Climate Change Questions, Answers, and Myths
(Q, A, and M)
Q Is climate change human-caused?
A The overwhelming majority of climate scientists are now quite certain that climate change is human-caused. To see the data for yourself go to https://www.ucsusa.org/climate. The only folks now voicing doubt either (1) have a monetary stake in the fossil fuel industry, or (2) want to use climate change to sow division in the country - for power, monetary gain, etc., or (3) are afraid to change their lifestyle, or (4) have publicly stated their reasons to resist the facts. The psychological impact of admitting one’s mistakes or invoking shame is not to be underestimated. We need compassion and diplomacy when discussing our differences if we want to effectively address the climate emergency.
Q All of this climate change nonsense is based on computer models. How accurate can these be? They could all be totally wrong!
A Bridge design, airplane design, the strength of components used in cars… all currently rely on computer modeling. Engineering the functionality of such complex systems is now beyond the scope of slide rules, calculators, and gut feel. Predicting long-term climate change is no different. A good scientist will admit that he or she can not be 100 percent certain of their predictions, but looking backwards at the consensus estimates of past climate predictions, modeling has shown pretty good agreement with present climate indicators (global average temperature, ocean pH, changes in frequency and severity of extreme weather). Computer modeling of the climate isn’t perfect - but it has a great track record!
Q Why would a couple of degrees C matter? I like warmer weather anyway…
A The atmosphere is much thinner than we feel it is. The diameter of the earth is roughly 8000 miles, but the thickness of the atmosphere, for all intents and purposes, is only 60 miles. That is an extremely thin layer with very little volumetric reserve, ie, there’s really not that much air. A small perturbation can mess up the way the winds blow, the way the ice caps stay frozen, the way the ocean currents flow… and that is what we are seeing today. Fires, droughts, more intense hurricanes, rising sea levels, food supply disruptions, more flooding. Changes, both warmer and colder, can become more regionally concentrated, and that creates more violent outcomes.
Here in California, the average temperature has risen by about 1.8C over pre-industrial times. It doesn’t seem like a large amount, but this temperature rise has resulted in a significant increase in the average “drying power” of the air. That has contributed to drier soils and drier vegetation, which is part of why wildfires are getting worse and lasting longer.
Q The climate has always changed. We know that there have been ice ages in the past - what’s the big deal?
A The climate has changed in the past, but never at such a fast rate. With such an abrupt change, slowly-reproducing organisms like vertebrates (us) can not possibly adapt quickly enough to the change. However, insects, bacteria, viruses - the species with short lifespans and large reproductive rates - will all adapt much quicker and compete with us and most other species for available resources like food. Even without this phenomenon, the locations of arable land will shift relatively quickly, causing mass starvation and migration in some areas. Mass human migration will be a huge test for civilization.
Over human history, small changes in the regional climate contributed to dramatic changes in human civilization. Archeologic evidence points towards relatively small and slow changes in the regional climates driving the collapse of cultures such as the Anasazi and Aztecs.
During the “Little Ice Age” of the last millenium, the earth saw a drop of around 2C, and the worst of it lasted around 100 years. It produced crop failures, famines and a large-scale reordering of societies (weakening European feudalism, for example). Even small changes in climate can have huge effects on human civilization, if they happen fast.
M Solar, wind, geothermal energy sources are not nearly as cheap as fossil fuels, and we desperately need cheap fuels for our economy to survive.
A Fossil fuels are subsidized by governments at a global annual rate of around 6 trillion dollars per year, representing about 7% of global GDP! Fossil fuels just seem cheaper, because fossil fuel interests have successfully outsourced a lot of their costs (economic and human health).
Without subsidies of any kind, wind and solar energy are now cheaper than fossil fuels. Since 2010, the cost of solar power and lithium-battery technology has fallen by more than 85 percent, the cost of wind power by more than 55 percent. The International Energy Agency recently predicted that solar power would become “the cheapest source of electricity in history,” and a report by Carbon Tracker found that 90 percent of the global population lives in places where new renewable power would be cheaper than new dirty power. As adoption of alternatives continues to increase, economies of scale will reduce renewable energy costs even further.
What IS true is that we will need high energy density fuels for things like airplanes, tractors, and worldwide shipping. Many countries are working on ways to use solar energy to produce hydrocarbons, which would be a closed-carbon cycle fuel. Hydrogen can be easily produced using solar electricity, and this can be burned or otherwise used as fuel for many industries. We have many energy technologies to choose from… just not the political will to make the changes.
M When the sun doesn’t shine, or the wind doesn’t blow, these renewable energies are useless.
A Energy storage solutions are coming on-line at a fast rate and include batteries, hydrogen, and the oldest kind of renewable energy storage: hydro (in the form of pumped hydro). In addition, a great deal of work is going into making the electrical grid more resilient and nimble. When different parts of the country are connected, the availability of surpluses in some areas will help balance the needs of other areas.
There is also a near-term possibility of using nuclear power to provide back-up. This is controversial, but we may decide that it will be needed for a while until we have all renewable systems worked-out.
Fossil fuel energy sources such as petroleum and fossil (“natural”) gas were also not useful until technologies were developed to refine, transport, store and distribute them. That took a bit of time as well, but the lack of such technology at the time didn’t mean fossil fuels weren’t going to be useful.
M If emerging economies like China and India are using fossil fuels, what the U.S. does is meaningless.
A The per-capita carbon budget for each person in the U.S. is one of the highest in the world. The changes that we make here will have the highest impact on global CO2 reduction. Also, the U.S. will have NO international bargaining power or leadership (not to mention economic opportunity) in solving the climate crisis worldwide unless we get our own house in order first. Another way to put this is: If the wealthiest and most powerful nation on Earth (us) can’t lead on climate, who could? If we lead, others will follow.
Incidentally, China and India ARE making incredible strides in reducing their carbon dependency. According to the NY Times, China is already installing nearly as much renewable capacity as the entire rest of the world combined. It is also manufacturing 85 percent of the world’s solar panels and selling about half of all electric vehicles purchased worldwide. Those who lead this transition will win the long-term economic prosperity game. Fossil fuels are, ultimately, finite.
M I am totally overwhelmed by all of the existential crises facing us already! Pandemics, crazy politics and world unrest, racial inequities, roadside litter, climate… I just have no bandwidth left to make meaningful changes. I need the stability of my current lifestyle right now.
A OK, we get it. We all feel it. But any change in the right direction will create momentum. Changes can be small or large, but they ALL help. And remember - previous generations have all faced serious existential threats and made incredible sacrifices to get through them. So WRSF Scientists have created a couple of “easiest to hardest” lists that describe changes we all can make. The hope is that these will create “tipping points” in human behavior that can really swing outcomes in a short time. If you need proof that this happens, we can look to Norway, where price subsidies and the installation of public car chargers have created a 60% market share of new electric car sales. In the UK, the elimination of government coal subsidies has driven coal-powered electricity from 40% of the national makeup to 1% in 10 years. Large changes can happen quickly if the right motivation and momentum combine. You can find our suggestions HERE.
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