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The Hot Air About Global Climate Change

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When it comes to science, the scientific process, and specifically the climate issue, most people are unfortunately ignorant. Case in point. The proper term is global climate change—not global warming.

Global climate change has two, basic components:

These terms are often incorrectly thrown around on news reports, in political discussions, and on talk radio. Sometimes they are intentionally misused to mislead the general public. However, these three terms should never be used as synonyms.

Satellite view of the almost 1000-mile wide Hurricane Sandy on the Eastern United States on Oct. 29, 2012. Image courtesy of NOAA.

The terms global warming and climate change are also sometimes used interchangeably by some scientists and politicians (like Al Gore). By mixing these terms in such a way, I believe they do a disservice to the understanding of climate processes.

What is Global Climate Change?

In short, global climate change is the accelerated change and alteration in Earth’s natural climate cycle. This change is brought about by an increase in average temperatures within the lowest layer of the Earth’s atmosphere—from which the term global warming is derived. Global warming, in turn, is the result of an increase in trapped heat energy caused by a build up of certain gases–both from natural and human-made sources–within the lowest two layers of the atmosphere. This is the greenhouse effect.

This is climate change in a nutshell. Without the solar-heat-trapping help of the greenhouse gases in the lowest two layers of the atmosphere, the Earth would be too cold to support the level of life that currently exists. But, as the concentration of key greenhouse gases increases as a result of human activity, the lowest part of our atmosphere warms faster than would be the case if just naturally occurring and produced greenhouse gases were the solo cause. This results in Earth’s natural climate cycle being thrown out of whack.

It’s Global Cooling, You Know!

Non-scientists who have an agenda–for example, certain radio talk show hosts–ignorantly (or irresponsibly) misuse the term global warming for their biased political purposes. The problem with their razor-like logic is that they do not know what they are talking about—or they are selectively choosing their data and terms to misled the public.

By focusing on the term global warming, they can then refer to all sorts of “evidence” that xyz has just had a record-cold winter, or that abc’s average (surface) temperatures have moderated over the last decade. So obviously, the Earth is not warming. It is getting colder. It is global cooling!

Up Above More Than Down Below

When scientists speak of global warming, they are not directly referring to the changes in surface temperatures over the decades (or millennia). Instead they are referring to overall changes in the temperature of Earth’s lowest atmospheric layer, the troposphere—where most of the planet’s weather occurs.

The troposphere has an average depth of 7.5 miles (ranging from 4 miles to 12 miles in thickness). It begins at our planet’s surface and extends above the altitude of commercial jetliners. Scientists studying global warming measure the temperature in the troposphere at many different places around the global. The measurements come from higher up in the troposphere and not from the surface—although land and water surface temperatures are useful for other reasons.

There are some researches who have claimed that anthropogenic global climate change is not real since the average temperature increase in the troposphere is not as great as the average rise in surface temperature. They say that satellite and weather balloon data backs this up.

However, that research has been peer reviewed and fatal flaws discovered. Here is a layperson’s article on the subject. If you are a scientist, you can search out the sources yourself and read the actual research.

The Scientific Process Has No Agenda

Those against the preponderance of scientifically, peer-reviewed evidence are simply ignorant or have ulterior motives. The scientific process has no agenda. It has worked very well for decades, bringing us many wonderful advances in medicine and technology.

Although the scientific process does not have an agenda, it is clear that some scientists (on both sides of any issue) do. All fields of study experience this unfortunate phenomena. This is inevitable. Some proponents of a theory, a belief, become so fervent in their world view that they act in unethical ways.

When it comes to the politically-charged issue of climate change, unethical behavior on both sides not only hurts the inexorable crawl of the scientific process, but also confuses the general public who has little understanding about the science behind the claims.

But, the scientific process itself is sound. The best discernible truth, at a given snapshot in time, is eventually determined. It is not necessarily the final truth. It is the best fit to the collected body of data given the then current understanding of all the numerous variables. As current processes are better understood, and new ones discovered, the underlying framework in a given scientific field improves. Here is a great example.

