Episodes 20 and 21: Climate Change and Climate Change Denial
Note: Banner image is a picture of my cat, Chippy, who has been forever immortalized in a heat transfer problem utilizing Fourier's Law.
And so, it has come to this. An episode basically on my PhD thesis. This week we are just going to jump right in, because there is a lot of science to cover, a lot of craziness to brush aside, and a lot of carbon to capture. Global climate change and the effect that humans have on it is a very hot debate topic amongst politicians and the general public, but one for which there is nearly unanimous consensus in the scientific community. Even calling it climate change versus global warming is a big thing, with people suggesting that even changing the wording suggests that us scientists are trying to trick them for some reason. And despite the fact that the effects of climate change are already costing some communities millions of dollars annually, and that the evidence is nigh insurmountable, and that even the people burning coal and drilling for oil all agree that its happening and are spending huge amounts of money to create technologies to deal with it, our politicians in the United States at least are fighting to delay progress and research. So why is this happening? I think in many cases just with any pseudoscientific or conspiracy belief it is a lack of fundamental knowledge, compounded by the fact that climate science is actually very complicated and non-linear in its effects, besides the constant propaganda efforts made. Mix this with the fact that climate change had like, maybe the worst public face, that of Al Gore for a number of years and we get a public that acts like we are literally starting to round up folks for death camps every time we plug in a high efficiency light bulb. So strap yourselves in for a science heavy episode of the Mad Scientist Podcast!
EPISODE 20: CLIMATE CHANGE
Hoo boy. When I started this episode, I thought for sure it would be a one parter, but man was I ever wrong. This one will at least take two episodes, and potentially three, although we will see how far down the rabbit hole we want to go as we peer down it and start the descent. So first things first here, I am in fact a scientist who has so far in my career spent a very large portion of my time trying to create new materials and methods to capture and convert carbon dioxide. I’ve never received a check from the Chinese government, and I promise if I wanted to trick people with science into giving me loads of money I would be selling some bullshit product on the internet to dupes like alkaline water or miracle seeds. In performing my research I have seen the evidence of carbon dioxide acting as a greenhouse gas in the experiments that I run myself, as well as in following the research on this topic that my materials are used for. Specifically, my work focused on the creation of nanomaterials for the capture and conversion of carbon dioxide from both high concentration sources such as coal burning power plants, as well as low concentration sources such as the upper atmosphere. The materials I made basically attempted to capture carbon dioxide, also known as CO2, by causing it to react with the surface of my structure or with organic chemicals I placed onto that surface, in order to capture carbon dioxide selectively over other things in the air.
The way that the chemical or energy industry captures carbon dioxide now is the use of what is known as a liquid amine scrubber, basically imagine a big cylinder where gas is flown up while droplets of liquid nitrogen compounds flow down. The nitrogen in the amine droplets react with the carbon dioxide in the gas to remove them, but let the other stuff flow right through. This creates a stream coming out of the energy plant that is basically free of carbon dioxide, but leaves you with another stream of carbon dioxide rich amines. This amine liquid then has to be heated to collect the carbon dioxide, a process that requires a lot of energy to be put in which negates a lot of the benefit of capturing carbon dioxide in the first place, since carbon dioxide is released by generating energy! My work was focused on this issue, creating materials that captured carbon dioxide and could be regenerated with much less energy being put in, making the total process capture more carbon dioxide than it puts out. Another related problem though is once we capture all that carbon dioxide what do we do with it? Some have proposed sticking it in the ground like in old mine shafts, or even dumping it into the ocean, all processes or plans that have big problems with them. For example, lets say we stick it all into an old mine shaft. Well, what if something like an earthquake happens, or the gas finds a way to leak out or something? All we’ve really done in that scenario is kind of kick the can down the road, or even worse created a nightmare scenario where carbon dioxide leaks to a surrounding town and suffocates everyone in their sleep. Overall not a good option, really.
So the second big thing for researchers like myself at the moment is to try and convert carbon dioxide into something useful, a chemical that we can use in our lives or in industry. Some have proposed making ethanol or acetic acid from the captured carbon, but the problem with all of these technologies is that you require a lot of energy input to cause this conversion, and so it isn’t super economical or environmentally feasible at the moment. Some other possibilities are using carbon dioxide as a feed source for growing plants or bacteria, or even using a mixture of the liquid amine scrubber style system above with bacteria “bubbles” to soak up carbon dioxide in a more efficient way then before. And since bacteria can be engineering to eat CO2 and create things like pharmaceuticals, it may be a really interesting and good option.
Notice that in none of those future technology or big research areas I mentioned is the topic of whether or not carbon dioxide contributes to climate change. Despite what some on news channels whose name rhymes with Box may try and tell you, there is nearly unanimous consensus amongst the scientific community that climate change is happening and is primarily caused by carbon dioxide released by humans. And frankly, the only people who don’t agree are not experts or even researchers working in this field, but are included in these studies to make them accurate to the entire scientific community. So a review of these studies by Cook et al published in 2006 found that on average 97% of scientists polled agreed that climate change is human caused. Furthermore, when looking at those who are experts in climate change or atmospheric science the number jumps to between 99 and 100% pretty much as good as you can possible get and still be statistically telling the truth in a study. So those who disagree are NOT CLIMATE SCIENTISTS, PHYSICAL CHEMISTS, OR ANY OTHER EVEN NEARLY RELATED FIELD. I mean crap man, if you included climate scientists in a survey on some field unrelated to them I bet you would get a couple percent answering the completely wrong thing. Interestingly though, only 16% of the public knows that the consensus is this high. Even more interesting, if asked whether human released carbon dioxide is a primary or a secondary cause of climate change 100% of scientists polled said yes. In other words, 100% of polled scientists agreed that it was a primary or secondary cause of global climate change. So why does the public disagree?
