Unraveling the Science behind the Climate Change Debate

11/13/13 by Rebecca Rider

Dr. Francis Koster unraveled the science behind the current climate change debate November 12 at the Center for the Environment facility on the Catawba College campus.

Koster, author of Discovering the New America: Where Local Communities are Solving National Problems, began his presentation by putting the climate change debate into historical context. The controversy it has given birth to is difficult to understand without first looking at how society has dealt with similar paradigm shifts in the past. Koster explained that many new scientific theories, like the discovery that the earth revolves around the sun or the research which showed that germs cause disease, shared similar struggles.

Both examples were backed by scientists who noticed a cause-and-effect relationship but were unable to pinpoint the exact cause of the relationship. In each case there was also a populace who failed to understand the importance of the evidence and an institutional authority who sought to debunk the theory.

“All of this applies to climate change,” Koster said.

Climate change is an all-encompassing issue that is often confused with global warming, and many consider the two to be interchangeable.

“They are not,” Koster said.

Global warming, Koster explained, is a collection of annual averages of surface and ocean temperature taken from 11,549 measuring stations around the world. 

Climate change, on the other hand, measures local or regional changes in rainfall, wind velocity, storm frequency or intensity, temperature, and ice melting or freezing. An individual weather event, such as snow in a desert climate, does not prove or disprove climate change.

“It doesn't work like that; there are various tipping points,” Koster said 

Part of the problem, Koster said, is that scientists are unsure what the catalyst for climate change was in the past and where those tipping points may fall in the future. They can only see the effects, Koster said, such as the rapid disappearance of glaciers or the increased frequency in tornadoes.

So what affects climate change? 

Lots of things. Many are natural events, such as the El Niño phenomenon and aerosols—dust particles released into the air from volcanic eruptions or industrial plants. Sun flares and greenhouse gases also play a part in climate change. All of these are variables that interact with each other in different ways and have to be factored in when trying to piece together man's part in climate change. These natural variables are also common points of disagreement for environmental scientists.

“This is a complicated science,” Koster said.

It's not a new one, either. Man's impact and culpability in rising world temperature and changing weather patterns has been under scrutiny since the early 1800's, but it wasn't until the United Nations ordered a study in 1988 that things got serious. The information compiled in these studies—which is still ongoing—has been gradually gaining more attention until it eventually sparked the great debate that exists today.

One of the main reasons the argument has become so heated is due to politics and economics. Koster said that countries whose economic well being is built on oil, coal or natural gas often question the science behind the reports because they have something to lose. They often encourage a watering down of the official reports, and fight back by highlighting scientific debate, changing school curricula to teach an opposing point of view, supporting anti-climate change organizations or encouraging a public misunderstanding of scientific terminology, Koster said. 

But ignoring climate change is a disastrous mistake. Koster illustrated that one of the main worries of climate change and global warming is that the ice caps at the poles will melt and cause the oceans to rise. 

“Imagine how our economy would change if Miami was underwater,” Koster said.

Instead of viewing the changes required to halt global warming and fluctuating climates as a painful trial, businesses and governments should begin to look at it as an insurance policy.

“The goal is to change our belief structure,” Koster said.

Another issue that hinders effective treatment of climate change, Koster said, is a confused public. In the climate change debate, there seem to be conflicting evidence and arguments within the scientific community. The average person may take this to mean that the science isn't sound—but that's not the case, Koster said. The arguments are over wording, or between different scientific disciplines who want to run a different set of experiments. Koster explained the debates as getting a second opinion of a diagnosis—they all agree on the outcome, but have different ways of getting there.

There is also a great misunderstanding of the issue, Koster said. Many who want to debunk climate change and global warming are fond of saying that the earth has historically gone through natural heating and cooling cycles, which is true, Koster said, but these arguments often forget to factor in a time span. The earth cycles through hot and cold ages very slowly, whereas in the present, this change is occurring extremely quickly—and that's what's bad news, Koster said. 

In the previous warming cycles, the earth's temperature hasn't risen more than 2 degrees Celsius—but the current cycle is coming dangerously close to that threshold, and one that Koster insists mustn't be crossed.

“So what do we do?” Koster asked.

Some of his suggestions were to regulate fracking, which releases greenhouse gases, and conserve energy. Since climate change and global warming are linked to greenhouse gases, which are often released in energy consumption, Koster urged for a fiscally responsible use of energy. In a world fast approaching a population of 7 billion, energy consumption is becoming a huge problem.

“Every one of those human beings needs energy, and we can't give it to them the way that we used to—if we do, we're doomed,” Koster said.

Koster ended his lecture by reminding audience members that the debate on climate change is not over, nor are the scientific studies on it drawing to a close. Instead, he argued, this is just the beginning.

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