Yesterday, I went with a friend to see James Balog’s famed documentary, Chasing Ice. It had already shown in Ottawa, but unfortunately I’d missed it. But thankfully it came back for a second showing and I made sure to see it. I just wish I’d had the time to get a bunch of people together to see it. As a scientist myself, it’s the kind of documentary I wish EVERYONE would see. The message in that documentary is stark and I think any climate change doubter would be hard-pressed to refute the visual evidence presented in Chasing Ice.
I know climate change is a very controversial topic – still. The acerbic debates over the existence of climate change seem to have died down. The number of scientist speaking out against the data, saying that climate change is bunk, has dwindled from a vocal minority to nearly none. I think the debate has shifted away from whether climate change is real to a focus on the causes of climate change. Those are two distinct questions.
Is climate change real? I don’t think it’s possible to refute this anymore, at least not with a cogent and reasonable argument. Enough data have been amassed to show the patterns. The problem is that the average person doesn’t relate to data. If science doesn’t get packaged into a form that is understandable and digestible by the general public, then (in my view) some of the value of that science is lost. As scientists, it is our job to ensure that the public can understand the results of our research and the implications for their lives.
I think James Balog’s idea of letting glaciers tell the story of climate change, through still images and videos is absolutely brilliant. Most people can’t relate to statistics on changes in carbon dioxide concentrations over time. Parts per million by volume means virtually nothing to the average person. But watching a chunk of glacier bigger than Manhattan break off and roll into the ocean is something we can all relate to. The old adage that a picture is worth a thousand words still rings true.
Have a look at this trailer to Chasing Ice. See the largest glacier calving ever recorded….
I hear people say that they either believe or do not believe in climate change and global warming. Climate change is not about belief. It is about science. It is about data that show that it exists. Religion is about beliefs. Science is not. Science is about understanding what the data tell us – is our global climate changing. I just can’t see how people can answer no to that question anymore. I’m middle aged – old enough to look back on the climate in the city I grew up in – Ottawa, Ontario, Canada – and tell you that the climate here now is different then it was 40-some years ago. Yes, the changes have happened within my lifetime.
I think the bigger debate now is about the causes of climate change. Data have shown that the earth naturally goes through periods of climate change. Temperature and carbon dioxide concentration are highly positively correlated – in other words, they are tightly linked. As one goes up, so does the other. As one goes down, so does the other.
But the tools of science have allowed for the sampling of the earth’s atmosphere through the study of ice cores. An ice core is much like a tree ring. It captures changes over time. Where the width of a tree ring can tell us about the growing conditions during a given year, sampling the air bubbles trapped in an ice core can tell us about the nature of the earth’s atmosphere hundreds of thousands of years ago. But what the data show, is that since the Industrial Revolution, global carbon dioxide concentrations have spiked. Over the past 400,ooo years of the earth’s history, carbon dioxide concentrations have repeatedly been as high as 275 parts per million by volume (ppmv). But data show that the earth is currently far above that concentration and is on track to reach 400 ppmv, nearly double that of the natural cycles in the earth’s history. And when did this spike in carbon dioxide concentrations begin? It coincides with the Industrial Revolution.
Click on the thumbnail below to read about the data…
There are people who will argue that a correlation between the onset of the Industrial Revolution and the onset of rapid changes in carbon dioxide concentrations on earth are just that – correlations – and that one cannot attribute cause and effect through correlation. This is true. Correlation does not reveal definitive causation. This is why science relies on multiple lines of evidence – it’s like putting pieces of a puzzle together. In my view, we have enough pieces of the puzzle to tell us that global climate change is occurring and that humans have played a role in it.
Even for those who don’t accept the data – wouldn’t it be prudent to take actions to do what we can now, to curb carbon dioxide increases while we can? Does it make sense to wait until it’s too late to do something and then say, “oops, we were wrong, humans have played a significant role in changing the earth’s climate”?
If your carbon monoxide detector in your house started sounding you could hypothesize that it is sounding because of a fault in the device or that it is sounding because carbon monoxide levels in your house have reached a dangerous level. In that situation, would you not get family out of the house immediately – assume carbon dioxide is at dangerous levels that can kill quickly – get them to safety, rather than assume that the detector is malfunctioning and that it is giving you a false positive? The consequences to you and your family are too dire to assume the alarm is a false alarm. Carbon monoxide is odourless, tasteless and colourless – you can’t smell, taste or see it. So in those ways, it isn’t tangible. But it’s effects are – it can kill quickly.
How is global change any different from the analogy of your home carbon monoxide detector? Isn’t it prudent to act now and not assume that this is a false alarm? The difference between global climate change and the carbon monoxide example above is scale – temporal scale as we call it in science. In layman’s terms – time. We can relate to the immediacy of the carbon monoxide situation. But for changes in global climate that occur over decades and the geographic scale of the entire globe, humans have difficulty relating to this scale – to changes over decades and over the entire globe. We relate far more easily to the scale of minutes and so our own surroundings; it’s just part of being human. But as humans, we also have the unique ability of foresight…
Now is the time to think of the consequences of our inaction. You may or may not experience catastrophic consequences of global climate change, depending on how old you are now and where you live. But what kind of world do you want to leave for your kids, your grandkids, and great-grandkids? I think that is something we can all relate to – how our actions as a society will alter life for our kids and grandkids.
The consequences of being wrong about the causes of global climate change are too great not to do anything about it. I think the only ethical choice is to accept that human are having a very significant impact on global climate and to do something about it before we are past the point of doing anything except leaving our kids one hell of an environmental mess to mop up, courtesy of our current, short-sighted behaviour. I’m not saying it’s easy. If it were easy, we’d already be well on our way to solving the problem. I think the key now is to identify ways that society can change its behaviour to reduce human impacts on the global environment. But change starts one person at a time….