Like I said in the intro, I think a lot of it is public misperceptions or just lack of knowledge. I mean, how does climate change happen? Why does releasing carbon dioxide specifically, something that is produced naturally on Earth all the time, create such a big problem now? And why the rush to get things done? So we are going to dive into all of that today on the episode. In the first place, lets talk about some history of this idea. The first real mention of some possible effect of human released pollutants into the upper atmosphere started with questions about weather or not the atmosphere of the past was any different than the atmosphere of the present. Originally, people held to theories such as the Neptunist theory, which posited that all rocks on the surface of the Earth came from the flood of Noah basically. And if it wasn’t the Biblical flood or something else, than what had caused these changes? And what evidence is there even for these changes at all? Like why expect the atmosphere to change if the planet has been made perfectly by some God or Gods? Prior to the 18th century we really didn’t have an answer to that, and it wasn’t until we began finding evidence of geological ages with varying temperatures that we suspected something like a cyclic or periodic change in the atmospheric temperature and climate of the Earth. The evidence for this stuff were things like aquatic sediments or even fossils showing up on land, such as sea shells, fish bone fossils, or the evidence of past coral reefs in areas that hadn’t been underwater in recorded history. Other evidence were found as we started to dig down into the Eaths surface. It became clear as you got lower that different layers of rock type, fossils, and leftover organic matter became observed, suggesting that over time the climate and surrounding area had changed dramatically. This was really laid out by Ncholas Steno in 1686 who developed the principles of geological time scales, basically saying that each rock layer represented a slice in time, and as you got deeper you went farther back. And it really wasn’t until James Hutton published his “Theory of the Earth” and presented it before the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1785 that the idea of regenerating surface of the Earth moved by natural forces was started and maintained. He suggested that the hot center of the Earth formed new rock, while water and air eroded rock and soil from the surface of the Earth, causing these sediments to flow through the ocean or be churned back into the core of the Earth over long periods of time. And this is, pretty much, our idea of today.
So in looking at these geological changes, we also started to notice changes that seemed to suggest atmospheric alterations as well. For example, the evidence of great periods where the Earth was basically covered by frost and cold also known as Ice Ages led to the supposition that the atmosphere could turn very cold, very hot, and cycle back and forth. The ice ages were supposed by Jean-Pierre Perraudin, who suggested that glaciers may be the source of giant boulders within the valleys of the Alps, which he suggested could only have been moved and shaped by some tremendous forces. See, when glaciers form and then melt and move about they erode and shift huge swaths of land around them, creating basically lines along the land, which are known today as moraines, M O R A I N E S if you want to google them. Anyways, the idea of glacial movement causing valleys and big debris which was at the time supposed to be caused by Noah’s Flodo was then taken up by Louis Agassiz, a famous scientist at the time, who developed this idea of the Ice Ages pretty much as we know them now. The ice age theory became pretty much accepted in this period from its first inception in 1815 to widespread agreement in the 1870s.
Simultaneously a scientist famous to any chemical engineer or mathematician worth their salt, Joseph Fourier, began running tests on temperature and heat exchange. He developed what is known as Fouriers law of heat flux, which basically states that a change in temperature is equivalent to some constant times the amount of heat put into the system times its mass. He found that the Earth was significantly warmer than it should be if the atmosphere did not provide some protection from the vacuum of space. Through measurements he found specifically that the energy arriving to the surface of the Earth as visible light waves from the sun appeared to be unaffected by the atmosphere. The energy is then adsorbed by the surface an infrared radiation is then emitted. However, the infrared waves released cannot travel efficiently through the atmosphere, meaning that this extra energy stays within the atmosphere of the Earth. This provides the Earth with the excess energy needed to keep it at the temperatures we enjoy today! But the mechanism of why exactly the atmosphere can’t transmit the infrared waves back into the atmosphere weren’t known at the time. It wasn’t until 1864 that John Tyndall investigated how infrared waves affect the gases which make up the atmosphere.
Now, this is really one of the pillars of the global warming debate here, at least from the scientific perspective. So let’s take a step back and reassess where we are at. We are around the years 1860-1870, and the scientific community has been convinced by the evidence of the Ice Ages that the climate can change over time. Furthermore, Fourier has proven that the atmosphere seems to hold infrared radiation. This causes the atmosphere and the surface of the Earth specifically to stay warmer than other planets without atmospheres. So what seems to happen is that visible light is shot to us from the sun. The visible light transmits through the atmosphere without a problem, gets absorbed by the surface of the Earth, and then the surface releases infrared radiation. The infrared radiation though cannot transmit through the atmosphere, and so it stays stuck on Earth with us, causing the planet to be warm. Tyndall is now attempting to find the reason these infrared waves can’t seem to get through the atmosphere, by shooting infrared radiation at various gases which make up the atmosphere. And what he found specifically is that water vapor, hydrocarbons like methane, and carbon dioxide block a huge amount of infrared radiation. These gases and others that absorb infrared light are what are known as greenhouse gases, molecules which when hit with infrared light block the energy from escaping, similar to how a greenhouse allows light in but keeps heat trapped. Specifically what happens is that the bonds within the carbon dioxide molecule are just in the correct range to absorb infrared light, and so when infrared energy hits the molecule it will vibrate, then when it stops vibrating release the energy back into the atmosphere. This effect is seriously observed in every single undergraduate physical or organic chemistry classroom when they do Fourier Transform Infrared Spectroscopy, and its probably something we’ll be teaching to high schoolers soon. It really is in my opinion one of the fundamental questions that those who deny climate change can’t answer, or usually have no knowledge of being the case. It’s a huge deal, and it led to the obvious suggestion that the changes in the climate may have something to do with the composition of the climate. So for instance, in times where the temperatures seem hotter perhaps volcanoes have released excessive amounts of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in large amounts, causing the planet to warm. On the other hand, in cases where things begin to cool potentially there are less greenhouse gases. This idea, along with competing theories about solar variation, shifts in ocean currents and mountain ranges, and others began to then be debated to find the cause of the noted changed in the atmospheric composition and climate over time.
