Global Warming Simplified: Climate Change, Timescales, and Statistics

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yearly  temperature anomaly chart

The yearly temperature anomaly for the last 150 years from two sources: US National Climate Data Center and UK Climate Research Unit. Courtesy of NOAA

There is no dispute among knowledgeable and unbiased scientists that climate change is occurring.

Why, then, is there still ambivalence on the part of the public about how to respond?

Partly it’s because there are powerful vested interests determined to obfuscate the obvious; partly it’s because it can be difficult to sort out fact from fiction.

Debates tend to devolve into a shouting match between the extremes of the political and economic spectrum. Science can get lost in the cacophony.

Here’s what comes out when the subject of global warming/climate change is broken apart and simplified.

Just The Facts, Ma’m

The long and short of it is that the temperature of the atmosphere is a degree (F) warmer than it was a hundred years ago, and the ocean is a foot higher.

Burning coal, oil, and natural gas — fossil fuels — releases carbon dioxide.

Models of the atmosphere which incorporate increasing amounts of carbon dioxide predict precisely the results we observe: Higher temeperatures on a global average, greater persistence of weather patterns, (Remember the Omega Block that wouldn’t leave?) and more weather extremes such as unseasonable cold snaps this September.

The convergence of theory and observation leaves virtually every impartial earth scientist convinced of the reality of climate change caused primarily by the burning of fossil fuels.

Atmospheric carbon dioxide record for the last 400,000 years

Atmospheric carbon dioxide record for the last 400,000 years, courtesy of NASA

Look Over There!

Powerful corporations, which have an interest in continuing quarter-to-quarter profits regardless of the consequences, have used disingenuous and downright dishonest tactics to obscure the clear harm that their activities are doing to the planet.

Statistics can be used to show virtually anything, and in this case it is easy to muddy the clear waters of truth.

The Scale Of Climate Change

The earth has, at times in the past, been both colder and warmer than it is today.

This fact is used by climate-change deniers to argue that the recent temperature changes are a result of natural cycles. Unfortunately, this is an inaccurate comparison, as natural climate cycles take tens of thousands of years at the least.

The recent change in temperature of the atmosphere-ocean system is unprecedented. In a thousand years, the temperature will rise ten degrees at the current rate of increase (which itself has been increasing). Such an increase has never happened in less than ten thousand years.

Climate Change: Here’s An Example Of The Misuse Of Statistics

Suppose you have a theory that because of the orbit and inclination of the earth relative to the equatorial plane, the temperature will rise during the spring in the northern hemisphere. Now let’s look at the observations. Every year the temperature rises between the beginning of April and the end of the month.

Now suppose someone wants to make the case that the temperature actually falls in April. He can point to the temperature record for almost any day between 8 p.m. and 5 a.m. During the night, the temperature almost always falls. The same kind of chicanery is going on with the citing of temperature records by those who disagree with the theory of manmade climate change.

1998 was an exceptionally warm year. In fact, it was the warmest year on record (2014 is on track to surpass it) due to a very powerful El Niño. Interestingly, those who disagree with the climate change theory seem to inevitably start their measurement of temperature change with 1998. That way, whatever period of time they use, the temperature appears to be falling.

In fact, a properly smoothed temperature graph from the start of the industrial revolution to the present shows an unabated rise, just as a properly smoothed record of April temperatures shows a steady rise.

Short Term Fluctuations In The Earth-Atmosphere System

Temperatures fluctuate. There are well-defined periods, such as daily or yearly; and there are less certain ones, such as El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO). As long as nay-sayers can pick their spots and start their temperature record where they choose, or truncate it wherever they like, there will be data presented that paints a distorted picture of the temperature trend over the most recent century.

The Future of The Climate

Maybe all the scientists are wrong. It’s not likely, but it has happened before. Nevertheless, there is grave danger in ignoring what the climate is telling us.

The fact is that the general circulation of the atmosphere is not well understood. What we do know is that the climate has been very different in the past. Of its own accord, the climate would indeed change very substantially — but over many millennia. Humanity has now begun a process that is without precedent in climatic history, and which could spiral out of control in a short time.

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