It is not proper to speak of “climate skeptics,” since all scientists (including we social scientists) are skeptical of all data and theories every day, all the time, and are willing to change our position if enough information and analysis emerges to challenge the old paradigms. But beyond just skeptics, there are always in any debate “contrarians,” people who challenge a theory with little more on their side than radical doubt and deep suspicion, and who unsystematically latch on to every little thing that the theory hasn’t yet accounted for, or which seems to challenge it. Skeptics can be convinced by solid data and argument; contrarians are either harder to convince, or impossible to convince. Some contrarians, as with the billionaire Koch brothers who fund propaganda against climate science, are committed to their position because it is central to their business model.
Climate change skeptics and even some climate change contrarians have increasingly become convinced by the accumulating data that the average surface temperature of the earth is in fact increasing, and that the increase is mainly due to the release by human beings into the atmosphere of masses of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that traps heat from the sun and interferes with it from radiating back out into space.
The latest skeptic to become convinced by the evidence is Richard Muller, a physicist at the University of California Berkeley. Muller was obviously a skeptic and not a contrarian, because he is open to evidence. Ironically, his studies were funded in part by the Ur-contrarians, the Koch brother oil magnates.
Muller’s study analyzed all the weather data available since 1750 and found that the average temperature of the earth increase by 1 degree F. from 1750 to 1850, and has increased another 1.5 degrees since 1850, for a total of 2.5 degrees since the beginnings of the industrial revolution.
Muller looked at various natural causes of temperature variation and found that statistically they could explain only a tiny amount of the changes. In contrast, human carbon dioxide production tracked closely with temperature increases to the extent that it almost complete explains the warming observed, just by itself.
One surprise of Muller’s study is that he was able to show fairly rigorously that the human-generated changes began in a steady way in 1750, not, as many climate historians had thought, in 1850 or even more recently.
Humans had ever since the invention of fire and then agriculture put some extra carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and during times when they burned a lot of trees to clear land for other purposes, they may have caused small temperature spikes. But volcanic rocks and the oceans wash the CO2 back out of the atmosphere if it isn’t in huge quantities, so in the old days humans could only really cause blips. Still, mass deaths of humans, as during the Black Plague or the European-induced epidemics that killed off most of the Native Americans, probably caused colder temperatures for a while in the aftermath.
Since 1750, humans have begun altering the climate in a steady and systematic way, overwhelming the ability of the earth to absorb the CO2 and causing it to build up steadily in the atmosphere, producing long term effects on surface temperature. Human activity in the past 250 years has interrupted and reversed a 2000-year long natural climate tendency toward cooler temperatures. If we go on the way we have been, spewing ever more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, we will produce a tropical planet with no ice on it and will forestall any further ice ages for at least 100,000 years. Since there are places humans now live, such as cities in Sindh, Pakistan, that already reach over 130 degrees F. in the summer, likely the planet we are creating will have large swathes of uninhabitable scorching places on it. Climate change will involve extreme weather events like massive storms, and these in turn may damage the ozone layer, sunburning us all to death.
For a historian, the date 1750 as the beginning of the human-induced Great Warming is full of significance. And that significance is coal.
Britain turned to coal for energy after a long period of intensive forest cutting, which reached its height in the 1600s. Wood and charcoal were used for heating, cooking and industrial processes such as iron-making, and as population grew and recovered from the Black Plague, the British isles were largely deforested. The British then reluctantly turned to coal for energy. Coal is smelly, produces clouds of unpleasant smoke, is relatively expensive to transport, and in every way worse than wood and charcoal. But poor management of forests and substantial population growth (British population doubled 1500-1800 and then tripled in the nineteenth century) pushed people to coal. With the development of a practical high pressure steam engine through the 1700s, coal was adopted as the fuel for these machines.
And off we went on the Great Human Warming experiment, fueled by coal and later on petroleum and natural gas.
One obvious lesson of Muller’s study is that coal should be banned immediately and its mining and distribution should be criminalized. We put people in prison for a little pot, but let the coal industry destroy the earth. A few brave souls are protesting environmentally destructive ways of mining coal. But we should all be protesting the poisonous stuff itself.
By the way, there are only 80,000 workers employed in coal mining in the US. There are 100,000 workers in solar energy and a similar number in wind. I suspect West Virginia and western Pennsylvania could have a lot of jobs in wind turbines, and those states and the federal government should help brave coal workers make the transition.
The other obvious lesson is that we need a global Manhattan project to move to clean energy immediately. We don’t have much time. Carbon dioxide emissions were up 5-6% in 2010. Massive government-funded research and tax breaks could bring down costs of solar and wind quickly and make geothermal more practical. We need to redo the national electricity grid and put hydropumps in hilly or mountainous regions to keep solar- and wind-generated energy flowing during down times. This task has to be our number one priority, more important than fighting a small terrorist organization in distant lands, more important than spending 20 times on the war industries what our closest ally does, more important that imprisoning people for a few tokes, more important than tax breaks for the wealthy, more important than reproductive issues. Our Congress is a latter-day Nero, fiddling while the world burns, and any of them that doesn’t get it should be turned out in November if you care about the fate of your children and grandchildren.
Ronald Reagan used to fantasize that an alien invasion could unite human beings across capitalist and communist systems. Well, Reaganites now have their chance: Climate Change is a kind of alien invasion, threatening the human species, and here is an opportunity to put aside differences and unite to meet the biggest challenge we have faced in our 150,000 years of existence as homo sapiens sapiens. And, yes, this is an issue and a research that could and should unite Arabs and Israelis, both of them among the peoples most endangered by climate change (Egypt’s delta and Tel Aviv won’t be there after a while if we go on like this).
What we are doing in this generation and the next to the earth will affect it for tens of thousands of years, and we could well be putting our survival as a species at risk. We are certainly likely to kill off most other species. Unfortunately, the worst consequences of our current high-carbon way of life won’t be visible for a hundred years or more. I suppose if we’re unable to look that far ahead as a species, or if we let a few Oil billionaires boss us around, it could be argued that we deserve to go the way of the dodo. But I believe in human beings more than that, and believe it is possible for us to mobilize around this task.