Svante Arrhenius was one of the first scientists to mathematically model how changes in carbon dioxide could alter the temperature of the Earth. Specifically he used the work of Samuel Pierpoint Langley, who tried to calculate the temperature of the moons surface by measuring the amount of infrared radiation leaving the moon and coming to Earth. Arrhenius sort of took that idea and used it to see what affect carbon dioxide and radiation leaving our atmosphere specifically had on the temperatures of the Earth. And what he found at the time was that a cut of half of atmospheric CO2 was enough to cause an ice age, and a doubling of atmospheric Co2 from that period would result in warming of 5-6 degrees Celsius. And these calculations are pretty much basic science, looking at the amount of infrared radiation greenhouse gasses take in, how much energy is brought to the Earth on average by the sun, and therefore how much the average temperature of the Earths surface would vary with increased carbon dioxide levels. It’s pretty cut and dry stuff. Where it gets interesting is what affect humans have on increased carbon dioxide levels, and what further changes may result from small changes in temperature. For example, if we lower the temperature of the planet one degree on average how will that affect other factors which may lower the temperature or carbon dioxide level? If the temperature is lowered by 1 degree perhaps the artic produces and keeps more snow and ice, resulting in more light bouncing back from the surface into the atmosphere, causing more extreme weather patterns. Maybe 1 degree is enough to raise the temperature of the ocean enough to kill certain species of fish, as already being observed on the east coast of North America. Or maybe this change in temperature isn’t enough to cause anything at all to happen. It’s really quite complicated what will occur from climate change, but the fact that climate or temperature of the atmosphere and carbon dioxde are linked is seriously stone cold science fact, at least as factual as any other science stuff.
We know and I hope that you are convinced, and if your not let me know so I can send you an infrared readout of carbon dioxide absorbing significantly more infrared light than other surrounding gases, that CO2 and other greenhouse gases like water vapor and methane lead to increased atmospheric temperatures. Well, what affect then will humans releasing lots of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere cause? Is the atmosphere able to heal itself, or correct for this amount of extra carbon dioxide, or will it necessarily increase temperatures? And is there a certain point where the increase is no longer fixable or reversible? Well, all of this has to do with what is known as the carbon cycle, or how carbon dioxide itself is naturally put into and taken out of the atmosphere.
The carbon cycle in general goes something like this. Carbon dioxide is released as a natural byproduct of respiration, basically we breath in air and we release CO2, as do all animals pretty much. Microbes and bacterial also release carbon dioxide via respiration and decomposition. So that released carbon dioxide is then pumped into the air. The CO2 in the air is then taken in by plants, which eventually makes its way down into the soil and is stored over long periods of time as rock, soil, sediment, whatever, basically various carbon compounds. Some of this carbon does get re-released, for example as a byproduct of microbes or bacteria in the soil digesting or decomposing organic matter. Another cycle for carbon dioxide naturally is the cycle in the ocean, where CO2 gets dissolved into the water naturally through equilibrium exchange, where things like plants or animals or microbes or whatever use it up and then release it out again, and some of it gets stuck at the bottom of the ocean and becomes part of the soil or crust of the Earth as various carbon compounds or rocks and stuff. Now this process in nature is generally in pretty alright equilibrium with itself, basically with any big changes over being due to things like volcanic eruptions, which release loads of carbon as carbon dioxide gas when they erupt. It is a cycle, which means that it will eventually even itself out to an equilibrium state with extra carbon that is added in, but that equilibrium state will be one with either more or less carbon dioxide in the air than what was started. So for example, if there is a huge number of volcanic eruptions in a short period of time we can expect an increase in atmospheric co2, whereas if there is something like a period where there is a huge decrease in the number of animals releasing carbon dioxide we may expect lower CO2 in the atmosphere. And this would relate to changing temperatures as well, with higher carbon content in the atmosphere meaning more infrared radiation being kept leading to higher temperatures. And lower carbon meaning more infrared radiation can escape into space, leading to lower temperatures.
