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A Science Lesson For The Tea Party

Hurricane Irene has come and gone, thankfully without causing as much damage as it might have done, although over five million people, including our East Coast relatives, lost their power supplies and there has been widespread and unseasonal damage. Two things caught my attention this morning as I was writing out cheques for our annual insurance renewals. The first was a statement by Presidential election hopeful Michele Bachman that inferred that the hurricane and the 5.9 earthquake were messages to politicians from God. She said – “I don’t know how much God has to do to get the attention of the politicians. We’ve had an earthquake; we’ve had a hurricane. He said, ‘Are you going to start listening to me here?’”

Meanwhile, Shawn Lawrence Otto, Author of “Fool Me Twice,” filmmaker and Cofounder of Sciencedebate.org, came up with an interesting and much more useful angle on man-made climate change in an article for the Huffington Post.

We’ve watched the debate over man-made climate change (incorrectly branded as “Global Warming”) for years. There seemed to be enough leeway for many sides to expound their theories in the early days, but it didn’t take long for the scientific community to start reaching a consensus. Despite the naysayers, many of whom are directly funded by corporations who don’t want any new emissions control regulations imposed on them, the overwhelming scientific view is that we are seeing changes that can only be as a result of actions by mankind.

Let’s remind ourselves of the main steps that the scientific method involves:

  1. Ask a question – Could man-made actions cause significant climate change?
  2. Conduct background research that helps refine the question(s) – we measure weather in terms of temperature, precipitation, air pressure and unusual meteorological events and there’s plenty of historic data.
  3. Construct a hypothesis – one factor could be the huge increase in greenhouse gases into the atmosphere by industrial and agricultural processes.
  4. Test the hypothesis by conducting experiments: show that increased greenhouse gases in the atmosphere actually lead to temperature increases (this was actually discovered a long time ago); create mathematical models of the Earth’s climate; collect more accurate data about the climate worldwide; and compare the measurements to the predictions.
  5. Analyze all of the data and draw a conclusion – the evidence is overwhelming – mankind is causing climate change and we are starting to see the kinds of results that the models predict.
  6. Communicate your results – which can then be peer reviewed, perhaps leading to the need for new questions, hypotheses, experiments and analyses.

The consensus is now so strong1 that concerned scientists have started trying to educate the people in government and industry who may be able to start reversing the trend. A 2011 letter to the U.S. Congress, signed by 18 leading scientists, said – “We want to assure you that the science is strong and that there is nothing abstract about the risks facing our Nation.”

Let’s take a very simple example. The climate change models predict that as carbon dioxide (CO2) levels increase, the temperature at the surface of the oceans will rise. We’ve seen that happen this summer. The waters as far North as New Jersey have risen to an unprecedented 79-70 degrees Fahrenheit – high enough to sustain major hurricanes. Guess what happened as a result? Hurricane Irene came along and confirmed the prediction. As ocean surface temperatures rise we can expect to see more, possibly more devastating, hurricanes even farther North.

Michele Bachmann, who probably couldn’t explain how a thermometer works, let alone interpret even the simplest climate data, said just over a week ago – “I think all these issues have to be settled on the base of real science, not manufactured science.” She went on to repeat completely bogus arguments against man-made climate change fabricated by an Exxon-funded libertarian. She’s not alone in her denial of the facts. Ninety four of the newly elected GOP members of Congress either deny climate changes exist or have signed a pledge to oppose greenhouse gas cap and trade efforts. They’re either all stupid or being bought by special interests, or perhaps both.

I wonder if they can understand the chart below? Note the almost 3-fold increase in meteorological events since 1980. Atmospheric CO2 levels at Mauna Loa, Hawaii, have risen from 320 to 390 parts per million since 1980, i.e. about 21%. That’s a far larger rise than most climate change models predicted, meaning that the situation may be running out of control.

So, if the politicians, particularly the GOP and Tea Party variants, don’t want to believe it, what could change their minds? What always changes their minds? Being voted out of office or large influxes of campaign funds and post public service benefits. That’s where Shawn Lawrence Otto comes in. He’s suggesting that we wake up the insurance companies to the situation that’s developing. Hurricane Irene was downgraded to a tropical storm, but it still caused an estimated $7 to $20 billion in damage. Once the insurers figure out that, even if they raise premiums to the point where nobody can afford them, their annual losses from meteorological events are going to empty their coffers very quickly, they may start pushing the politicians to do something about the situation.

We know what to do. It’s a matter of choosing the most cost effective measures. Some of them, such as building a sustainable energy system and electric or hydrogen powered transportation, will create jobs. However, let’s not forget that having enough jobs to help rebuild our economy won’t help us if we’re continually recovering from disasters. We have to curb the activities that appear to be causing the problem. That will mean taking on the Koch Brothers and their cronies and disciples.

 1  Sound Science Initiative – “Consensus On Global Warming

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