Hotter, Colder, Wetter, Drier

As the global climate changes, areas of the Earth will be affected in different ways. Some surface areas may experience colder than usual temperatures for a time. Some areas hotter than usual. Some may be drier, while others wetter. The weather patterns may become more erratic, sometimes even more severe. The affect of global climate change may be more pronounced in some years, and not apparent in others. So, just because there are stretches of time when hurricane activity or intensity does not live up to the hype, as an example, does not mean that the science is incorrect.

Over time, though, the climate will become more unpredictable as a result of the affects of the increase in tropospheric temperature. Those increases will impact the average surface temperature, causing it to slowly rise. Change may continue to occur in all directions, although the general trend over time will be an increasing average surface temperature.

Global climate change is simply about the rate of natural climate fluctuations being exacerbated by human activity. If we do not successfully ameliorate the impact that human activity is having on that rate of change, then the climate will continue to change at an accelerating rate, causing all sorts of potentially undesirable impacts to our planet and society.

You’re Grounded

Global warming is not something that is directly discernible by assessing the changes in surface temperatures over the decades. That is because global warming is a phenomena that occurs in the troposphere, not on the surface of the planet. But global climate change–the combined impact of the greenhouse effect and global warming–is something that can be measured in part by changes in surface and water temperature.

Science can discern a lot about the rate of global climate change by studying surface phenomena—ice cores, lake sediments, carbon content in ancient soil layers, and ocean temperatures and acidification. These studies can help to establish the previous rate of climate change and the natural fluctuations of our climate in the past. The study of air trapped in ice cores and of ocean acidity can help establish a reasonable picture of carbon dioxide concentrations over time.

I’m Not a Scientist. How Am I to Know the Truth?

If you are a trained scientist and can take the time to understand the underlying climate processes and theories, I encourage you to do so. You should read select research papers, assessing the studies’ methodologies, quality of data sets, analyses, and conclusions.

But if you are not a trained scientist, then reading peer-reviewed research papers will be of little help. So, the question is, How can the average citizen with poor scientific literacy know the truth?

That is a difficult answer. The best advice I can give is to not listen to politicians, general news reports, or radio talk show hosts. You need to listen to the real experts. You need to have faith in science.

Consider this thought. You wouldn’t go to your local congressman or radio station to have a medical issue diagnosed. Nor would you go to your local church or political rally to have your computer fixed. Medicine and technology are the happy outcomes of sound, scientific research. They are not the result of opinion.

The scientific process can never be perfect, but it strives to discern the truth. If the majority of scientists in a given field have determined something to be the probable truth, then it is a safe bet to accept their conclusions.

It is true that there are a number of examples of scientists, considered rogue at the time, whose “crazy” theories have turned out to be true. Those are perfect examples of the beauty of the scientific process.

As technologies and fundamental understandings improve, the accuracy of the body of science improves as well. Outlying theories that have merit can be reassessed, retested. If they turn out to be valid, they will eventually be accepted by the scientific community—although it may not be within the lifetime of the “rogue” scientist.

The Answer is…

The current preponderance of scientific evidence strongly points to a human-induced acceleration in the rate of change and alteration of Earth’s natural climate cycle.

This issue is being thoroughly researched and debated within the scientific community. If the consensus view is that anthropogenic climate change is real and poses tangible dangers to our way of life, then it is wise to accept this as the truth. It is better to be conservative and side with the science than liberally assume that the slim minority opinion is correct.

As a trained scientist, I have taken the time to read enough of the research and to fully understand the processes in question (to the best of my ability). I have decided to side with the consensus view, the view that the natural rate of climate fluctuation is being thrown off balance by anthropogenic causes.

It’s Global Climate Change

So, the next time you hear someone decry global warming, insisting instead that the planet is actually experiencing global cooling, you’ll know the flaws in their logic. And the next time you talk about this issue, please use the correct term—global climate change.