But see, this is all an equilibrium process, with carbon being released and absorbed or used by organisms, taken into the soil or ocean, all the stuff we explained above. But what happens if we add an external source to this equilibrium process? In other words, what occurs when we start adding in extra carbon dioxide to the cycle, carbon dioxide that naturally would not be added to the system normally? Well, what happens to any equilibrium system when you add an external source to it? It jumps out of equilibrium right!? I think the best explanation of this is still one of the most famous, that of the rabbits and hawks. Imagine you have a forest meadow where there are rabbits and there are hawks. Lets say at the beginning we have more rabbits than we have hawks. Over time, the hawks will eat the rabbits, lowering their populations. This will cause some of the hawks to go hungry, making them breed less and die, leading to decreased hawk populations. The decreased hawk population will then mean less rabbits are being eaten, so the rabbits population will then increase, and now we are back at our beginning state. And so the equilibrium continues. Well imagine you now add in one extra hawk. This hawk may not make a big difference, and maybe it eats an extra rabbit or two, but the equilibrium sticks and after a few cycles things get back to normal. But what if you add in like double the original hawk population? Well, then the system goes out of equilibrium, and we come to a point where the cyclic nature of these two populations are no longer dependent on one another. So you add double hawks, and they eat all of the rabbits, or enough of them to cause the rabbit population to completely die out. Well, your equilibrium is broken now. This is the idea of there being an important or specific carbon concentration value where the equilibrium can no longer be regained. It’s a lot more complicated than the rabbit and hawk analogy, but the same ideas in general apply. Basically, this carbon concentration would represent the point where we can no longer just stop outputting carbon to allow the atmospheric temperatures to equilibrate back to its standard levels for our time period. Instead, we have hit a point where increasing temperatures are now inevitable, and so we need to start either capturing carbon from the atmosphere or building biospheres or something, cause the temperature is going to rise. Of course we should still stop adding carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, since the more we put out the more we will eventually need to capture, but we have passed that important milestone point. As of today we release around 38.2 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the air a year. To put that number in perspective, it is estimated that the total volcanic output on the surface of the Earth is around 500 million tons per year. That means we as a species are putting 70 times as much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as every volcano on the Earth. So its pretty bad. Another way of stating this is looking at specific volcanic eruptions. The 1980 eruption of Mount saint Helens released 10 million tons of Co2 in the atmosphere in 9 hours, but it takes humans only around 3 hours to release the equivalent amount of carbon dioxide. So anyone that tries to tell you that we are nothing compared to natural sources like volcanoes is getting the facts wrong. At the rate we are going we increase the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide by 20 parts per million every 10 years, or 2 parts per million a year. And for some more figures here to put things in perspective, remember how before I said carbon dioxide levels are an equilibrium, where eventually too much will cause changes that result in a net decrease in carbon content, while too little will cause net increases in carbon content in the atmosphere? Well, that swings have over the lifetime of the planet as far as we can tell gone from a low of around 180 parts per million to 300 maximum parts per million, with the vast majority of the time being somewhere between those ranges. Since the 1950’s we broke above the maximum line, and it has been rising extremely quickly ever since. So since 400,000 years ago approximately the carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere only swung from 180 to 300 parts per million, while we are now around 410 parts per million, more than it has ever been since humans basically started using tools.
Alright, so how do we release so much carbon dioxide? Well if we break down our carbon dioxide emissions 41% of it comes from energy, 16% from road transport, 5% from other transport like boats or airplanes, 20% from industry, 6% from residential, and 10% from other sectors such as agriculture and whatever. So the vast majority of carbon emissions come from flue gas, either from transportation vehicles or energy production in the burning of fossil fuels. Flue gas is specifically the stuff that is wasted out of a fossil fuel burning power plant, and is in fact quite similar to the stuff that is shot out of your cars exhaust. It’s composed of mostly nitrogen, with about 12-15% by volume water, and maybe 4-8 % by volume carbon dioxide, with some leftover stuff being sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, and some trace amounts of oxygen and carbon monoxide. This stuff is generated by the burning of fossil fuel energy sources, such as gasoline, propane, butane, coal, pretty much the things we think of as standard energy generating items. This is by far the majority of the carbon dioxide emissions going into the atmosphere, and so it is by reducing the burning of fossil fuels or by capturing carbon at point sources like fossil fuel plants where a big chunk of our fight against global warming will happen. And many companies are already investing in these methods or new energy generating technologies! Even huge oil companies are now investing in these technologies and ideas, and there is a big push to stop using coal in lieu of methods that aren’t as polluting.
So it makes you wonder, why aren’t we moving to green energy production methods? Even if we separate out the environmental concerns for a moment here, green energy is the way of the future, right? I mean we will eventually run out of stuff to burn, so why not begin the process of revolutionizing world energy to a form that does not rely on stuff that is non-renewable? Well, a big part of the problem is a big push to make the idea seem unimportant or dangerous, by the companies and people that tend to make the most money on the worst of the carbon polluting methods. For example, the coal industry for a very long time and the railroads that shipped coal attempted to belittle the idea of environmental pollution and problems as a liberal conspiracy, with the help of oil manufacturers and the chemical industry unfortunately. And in many ways this is a big part of their history right, its taken a long time for the chemical industries to kind of get it in their heads that being green or environmentally friendly can also be good for business, something that is being pushed a huge amount at the university level and throughout the conference circuit. But there are also plenty of people still making money on this idea, or leveraging it to try and turn it into a political issue. And this is where we are going to pick up next week, at this sort of weird mix of science and politics that carbon capture, the greenhouse effect, and global warming seems to sit.
That’s it for this weeks episode. For today’s musical outro we have The Messenger Flood, from Staten Island, New York. I’ve known some of the members of this band since kindergarten, and some of them are playing alongside me in the intro song to this podcast! This song is called Moving Parts, from their upcoming album called A Parable. I will be back in a week with the next roundtable, then two weeks from now with the second part of this episode!
