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Climate change clarifications

Published: Wednesday, May 2, 2012 3:53 p.m. CDT • Updated: Wednesday, May 2, 2012 3:57 p.m. CDT

The following guest editorial exceeds the Bureau County Republican’s 500-word limit for Letters to the Editor, therefore, the BCR will offer the same opportunity to someone with an opposing view. Contact BCR Editor Terri Simon at 815-875-4461, ext. 229, before submitting.

Many letters and commentary surrounding the topic of climate change have popped up in the BCR over the past few years. The purpose of this commentary is to add clarity to some of the common opinions and purported facts I have seen.

Before I continue I would like to distinguish between global warming, climate, climate change and weather. Global warming refers to the gradual increase in Earth’s surface temperature. Climate is the long-term trend of temperature, precipitation and other meteorological data. Weather, as distinguished from climate, is short-term variation in the aforementioned variables. Throughout the BCR commentary these terms have been used interchangeably, and for the remainder of this article, global warming refers to human influenced accelerated warming of Earth’s surface temperature.

The first point I would like to make is in regard to the notion that most or all climate scientists have an agenda. I am originally from Princeton but currently am doing my graduate work at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. While my direct area of study is water resources, I have completed a variety of coursework in climate change, and many of my colleagues are climate scientists in some form. Their passion and life’s work is the study of long-term climate patterns and to analyze the driving forces behind those patterns. Contrary to the statements of many of the online commenters, government, so called “elites,” or any other outside agencies, do not influence these climate scientists in any appreciable way. They do not have a huge bankroll, wear high-dollar suits to their lab or have fancy homes. They are scientists doing objective research that is meticulously self-reviewed and peer-reviewed by other scientists regionally and abroad.

To that same point, Kathy Kramer mentions in her April 18 letter that there are 102 scientists that agree “there has been no net global warming for over a decade now.” Firstly, there are 10s of 1,000s of climate scientists and 100s of 1,000s of scientists in other disciplines that have the fundamental scientific background to critically evaluate climate change research. Furthermore, most estimates agree that approximately 97 percent of climate scientists conclude that the climate is warming. Also in regard to Ms. Kramer’s piece, I would like to point out that Steve Goreham’s book is missing many scientific elements. For example, what Goreham sees as his most salient point is that we have seen eight years of global climate cooling, and as a result he concludes that the Earth, then, cannot be warming. By definition, eight years is not a climate time scale. Eight years is simply a succession of weather patterns (temperature, precipitation, atmospheric pressure, etc.) that over a much longer time scale yield climate patterns.

My next point has to do with the extraction of past climate data. Much of the commentary I have seen in the BCR makes general claims that it is impossible to construct a model of Earth’s past climate. This is just simply not true. Scientists have a very specialized tool set for past climate modeling that is referred to as climate proxies. Climate proxies allow for the use of nature indicators and their relationship to climate trends to reconstruct past climate regimes. Tree rings are the simplest example. Climatologists can count the number of tree rings to determine a tree’s age and can use the thickness of the rings to make inferences about temperature and precipitation. Climate proxies such as ice cores and fossil (typically foraminifera) data can reconstruct climate from 100s of 1,000s to 1,000,000s of years ago.

I would also like to delve a bit further into the general climate change/global warming discourse. Our very best estimates, internationally, reviewed by 1,000s of scientists, tell us that there is a 97 percent chance the globe is warming at an accelerated rate due to anthropogenic influences. We also know there is approximately a 3 percent chance the climate isn’t warming and that humans have no influence on global climate patterns. Why would one side with the 3 percent chance?

A common analogy is this: Refuting global warming is like taking your child to be evaluated by 100 medical doctors; 97 doctors tell you your child is ill and needs treatment, while three doctors tell you your child will be just fine and there is nothing you can do. You side with the three doctors because it is the easiest option. Similarly, it appears to me that many commenters in the BCR lack proper sources of information.

Here is my best analogy to this situation: Refuting global warming based on poor information sources is analogous to thinking there is something wrong with your body and not going to the doctor, and instead using the WebMD forums to self-evaluate yourself because you are too afraid to deal with what the consequences of an informed evaluation might mean.

Tom Beneke

Madison, Wis.

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