The Denial of Climate Change
President Donald Trump proclaimed he was withdrawing the US from the Paris climate accord, a sweeping step that fulfills a campaign promise while acutely dampening global efforts to curb global warming.
In his speech he made quite a few factual inaccuracies about climate science, but it wasn’t picked up on in Republican media. This is because right-wing news has spent a good amount of money and effort on a misinformation campaign to muddy the waters around man-made climate change.
This makes things extremely difficult and next to impossible to talk to conservatives about man-made climate change because they are playing with alternative facts.
So we would like to walk everyone through the link between CO2 emissions and climate change, so if you are ever confronted in an argument you’ll have a better understanding of why the climate denialist is a complete fool, review some common rebuttals, and it’s actually very cool and interesting stuff to know.
If you are looking for evidence then you don’t have to look any farther than the vast amount of scientific literature spanning back over a century that has the overwhelming scientific evidence that carbon dioxide [CO2] in the atmosphere is the primary driver of a rate of climate change that this planet has never before seen in millions of years.
The science, in short, says the following. CO2 lets through short wave light, the kind that passes through our atmosphere, but traps long wave radiation, the kind that gets reflected from the surface and travels back into space. This extra heat retained in the atmosphere warms the planet.
So let’s start at the beginning and talk about the science behind CO2 in the atmosphere.
Science has been aware for over 150 years that carbon in the atmosphere will retain heat. The year was 1859 to be exact, and it was scientist John Tyndall who made the discovery that carbon in the atmosphere trapped heat. Since his discovery every observation in climate science has reinforced this finding.
You could actually see this in a laboratory today, should your local university have the equipment. You can watch a scientist pump air into an artificial chamber, and see them shine an infrared light through the sample. Carbon dioxide absorbs infrared light very efficiently, so the amount of infrared absorbed can be used to calculate the amount of CO2 in the sample.
Or you can try an experiment yourself at home!
Then in 1896 Svante Arrhenius calculated that, based a simple principle of physics, higher levels of CO2 in the atmosphere would raise global temperatures. Arrhenius was the first to use basic principles of physical chemistry to calculate the extent to which increases in CO2 atmospheric will increase Earth’s surface temperature through the greenhouse effect.
In fact, the formula he developed was so accurate it is still used today. These calculations led him to conclude that human-caused CO2 emissions, from fossil-fuel burning and other combustion processes, are large enough to cause global warming.
In order for any climate denialist to win their argument, they’ll need to first successfully dispute these two very easily provable facts.
Instead, these two discoveries are the cornerstones of climate science, in 150 years have yet to be disputed, and instead continues to be confirmed by observation. Once again, these are not controversial but proven a thousand times over.
Our Carbon Output
How do we know for sure that humans are the cause of more CO2 in the air? The answer is so simple and irrefutable, isotopes.
For those who might be a little rusty on chemistry, there are different types of a same element, called isotopes, which are differentiated by the number of neutrons.
So what scientist can do is look at the ration between Carbon-12 (which has 6 neutrons if you are playing at home) and Carbon-13 (which has 7 neutrons). What they do is look at the ratio between the amounts of C12 and C13 in fossil fuels, and they have found all fossil fuels have a common ratio, being from dead plants millions of years ago.
They then look at current C12/C13 ratio in plants today and track it over time. What the scientist see is a very recent and dramatic shift from what was our “normal” high C12/C13 ratio in plants down to a lower ratio closer to that is found in fossil fuels.
Thus proving a link.
There are many other methods of proving humans are the cause of carbon output. For example looking at the amount of carbon burned into the atmosphere, which has increased, and comparing that to the trend of carbon and oxygen in the atmosphere over centuries. And that has shown a recent drop in oxygen in the atmosphere.
The human fingerprint on climate change is easily provable, you just have to take the time to look at the science.
While there are still a lot of questions left about the exact rate climate change will happen and what the precise effects will be, there is no doubt it is happening and humans are causing the Earth’s climate to change at a rate never before seen.
This site has compiled a list of just a handful of the published scientific papers of laboratory measurements of CO2 absorption properties, ranging from 1861 all the way up to 2008.
Knowing this evidence, and much much more, scientist reached a consensus a long time ago that CO2 is indeed a contributor to global warming.
Again, you can read all of this stuff yourselves, the evidence is there for you.
And just to reiterate here, Donald Trump and other climate denialist’s acceptance of science predates the presidency of Abraham Lincoln, the American Civil War, and the First Transcontinental Railroad. This is the equivalent trying to attack a state-of-the-art military drone with a Civil War era musket.
Appendix: Typical Denialist Responses
1. It’s a hoax invented by the Chinese!
What is lost to some people here is science isn’t some closed off secret conspiracy. You can read every scientific paper ever written yourself, in many cases for free, and perform the tests yourself and see if you can come to the same conclusions.
In fact scientists want this, it’s called “peer review”, it happens all the time and is part of the scientific method. If results can’t be recreated then the findings do not get accepted by the scientific community.
So go. Do your research and submit your work to a scientific journal and prove everyone wrong. We’ll wait. (No we won’t.)
2. But the Earth has been this warm before!
It’s not about the warmth that scientists are concerned about, but the rate of warming, which we have never before seen.
3. It’s a trick by scientists to get rich!
This is a stupid conspiracy theory that some have put forth that it is more likely a small group of scientists are spending their limited operating budgets in a massive conspiracy theory to create a hoax and ruin the economy.
That’s just a tad silly.
Like seriously, when you think of a climate scientist is the first image that pops in your head is some nerd in a labcoat with a Maserati and a massive mansion with a swimming pool full of cash? Probably not.
4. We didn’t have record keeping that went back thousands of years!
True, but check this guy out. He’s an ice core sample:
This is just one of the many types of “proxy data” that scientists use to take a look into the past.
See those zebra stripes? Pairs of dark and light areas? That is actually one year of trapped snow and ice, the light one is summer and the darker one is winter, and inside are tiny pockets of trapped air from that year.
What scientists can do is start off and look at recent years, see what parts-per-million carbon, methane, and other gases are trapped in the air bubbles. Then through calculations known as a model, make predictions about the makeup of those air bubbles for this year and the next. If those predictions are accurate, and others double-check the and come to the same conclusions, then they have a working scientific model they can use to test all of the remaining previous years.
Some of the longest ice core samples go back 800,000 years and are hoping to get one that is 1.5 million years, so scientists can indeed have a very accurate snapshot of the temperatures and greenhouse gas emissions of an area long before humans existed.
5. Every ice age was ended by global warming without help from man
That’s true, but it also doesn’t refute any of the climate science above. In fact, the only way you knew about ice ages and why they ended is through the same measurements and tests that unequivocally prove climate change is happening and humans are the primary driving force for a rate never before seen.
6. It’s snowing outside! So much for “global warming!”
Hahah! Hahaha! Hahaha! Oh you’re so effing funny. Hahah! Oh what a joker you are! Hahaha! You know what else is hilarious? Your willful ignorance of the English language and not recognizing there is a clear difference between “weather” “and climate“.
Here’s a video for kids to help you understand that weather is the state of the atmosphere right now, and climate is a trend of weather over a very long period of time. And if you watch the entire thing you get a sticker and a cookie!
7. I’m a science skeptic not a science denialist! I just haven’t seen any evidence that proves climate change!
No, you’re a denialist. It’s good to be skeptical, it’s good to approach new information critically, but there is an other side of skepticism that you are completely ignoring.
If someone presents evidence with a stronger veracity than your currently held information or belief, then you admit you are wrong and accept the new information.
That is why you are a science denialist.