EPISODE 21: Climate Change Denial
Episode 21: Climate Change Denial
Hello listeners, and welcome back to another Mad Scientist Podcast. This episode I need to start off by announcing a really exciting new contest that the show will be doing each month. We’re calling it the Be a Mad Scientist Challenge, and it will be running each month. One really interesting question I always get asked by listeners is how do I get involved in science if I am not academically trained. And the answer I always give is that anyone can be a scientist or think scientifically, by reading books, learning about your local wildlife and plants, watching youtube videos, or listening to podcasts like this to learn some stuff about modern science. And literally everyone can think creatively about new inventions and ideas to make the world a better place. I mean some of the science that we are really working on now started in the inventions of science fiction writers or movies and TV shows that future scientists watched as kids. At its core, science is not all about academics and studying, but a lot of science is about thinking up creative designs and ideas. And it is one of the hardest things to teach undergraduate students who are thinking of making the transition to graduate research or even into industry. So this challenge each month is meant to try and make you the listeners more excited about thinking up new inventions and designs, and being scientifically minded and oriented at home even if you don’t have access to a lab or a bunch of chemicals. Each month, listeners will submit ideas through twitter, facebook, or our podcast email at firstname.lastname@example.org, for their answer or idea to solve the problem or question we will pose at the end of each month in a roundtable. We will then look through the ideas, and the most interesting and creative will be selected to be discussed on air by Marie and I in a roundtable, with a full or at least semi full scientific and historical background discussed on the idea and how feasible the solution is. The winner will also receive a one of a kind hand drawn congratulations doodle and thank you note, a sticker of the shows logo, and a special sticker specifically made for challenge winners that you can’t get anywhere else. Their submitted design e-mail will also be immortalized on the website for the show! This month we are going to start a little early to give people some extra time. So we always see fighter ships with laser beams on space craft in shows like Star Trek or movies like Star Wars, but why do we ONLY see lasers? What other sorts of defensive or offensive capabilities can you dream up for the USS Science, the star fighter I am assured Marie and her family are busy at work on in their backyard. Send in your designs, as complicated or simple as you think you would like, with doodles or without, to the show through e-mail or through twitter and facebook by the middle of this Month of June, and we will have a winner announced on the final roundtable of the month!
Ok, now for science business. Last episode we talked about climate change science and its development over time. We dealt with one of the silliest arguments out there, that the carbon we release is nothing compared to a single volcanic eruption, talked about what it means to be a greenhouse gas, how an equilibrium system works and what it means to fall out of equilibrium, and finally came to just how much carbon we release and where it comes from. So if you missed any of that stuff, or are just joining the show now, I highly suggest you jump back a full episode and check part 1 of this story. This week, we’ll first discuss the history of climate change denial, how it started, who funded it, and how its come back to bite some of these same groups in the ass. And in the last half of the episode, we’ll go into some specific arguments against climate change, to give you some ammo for your next family dinner with your weird Uncle who smells like gunpowder.
EPISODE 21: CLIMATE CHANGE PART 2: DENIAL
As stated in the ending of last episode, some of the biggest driving forces against this idea of climate change being caused by air pollution, and specifically the release of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, started with the coal industry. So from the time of Fourier, Tyndall and Arrhenius in the 1840’s -1890’s we saw that global warming could happen, but it wasn’t until 1938 that Callendar saw that it actually was happening. He basically measured land temperatures and found that there was an increase in temperatures over the 50 years or so before his work was published, and suggested that this was due to increased carbon dioxide since the industrial revolution. His work was initially met with some skepticism, but eventually further research and papers published by him and his lab showed further proof of these increased temperature changes. The work of Revelle et al further suggested the need to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Their paper on ocean adsorption of excess carbon dioxide showed that the growth rate of atmospheric CO2 would be much higher than previously expected. They proposed that the ocean would not be able to simply absorb the excess carbon dioxide to rebalance the atmospheric equilibrium. This was due to what is known now as the Revelle effect, where carbon dioxide must first get through a carbon dioxide rich layer of water that significantly slows adsorption rates. These works then led to further research by the scientific community, resulting in the Charney Report in 1979, which found for the first time agreement amongst scientists that a doubling of CO2 would lead to a temperature increase of near 3 degrees Celsius, with an error of plus or minus 1.5 degrees. For my non-science listeners, a change of 3 degrees Celsius is equivalent to about 10 to 15 degrees Fahrenheit, so pretty significant.
Ok, so science got itself together and said something was happening, and we better figure it out, and this scientific consensus started around the 1980’s. So where is climate change denial in the modern world up too today? Well, I’ve sort of been trying to dance around the topic, but frankly it is centered in the right wing of the American Political landscape, with really no serious scientific arguments against climate change being lobbied in recent times, and no other country or group of politicians or people having any doubt about its existence. In that way the United States is sort of like the weird kid in class whose parents never told him where babies come from, still innocent and pure, and talking about how gross it is that babies come out of someone’s ass. The first politician to really make climate science a political issue was Ronald Reagan. His administration argued consistently that climate change was not occurring, and that the reports coming out of the EPA and other environmental organizations were overblown or alarmist, despite evidence to the contrary such as significant droughts and heat waves already occurring at that time. This politicization led to books and arguments in the public sphere, with one particularly famous climate denial book “Carbon Dioxide, Friend or Foe” by Sherwood B. Idso coming out and arguing that in fact rising CO2 would be better for the planet and humans since it meant more plants would be better fertilized. Basically he has made a career of arguing that since climate changes affects on the planet are very complicated that the alarming arguments made by most people are ill founded, since we really can’t predict long term changes in temperature or weather with any accuracy. And although that is a compelling sounding argument, to ignore the very basic science that increased co2 leads to increased temperature in the atmosphere is willful ignorance in my estimation. Anyways, public perception of climate change as a real threat started heating up, pun intended, around the 1990’s due to significant droughts and heat waves, some of the first instances of climate change caused weather events that we had been anticipating for quite some time. At the same time, scientists began reporting that since we could anticipate higher temperatures in the atmosphere, and since temperature is directly related to the average kinetic energy available for things like pressure drops and resulting storms, that we could expect more extreme weather in the near future as well. That, along with the pretty much set scientific consensus, then caused those industries that put out loads of carbon dioxide to begin a very successful propaganda campaign.
