For most Americans, the safest bet is our own National Academy of Sciences (NAS). The NAS was founded by President Abraham Lincoln to advise policymakers on scientific developments beyond the grasp of political leaders. Beginning with only 50 members, the NAS was dramatically expanded during World War I to advise our leaders on the thousands of scientific questions that arose during the war. Today, it numbers more than 2,000 elected members from among the country’s most distinguished researchers. These are private citizens who share their expertise with the nation without compensation. It is, without question, the most authoritative voice in the nation on many matters of science, engineering, medicine and technology.

Polar bears

And what does the NAS have to say about global climate change? The Academy has issued many statements, and provided abundant materials for U.S. policymakers. And their assessment has been unequivocal:  “Climate change is occurring, is very likely caused primarily by human activities, and poses significant risks to humans and the environment.”[v]

In 2009, the NAS produced several very accessible works designed for consumption by non-scientists. The most useful of these, in our judgment, is a 36-page downloadable booklet titled, Climate Change: Evidence, Impacts & Choices. In the following paragraphs, we summarize this short work with a still-shorter outline of key messages from America’s best climate scientists.

Evidence for Human-Caused Climate Change


U.S. National Academy of Sciences succinct booklet

How do we know that Earth has warmed?  Widespread measurements of temperature around the world began around 1880. These data have steadily improved and, today, temperatures are recorded in many thousands of locations on the land, over the oceans, and from satellites, ocean sensors and weather balloons. These analyses all show that Earth’s average surface temperature has increased by more than 1.4°F (0.8°C) over the past 100 years, with much of this increase taking place over the past 35 years. 1.4°F is like the difference between the average temperature in Washington, DC and Charleston, SC.

How do we know that greenhouse gases lead to warming?  In 1824, French physicist Joseph Fourier was the first to discover the greenhouse effect. In the 1850s, Irish- born physicist John Tyndall demonstrated the greenhouse effect as scientific fact. In 1896, Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius calculated the warming power of excess CO2, predicting that if human activities increased CO2 levels, climate warming would result. Much research has built on these classics, but they are no longer in doubt.

Ice-core data: CO2 and temperature move together

Ice-core data: CO2 and temperature move together

How do we know that humans are causing greenhouse gases to increase? CO2 is produced and consumed in many natural processes that are part of the carbon cycle. However, once humans began digging up long-buried forms of carbon such as coal and oil and burning them for energy, additional CO2 began to be released into the atmosphere much more rapidly than in the natural carbon cycle. Other human activities, such as cement production and deforestation also add CO2 to the atmosphere. Today, atmospheric CO2 concentrations exceed 390 parts per million—nearly 40% higher than preindustrial levels, and, according to ice core data, higher than at any point in the past 800,000 years.

How much are human activities heating Earth? There are several well-known human impacts on climate: greenhouse gas emissions are the most familiar; emissions from burning fuels also produce small atmospheric particles called aerosols, which have a slight cooling effect; and land-use changes (farming, urban development and deforestation) also have – surprisingly – a slight overall cooling effect. But when these human impacts are taken together, the net climate impact is pushing the earth toward warming.

To visualize the extra heat from human climate warming, picture the small Christmas lights that many of us use to decorate our trees or homes over the holidays. Imagine four of them burning brightly in a square meter of space – about the area of your shower stall or bathtub bottom. Now, add four of those same lights to every single square meter over the face of the earth and ocean.  This extra heating equals about 50 times the amount of power produced by all the power plants of the world combined, and that heat is added to Earth’s climate system every second of every day.

How do we know the current warming trend isn’t caused by the Sun? Since 1979, we have measured the Sun’s energy from satellites. These records show that the Sun’s output has not shown a net increase during the past 30 years and thus cannot be responsible for the warming during that period. And since the 1950s, weather balloons have measured temperatures in both the lower and upper atmosphere. More intense heat from the Sun would warm all layers; but in fact, the upper layers have cooled, and the lower layers have warmed. Satellite and weather balloon measurements have been closely scrutinized, and both show a warming trend in the lower layer of the atmosphere and a cooling trend in the upper layer. The Sun is not the cause of today’s global warming.

How do we know the current warming trend isn’t caused by natural cycles? Many natural factors affect the Earth’s climate, including volcanic activity, El Nino and La Nina cycles, and small changes in our orbit around the Sun. Scientists have modeled the impact of these natural impacts on climate over the last 50 years, and have concluded that their combined effects have been largely neutral to slightly cooling. There is a more than 90% chance that most of the observed global warming trend over the past 50 to 60 years can be attributed to emissions from the burning of fossil fuels and other human activities.

