By Heidi Sonen and Roscoe Shaw
May was colder than normal for the fifth month in a row and 13 of the last 15 months have been colder than normal. The first five months of 2014 were the coldest such stretch in history in the United States, and Lake Superior is still full of ice chunks. So where’s global warming when you need it?
Heidi and I try to avoid talking about global warming. The topic has become so horrendously politicized that just opening our mouths will make half of the people hate us. Since we tend to fall somewhere in the middle on this issue, everyone will hate us! That’s not much fun in a small town.
But, we will be foolish and answer a few FAQs.
Is Global Warming Real or a Hoax?
Greenhouse Theory was very real and accepted long before it was political. The basic theory says that burning fossil fuels will release carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere and that will warm the planet. Some folks clearly use this for political reasons, but it’s not a “hoax.”
So, do all scientists agree on this ?
All scientists agree that the earth has warmed and climate is changing, and most agree that humans are at least partly responsible. Other than that, we fight like cats and dogs. The people who claim that “the science is settled” are dead wrong.
While the public debate focuses on “Is climate change real?” the scientific debate is mainly between “alarmists” and “lukewarmers.”
The “alarmists” generally believe than global warming is happening very fast and will be catastrophic and we must act quickly.
The “lukewarmers” generally believe that changes have been tiny, the forecasts have been poor, our knowledge of the science is woefully incomplete, and drastically cutting fossil fuel use will have little impact but great cost.
Both groups are well represented among legitimate scientists.
Why is this so political ?
That’s a mystery. When Heidi and I were in college, we only knew one climatologist, and he never got any research funding and climate science was the most boring thing on earth. Now these folks are rock stars who drive the funding machine and write books and consult for movies and think tanks. Follow the money trail and you will see plenty of political motivation on all sides. This is why we try to focus on science and ignore the politics.
When Al Gore or Rush Limbaugh talk about this, the mute button is your best option.
Hasn’t UVA been swept up in the politics ?
Yes, embarrassingly so. In a nutshell, Patrick Michaels was the longtime state climatologist and did a good job at a position that has little to do with climate change. He held scientific views that were unpopular among Virginia Democrats and he was forced out of his state climatologist position. Michaels then retired from UVA.
Then, when Republicans regained the governorship, Ken Cuccinelli went after former Virginia professor Michael Mann for fraud relating to climate research that was unpopular among Virginia Republicans. Dr. Mann moved on to our alma mater, Penn State.
Mann and Michaels hold wildly different views on global warming. Somehow, they both worked together here in Charlottesville. Both have PhDs and credentials strong enough to do research at the nation’s finest universities. Both have forceful personalities. Their scientific views go way back before the public cared, so they are clearly motivated by personal scientific viewpoint and not politics or money.
Both were persecuted for their scientific opinions, and that is not only embarrassing but also extremely detrimental to the scientific truth.
Back to the science. How much has the climate changed?
There is no way to know for sure how much humans have changed the climate. But the scientific consensus estimate is that temperatures are about 1° F higher and sea level is about two inches higher than if humans had never walked the earth.
What if I trade my SUV for a Prius?
Cutting energy consumption has a lot of economic and ecological benefit but it won’t help much with temperature. If everyone in the United States completely stopped using all energy forever beginning today, the global temperature would be about 0.08°F cooler by the year 2050.
What about all the horrible, extreme storms?
So far, there has been no increase in extreme weather… floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, drought, heat waves, etc. People find that impossible to believe considering the constant drumbeat of wild weather on television every night. But the data show that weather has always been crazy. An increase in extreme storms remains a theoretical research concern and not an observed reality.
Aren’t we a lot hotter here in Virginia?
Actually, no. The earth has warmed a bit but Virginia has not. Our local temperatures (see graph) have been trending lower for the last 100 years, including the last 30.
What’s the bottom line?
That’s not clear. The science is split and the public is split and our friends that we went to school with are split. The last 15 years have brought an explosion of new CO2 emissions from China, yet the climate has stubbornly refused to warm. Many view this as very good news, but others are furious that the warming hiatus has weakened support for action.
For now, the fight goes on. But only time and science will resolve the issue, regardless of what the politicians say.
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