So the current view of why these climate change denial groups or scientists really started to take hold is quite interesting. First off, there is strong evidence to suggest that the fossil fuel industries utilized arguments and tactics used previously by the tobacco industry. In fact some of the same scientists used to spread doubt about tobacco’s affect on cancer rates were also used to sow doubt about climate change science. The idea goes something like this. First, you attack the very idea of the science itself, claiming that it is not possible to measure these things, or that more study is needed, or that there is no scientific consensus. Next, you argue that the affects projected are not as problematic as supported, or that they cannot possible project out to large scale systems, or again that the baseline data collection methods are faulty. And finally, when attacking the science becomes impossible, you begin arguing that the affects caused by your product, in this case fossil fuels, is miniscule or negligible, and that therefore it is not your responsibility or problem that these problems are existing. Interestingly as well, the move towards green energy goals and environmental protections gained a lot of support from conservative groups, arguing that the green energy mission was anti free trade or represented the encroachment of globalist policies and ideas onto the American people. And those arguments continue today, with people stating that its unfair for example for America to try and impose green energy standards on countries like China and India, while those countries are readily adapting to green energy methods in order to outcompete us, and that therefore since we cannot force them we should not force our own companies to make the same shift. The arguments are often subtle and sometimes compelling, but ultimately they fall apart if you take a real economic analysis of the current state of things. I mean look, regardless of weather or not climate change is happening, oil and gas are currently used as bargaining chips around the world for power and importance, and are used in that way specifically because there is a very finite amount of these resources. So it would make sense, one would think, for those without oil and gas to remove the bargaining chip from the table by moving to resources that are freely available and accessible to all, such as solar power or wind. I mean isn’t this a much more free market solution to the problem of energy, a decentralized and individual marketplace where people themselves can gather energy for their homes by setting up local solar panels or wind turbines? And again, these resources currently used are limited, so wouldn’t it make sense for the United States to jump ahead of this problem by providing for research into renewable energy systems, just as a matter of pure selfish interest?
Anyways, these arguments sort of have gone back and forth over time until today, and the vast majority of the arguments against climate science come from a small group of dedicated pro fossil fuel and often fossil fuel industry funded groups who use tobacco industry rhetorical methods, as I said. And when I say fossil fuel industry, this isn’t to say that the companies producing fossil fuels or scientific research don’t know there is a problem, merely that they are trying to maximize the lifetime of their product which they know is inevitably short. Over 90% of the reports or papers claiming to debunk or argue against climate science are from right wing think tanks, with people within the fossil fuel lobby being the primary donors for this sort of attack on climate science. I mean it’s the same exact thing we saw with Morgellons disease, with the only papers even remotely claiming its real coming from the same few people, being paid by the same groups, in order to trick you into giving them more money. And in this case some of the groups have even shiftier and less obvious names. If you however see evidence against climate change coming from places like the Heritage Foundation, of The Independent Institute, check where their funding comes from. In many cases the money comes from the Fossil Fuel Industry. Exxon Mobil has in fact been notorious in this realm, which is really quite sad given a lot of the very good work their scientists are doing to fight global warming with developments in new materials and methods to capture the gas. They support many climate skeptic groups, including the George C. Marshall Institute with a fat check for $630,000, $427,000 to the Board of Academic and Scientific Advisors for the Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow, and the Independent Institute at various times.
In fact a paper by Brulle et al published in the journal Climatic Change found that the Climate Change counter movement in the United States accounts for nearly $900 million dollars of income each year, with each individual group or think tank fighting climate change obtaining nearly $64 million a year in donations, the vast majority of which from conservative groups. So climate change has become a significantly political thing, and one that has really brought in a huge amount of money for the corporations and groups fighting against climate science. Even though, as I’ve stated and can’t state enough, many within the fossil fuel industry are scientists literally being paid to research climate change and methods to combat it, the risks have been significantly undercut through lobbying and money put in by some of these same groups. It’s sort of a weird story, where the fossil fuel industry knows it’s a problem but doesn’t want to have to deal with the issue at the moment, and so delays the issue by sowing doubt. I think probably the best quote about this comes from David Michaels book “Doubt is Their Product” about how industry attempts to create public misconceptions about science to help their own bottom line. The quote supposedly comes from someone working in the cigarette industry, and it goes like this. “Doubt is our product, since it is the best means of competing with the body of fact that exists in the minds of the general public. It is also the means of establishing a controversy”. And I’ll tell you what, they’ve done a great job at sowing doubt in this case. Like we said in the first episode, the majority of the public has no idea about the consensus on climate change amongst scientists. I think my favorite quote about this comes from Rush Holt, whose piece in the journal Science on this is required reading on the topic of science denialism in the US. The quote is as follows: “…… for more than two decades scientists have been issuing warnings that the release of greenhouse gases, principally carbon dioxide (CO2), is probably altering Earth's climate in ways that will be expensive and even deadly. The American public yawned and bought bigger cars. Statements by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, American Geophysical Union, American Meteorological Society, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and others underscored the warnings and called for new government policies to deal with climate change. Politicians, presented with noisy statistics, shrugged, said there is too much doubt among scientists, and did nothing.” And frankly, unfortunately, that is kind of where we are still at. People want to do something about climate change, in fact the most recent polling shows that 48% of the public believes in human caused climate change, and 61% said they expect to need to make major changes to their lifestyle to address climate change. But 20% still believe there is no evidence for climate change, and 31% think it is being caused by natural forces that we can’t control. It’s pretty scary stuff, I mean the majority of people don’t think climate change is caused by humans despite all evidence to the contrary. And so it makes you wonder, do we need to change our messaging? Would it be better to talk about other pollution first, and then gently discuss climate change with them. One thing in my work we’ve tried to do is make the case that even if you don’t believe carbon dioxide is bad for the environment we are currently just throwing it away, which is a huge waste when it may be able to be turned into a sellable commodity like ethanol or acetic acid. But even that argument is stifled sometimes, with some taking anti-environmentalism to be a necessary component of their political views. I mean, I recently read about a new phenomena where people “roll coal” with their trucks, a process where they purposely make their car belch black soot and ash in order to annoy people. It’s so comically stupid and bad for your car besides being bad for the planet you live on that it makes you wonder what other kinds of stuff they do to very slightly inconvenience someone.