What other climate changes and impacts have been observed? Global warming is not uniform all over the globe, and its effects vary from place to place. Major observed impacts include:

i.     The strongest warming has occurred over land, and most significantly in the Arctic.

ii.     Heat waves and record high temperatures have increased across most regions of the world.

iii.     Arctic sea ice cover has decreased 10% per decade, and continues to set new lows.

iv.     Many of the world’s glaciers and ice sheets are melting.

v.     Sea levels are rising due to thermal expansion as oceans warm, and because of ice melt.

vi.     More CO2 in the atmosphere reacts with sea water to form acids. Ocean acidity has increased 30% since preindustrial times, and this is radically altering marine ecosystems.

vii.     With more water vapor in warmer air, storms are becoming more intense. The Northeast region of the U.S. has seen a 54% increase in intensity of storms over the last century.

viii.     Species have shifted their ranges pole-ward to adjust to warming climates, or have become endangered due to immobility.

ix.     Plant and animal behaviors, such as breeding, blooming and migration occur on average 5 days earlier per decade. This affects the timing and severity of insects, disease outbreaks and other disturbances.

Warming,  Climate Changes, and Impacts in the 21st Century and Beyond

How will temperatures be affected?  By the end of the century, the center of the United States is expected to experience 60 to 90 additional days per year in which the heat index is more than 100°F. The ratio of new record high temperatures to record low temperatures currently stands at 2 to 1. But that ratio is projected to increase to 20 to 1 by mid-century and 50 to 1 by the end of the century.

How is precipitation expected to change? Globally, dry areas are expected to get even drier and wet areas even wetter. Some notable details:

i.     The subtropics, where most of the world’s deserts are concentrated, are likely to see 5-10% reductions in precipitation for each degree of global warming. Mexico and the American Southwest are likely to get much drier.

ii.     Polar and temperate regions are expected to see increased precipitation, especially during winter.

iii.     Extreme rainstorms are likely to intensify by 5-10% for each 1°C (1.8°F) of global warming, resulting in more intense flooding, even in regions that will be drier.

iv.     Wildfires will become more intense and widespread. For every degree of warming, the forest area burned is expected to increase by a factor of 2x to 4x.

Sharp increase in wild fires in a warming world

Sharp increase in wild fires in a warming world

How will sea ice and snow be affected? In the Artic, sea ice will decline 25% for each1°C (1.8°F) in global warming this century. In the Antarctic, sea ice is expanding due to the stratospheric “ozone hole,” which developed because of the use of ozone-depleting chemicals; this effect is expected to wane as ozone returns to normal levels by later this century. In many areas of the globe, snow cover is expected to diminish, with snowpack building later in the cold season and melting earlier in the spring. Each 1°C (1.8°F) of local warming may lead to an average 20% reduction in local snowpack in the western United States; reduced snowpack will restrict summer drinking water supply and hydropower production.

How will coastlines be affected?  Sea-level rise is projected to continue for centuries in response to human- caused increases in greenhouse gases, with an estimated 20-39 inches of mean sea-level rise by 2100, and more beyond. However, there is evidence that sea level rise could be much greater, due to unexpectedly rapid melting from glaciers and ice sheets. If sea levels rise by 39 inches this century, many parts of the U.S. coastline will be impacted (see map below). In any event, global “hotspots,” including the Mississippi, Ganges and Mekong River deltas will be seriously affected.

Large losses to American cities from 39” sea rise

Large losses to American cities from 39” sea rise

How will ecosystems be affected? Species are adapted to specific climatic conditions in their ecosystems. As the climate changes, many species will be forced to migrate. But this threatens many species with limited mobility. Special stress is being placed on cold-adapted species on mountain tops and at high latitudes, which cannot move higher or further pole-ward. Shifts in the timing of the seasons and life-cycle events such as blooming, breeding, and hatching are causing mismatches between species, disrupting patterns of feeding, pollination, and other key aspects of food webs.


American pika: mountaintop species cannot escape warming

In the ocean, warmer surface waters are mixing less with cooler, deeper waters, separating near-surface marine life from the nutrients below and ultimately reducing the amount of phytoplankton, which forms the base of the ocean food web. Ocean acidification, brought on as the oceans take in more of the excess CO2 will threaten many species over time, especially mollusks and coral reefs.  Ocean acidification will continue to worsen if CO2 emissions continue unabated in the decades ahead.

How will agriculture and food production be affected?  Warmer weather and increased CO2 do not necessarily mean a decline in food production. However, temperature increases above 1°C (1.8°F) will reduce yields in almost all of the world’s staple foods, a result of water stress and temperature peaks. Local results will also vary, with a projected 40% yield decrease in a broad cross section of California crops by 2050. Growers in prosperous areas may be able to adapt to some climate threats. However, adaptation may be less effective where local warming exceeds 2°C (3.6°F), and will be limited in many poorer countries and the tropics, where crop yields are restricted principally by moisture.

Further Resources

[i] Doran, Peter et all, Examining the Scientific Consensus on Climate Change; EOS, Vol.90, #3, 1/20/2009; p.22

[ii] G8+5 Academies’ joint statement: Climate change and the transformation of energy technologies for a low carbon future; May 2009

[iii] A report of Working Group of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change: Summary for Policymakers; 4th Assessment Report, 2007

[iv] Hoggan, James, Climate Cover Up: The Crusade to Deny Global Warming; Greystone Books, 2009; pp.37-48

[v] National Research Council, U.S. National Academy of Sciences: Climate Change: Evidence, Impacts & Choices; 2009

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