Related Posts:
Big Snow Equals Global Cooling, What?

Updates:

November 17, 2010: How an agenda distorts the truth. Do 80 percent of Scientific American subscribers deny global warming? Hardly.

November 19, 2010: This is another great example of the beauty and power of the scientific process. A balanced response to a report that says ocean acidification may not be much of an issue.

Article Comments

  1. Andrea_r says:

    I almost used the term earlier today. 🙂 It got up over 7 C outside here in eastern Canada, which is unseasonably warm, and not during our “January thaw”.

    • Jeff Sayre says:

      I, too, occasionally catch myself using the improper term. Of course, sometimes the topic is actually about global warming, and then I find myself thinking twice before using that term as well!

      The global climate is a vastly-complex system. Although the apparent overall trend is a warming lower atmosphere, the weather patterns that that produces are greatly varied. Just as you hear one report of record lows somewhere, you hear another for record highs.

      We had zero snow in October and November, and only a couple of inches in December. That is unseasonable for our specific area of the county. But further south in our state, there were areas with record snow.

  2. “Those against the preponderance of scientifically, peer-reviewed evidence are simply ignorant or have ulterior motives.”

    Right, anyone who doesn’t agree with your “consensus” should be shouted down. You don’t understand the first thing about the scientific process.

    • Jeff Sayre says:

      Peter, it would be better for you to debate, and to be civil, rather than launch a personal attack

      You don’t understand the first thing about the scientific process.

      That’s correct. I know nothing about the scientific process. My training as a molecular microbiologist, years of doing research in a lab, and my several years as a professionally-practicing restoration ecologist taught me nothing about the process.

      Right, anyone who doesn’t agree with your “consensus” should be shouted down.

      The consensus is not mine, as you suggest. It is the current conclusion after tens of thousands of research projects have gone through the scrutiny of peer-review, having been tested, debated, retested, and re-analyzed.

      I said nothing about anyone’s research being “shouted down.” You are jumping to the typical conclusion and making the typical argument. Research stands on its own. In fact, in support of alternate theories, I stated above:

      It is true that there are a number of examples of scientists, considered rogue at the time, whose “crazy” theories have turned out to be true. Those are perfect examples of the beauty of the scientific process.

      As technologies and fundamental understandings improve, the accuracy of the body of science improves as well. Outlying theories that have merit can be reassessed, retested. If they turn out to be valid, they will eventually be accepted by the scientific community—although it may not be within the lifetime of the “rogue” scientist.

      My point is about the scientific process, itself—over which I have no control. It sounds like you are talking politics. The politics in science is causing great harm in some fields—especially in the politically-charged field of climate change when it comes to policy.

      I do not have any vested interest in one particular “answer” or the other. If after rigorous scrutiny, debate, and retesting, it turns out that part or even all of the current conclusions are inaccurate, that is fine. I’m not in it to pad my career, grab media attention, of force my beliefs on anyone.

      I, like everyone else who is not doing research in this broad topic, have choices. If an individual is not a scientist, they can either blindly accept whatever they want, or they can try to educate themselves about the underlying processes and theories and make an informed decision. If an individual is a scientist, they can dig into the research, postulate alternate, testable hypotheses, and attempt to disprove the results, to show that the science is flawed.

      Of course, people can choose to go against the current consensus if they wish. That is their prerogative. But if they do, they should not do so blindly. When it comes to science and medicine, it can be a big mistake to accept a minority’s view just on belief. It is usually the more conservative, safer approach, to stick with the consensus and let science do its job over time.

      Personally, I have dug into the research and have decided to side with the consesus on this issue. I monitor research in this area closely, trying my best to keep up with the process as it advances us toward a better understanding of the truth.

  3. American Yak says:

    I have no doubt the earth is undergoing change — this is a constant — all things change with time. How? To what degree? I don’t know; I wouldn’t assert any authority on the matter.

    What does bother me, however, is how it’s more politically correct, say, to work toward a greener earth rather than a moral one. Just a thought.

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