So alright, the vast majority of scientists agree that global warming is caused by increased carbon dioxide levels and that its currently happening, and the majority of the arguments against this view appear to come from people for whom climate change likely means a big drop in sales. So what are some of the arguments out there for why climate change isn’t happening, or we shouldn’t trust the science, or what else do people think is going on? Some of the wackiest versions of the climate change denial story include huge government conspiracies, chemtrails and nanopoisons and evil scientists with names like “Dr. Cogswell” trying to trick people with mass media and things like podcasts into believing the lie of Big Environment. But there are more serious arguments as well out there. One we’ve already touched on is the idea that climate data is not accurate, or at least not accurate enough to show that man made climate change is a real phenomena. This is often termed the “hockey stick” argument, that the famous graph showing the sharp rise in climate carbon and temperature is not accurate because of problems in measurement of past and current data. First off, what is the hockey stick graph? It is a famous climate graphic, showing a curve of temperature going slight down at first for the last thousand years, followed by a sharp uptick in temperature around the 1900’s, making something like a hockey stick shape. The graph comes from a paper by Mann, Bradley, & Hughes, published in 1999, which used a pretty complicated mathematical regression method to obtain underlying temperature data and trends from proxy variables. So for example, we can’t know exactly what the average temperature was 1000 years go since we weren’t measuring temperatures back then. However, we have a lot of proxy data that is related to the temperature of that period, for example tree ring spacing can tell us how humid or dry a particular growing season was, ice core compositions can tell us how much atmospheric co2 existed in that particular year (since the number of layers here gives an idea of age, and composition is inferred from the chemicals dissolved in the frozen ice) and ice core thickness let us know how much melting and re-freezing occurred in a particular hot and cold season for a glacial area. Anyways, by making a few assumptions we can theoretically use this proxy data as a means of obtaining temperature data for a given year in the past, with more proxy data for a particular time meaning better overall accuracy to the prediction, and better models and fits of current trends for periods where we have had temperature data recorded alongside these proxies making for better predictions in general. So these assumptions are laid out clearly in the original paper by Mann et al on this work. They say “The calibration procedure (see MBH98) invokes the assumptions (1) that a linear relationship exists between proxy climate indicators and and some combination of large-scale temperature patterns, and (2) that patterns of surface temperature in the past can be suitably described in terms of some linear combination of the dominant present-day surface temperature patterns.” In other words, that these proxies indicate some liner relationship to temperature changes, and that the overall pattern of surface temperature is equivalent to some function of all of these proxies put together.
So I realize this is quite a difficult concept here, with a lot of mathematical modeling and assumptions being thrown around, but lets make an analogy to a more simple scenario. Imagine that we wanted to model household income, but we didn’t have access to people’s bank accounts or paychecks. Well, we could use a number of proxy variables to tell their income relative to the average income. For example, we could use the cost and number of cars they own, we could use the amount of vacation time they take off, we could use their grocery bills and amount spent on luxury goods, and we could look at their jobs and the amount of property they own. So in making our model, we put these variables together in the most simple function first, where each of these is additive. In other words, total income is equal to cost of cars plus cost of vacation days plus cost of homes etc. Now these proxy variables may not be completely useful or indicative, so in order to test our model we use data from sets that we do have available to make calibrations. So we look at current data, and maybe we see that the number of vacation days is not a very good variable, while cost of cars is a very good variable. So now maybe we turn our model into something like income is equal to 1 times cost of vacation days plus 5 times cost of cars. And as we keep improving our data sets and our calibrations we keep getting closer to something that is predictive or useful. In order for them to calibrate models like this they leave out data sets for testing, in order to get to the most accurate and predictive model that they can. And these models are constantly updated with more research and data, including more proxy variables and information, in order to come to a more complete and thorough understanding of the type of modeling we can do with any sort of accuracy. So eventually you end up with a robust model that is predictive, able to include all of the data as it currently exists, and which shows a relatively low margin of error. This is the way that these models are built on proxy variables, and frankly its sort of how most mathematical models of complex situations are built up. And the real proof of the methods utility is that other scientists using other proxy variables and different methodologies and data sets come to the same striking conclusions as that original model did, namely that temperatures have sharply increased in recent decades. This is, in my estimation, the best argument against one of the most common attacks on climate science, that the models or methods are not accurate enough to predict increases in temperature with any sort of certainty. Well, while a single model may not be very accurate, how do we account for the preponderance of models which have come out since that first publication, all of which have come to the same conclusions pretty much and all of which pass the same scientific and statistical rigor that any other mathematical model does? Other versions of this argument is that the data itself used for proxy variables are not accurate, for example ice core measurements or tree ring data, and while these have some merit in the sense that no data is accurate all of the time, one would have to start disputing all scientific studies that utilize this data, which would mean a pretty huge swatch of geology, archeology, ecology, various biological models and ideas, I mean just a truly phenomenal amount of stuff which all works within their own compartmentalized fields as well as in the larger picture of scientific research.
Another version of the arguments against our models are that we aren’t including proxy variables that also matter, for instance sunspots or solar flare variations. But there is literally no evidence of this being the case, and even if solar flares were causing huge increases in global temperatures this still works with climate change. In fact to assume that solar flares are increasing our temperatures don’t you need to think that temperature has something to do with the amount of energy released from the sun and trapped here on Earth, the very argument at the heart of lowering carbon dioxide emissions? Another version of this is that it is natural fluctuations that cause climate change, something that goes out the window again when we argue that yes, of course there are natural fluctuations caused by carbon dioxide emissions in the atmosphere, but we are far out of equilibrium since we are now pumping too much of the stuff into the atmosphere!
