Like so many issues today climate change has been politicized. A movement more akin to a religion blames every calamity on climate change and questioning of their conclusions is treated as heresy. Those in opposition reject any evidence of warming with cynicism rather than healthy skepticism. It is hard for a citizen to form a solid opinion on such an important topic.
A serious effort to better understand the issue through a review of related literature makes it clear that the science is not as open and shut as some believe. That does not mean there is not climate change, or that we should not act to address it, but there are too many failed predictions and unanswered questions to conclude the “science is settled.” For example, the first Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report of 1990 predicted temperature and sea level rise that has not come to fruition.
The United States Geological Survey (USGS) reports in the “The Sun and Climate” report that the Earth has warmed .99° F since 1860, and about half of this could be due to increased solar radiation. However, .648° F of the .99 F° increase occurred from 1970 – 2000. Solar radiation change can only account for .198° F of the .648° F increase; “the rest could be due to greenhouse warming or some other cause.”
The scientific community consensus is that most of the warming of the Earth in the last half century is from the retention of heat energy due to the trapping or greenhouse effect caused by the retention of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Healthy skepticism is warranted with regard to such pronouncements and prognostication. But at the same time one cannot stick one’s head in the sand and ignore what could be a very serious challenge.
The Earth warms and cools as solar radiation reaching the Earth rises and falls. Scientific understanding of solar radiation and the cycles and patterns of its intensity is extensive but not absolute. The amount of solar energy that is retained or reflected by the Earth contributes to the warming and cooling process. Scientific understanding of the process of retention of solar energy by the Earth is even less clear.
What is clear is that the Earth’s climate is in constant change over the long term. It warms and cools in natural cycles over long periods. One need only look at the vestiges of glaciers that are Long Island, Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard, and Nantucket Island to affirm that fact. Only a short 20,000 years ago ice as high as 2.5 miles covered most of the northern latitudes. The average temperature then was six degrees centigrade cooler and sea level was substantially lower as water was retained by the ice sheets.
The atmosphere acts as a shelter that regulates the Earth’s average temperature to about 59 degrees Farenheit. The atmosphere includes the constituent part carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere rise and fall with long term global temperature change. Human activity since the Industrial Revolution in the 1700s is the major contributor to increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from about 300ppm to the present 400ppm and has caused the carbon dioxide cycle to lead rather than trail temperature change.
The effect of human induced carbon dioxide increases in the atmosphere is not adequately understood to make grand predictions of its impact. The Economist reported in March, 2013, “Over the past 15 years air temperatures at the Earth’s surface have been flat while greenhouse-gas emissions have continued to soar. The world added roughly 100 billion tonnes of carbon to the atmosphere between 2000 and 2010. That is about a quarter of all the CO₂ put there by humanity since 1750.” If there is a cause and effect between rising carbon dioxide and rising temperatures why have temperatures not risen in 15 years? Scientists cannot yet explain this anomaly.
After reading many scientific and policy papers on climate change one can reasonably conclude the science is not settled. An objective reading of related material reveals there are many unanswered questions, past predictions have been wrong, and modeling may be flawed.
But the fact is that atmospheric carbon dioxide is increasing as the result of human activity. The effect of this increase is not fully known, but the negative effects of using the finite fossil fuel resource as the primary energy source of the world are many. Human beings should make serious efforts to eliminate fossil fuels from use over the next century. Carbon output reduction will be achieved as a consequence of that shift.
The world will not make the kinds of changes needed to lower carbon output adequately over the next century without a major incentive to do so. Too many countries want to develop and they will use the cheapest energy they can find to accomplish desired levels of growth regardless of carbon output.
The U.S. can and should pursue planning that will allow adjustment to moderate rise in temperature and sea level over the next century, but its major emphasis should be in disruptive technologies.
The U.S. should make minor investments to shift its energy base to conventional renewables (wind and solar) and conservation, but its major investment should be in disruptive technologies such as fusion nuclear power, waste annihilating molten salt nuclear reactors, ultracapacitors, fuel cells, distributed power systems, alternative fuel vehicles, etc. Through disruptive technology there is the opportunity to create whole new industries while solving the carbon problem and making the economic case so compelling that the entire world would convert to non-carbon based energies over the next century.