So the scientific attacks on climate science are pretty weak in reality. They are forced to try and make indefensible claims, things that when taken to their natural conclusions don’t make logical sense or actually further support the climate change argument as it currently stands, or arguments that when put into the larger context of the global energy economy don’t really stand up to pressure. Because again, regardless of weather or not global warming is really happening, why would the United States of America want to continue to utilize energy sources that we buy from other countries, when it would be feasible and much better for us politically, economically, and strategically to generate all of our own energy here?
Well, now that just leaves us with the good stuff. The real hard hitting facts of the matter, the stuff they don’t want you to know about, the kind of true journalism you can only get on websites that sell sugar pills as supplements, the information your crazy uncle rants about at the Thanksgiving table after a few too many bottles of Coors. Conspiracy theories! One of the most common and popular conspiracy theories about global warming is that it is a myth being perpetuated by the New World Order, the Globalists, the Lizard People, you know, the ever present and always threatening “Them”. Now why they are making this myth up or trying to pressure us using it is sort of all over the place. Some people argue they are doing it so that they can enact stricter controls on our daily lives, I guess in the sense that forcing American industries to accept these worldwide climate accords and regulations means that we are being controlled by one larger group of world control. But like, why? Wouldn’t it make more sense for a secret world government or cabal to control access to a limited but extremely important resource that literally makes the world run, causing wars to be fought, regions to be controlled, and talking heads to spew propaganda to keep us doing something that hurts the environment and ourselves but helps the global elite who profit from our use of this limited resource? As opposed to like, the global elite forcing us to switch to an unlimited, freely available source of energy, taking away the control from a group of small individuals and instead making energy a pretty much uncontrollable and freely accessible commodity? Am I being too on the nose here?
Another version of that conspiracy is that they are doing it so they can slowly poison us with stuff like chemtrails, even though again, there are a billion much better and more deceptive ways to poison a population than using a flashy and easily tracked method like creating big old lines in the sky of poison. The argument here is that they are over time making us believe that there is a good reason for government to be spraying out things with scary sounding names like nanoparticles and cloud seeding technologies to control the weather, while in reality they are merely spreading this stuff to poison us. Now what they are poisoning us with here is up for debate, of course, and why would they need to poison us via cloud dispersion again when they literally have control of everything we eat and drink through the FDA and public water systems is anyone’s guess. A similar version of this is that global warming is a myth to pull us away from fossil fuels in lieu of nuclear energy, although again like, what? Why would making arguments for environmental damage make us move towards an energy system that I frankly love, but which most people think will cause us to mutate into giant frog monsters? It just doesn’t, again, make any logical sense when you connect all the dots together.
One version of this conspiracy that seems to be more popular in the United States than in others is the idea that global warming can’t possibly be happening because God wouldn’t of created a world that is imperfect. It’s a sort of interesting argument frankly, one that you would think would if anything cause these people to question their faith, as opposed to taking it as a matter of principle that all evidence to the contrary is an attack by the devil or something. But if anything, these religious beliefs lead to all sorts of very interesting takes on climate change and what it means in the lens of their faith. These statistics are from a study by the Yale University Program on Climate Change Communcation. One in seven US adults think that God controls the climate, and therefore climate change cannot be occurring. 14% of those polled think that if climate change is occurring it is a sign of the imminent return of Jesus Christ as part of the apocalypse. Of those, 11% think that because the end times are a’comin, we don’t need to worry about the climate or our effect on the planet since its gonna be the problem of the sinners soon anyways, and 9% polled thought that the end times were going to happen in their lifetime. It’s a startling thing to imagine people may be willfully ignoring these problems and challenges because of their religious beliefs, but it is a real fact of the matter when it comes to this issue. It’s something not often discussed but it’s a very problematic thing about this, and something frankly that I think religious leaders should be doing more to argue against. I mean, I am not religious now for a variety of personal reasons, however as a child growing up Catholic I was taught that God gave the Earth to humans and so we must steward and protect this planet. Not that God would simply solve our problems, or stop bad things from happening to us, but rather that when Bad things happen they were a test of our resolve and the goodness of our morals and intentions, and that how we respond to bad things happening is the true measure of a good person. Not trying to get too preachy here, but the underlying message of these beliefs are really interesting right? I mean, other bad things happen related to the climate, right? I mean every year we see tornadoes, flash floods, hail the size of baseballs, all kinds of crazy stuff. So why would a slower change in climate be any different than these other bad climate shifts that do occur? Why disbelieve in slow climate change versus the quick changes in climate we call weather?
Well, that’s all the time we have for this episode. I thank you all for listening, and hope you decide to reach out to the show on twitter, facebook, patreon, audioboom, itunes, or via e-mail with questions and comments. We are hoping to ramp up production quality now with the move to audioboom, as well as get set on a more regular schedule of releasing on Wednesdays. This weeks music comes from Living Room Leftists, a band out of Memphis Tennessee with one of my friends from philosophy at UNH, Tailer Ransom, and his bandmates Mike Butler and Chris Lucibella. When they heard I was doing a podcast with music they sent me along some of their stuff that they recorded in their living room and I seriously fell in love, and now with some more legitimate recordings I am very pleased to have their music on the show. Their album is called Office Hours, and you can find it on bandcamp at livingroomleftists.bandcamp.com. I had a really hard time picking a song for this one, since a few are about scientific equipment like Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging machines and concepts like the mathematical descriptions of nature, and I highly suggest you go check them out. This song is called Things Our Parents Made, once again from the Living Room Leftists.