Climate change scientist speaks up about deniers – and why he’s still hopeful

July 25, 2016

“Twenty-two years ago, it appeared that we had no path toward solving the challenge of global warming. Today we have many options.”

As the lead scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center, Ted Scambos is right in middle of the debate surrounding climate change in the United States. On one hand, he sees evidence of climate change and its impact firsthand every day. On the other, he’s on the receiving end of countless messages from a skeptical public. This could be a recipe for despair, but his outlook is optimistic.

By Ted Scambos

I remember clearly the moment I was convinced that human-caused climate change must be real.

I was at a lecture discussing ice cores in 1994, having just started earlier that year at the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC), a part of the University of Colorado at Boulder. The science of greenhouse warming had been proven long before, well before I was born. Even at that time, there was a worrying trend toward warmer air and ocean temperatures. But still I was unsure if the blame were squarely upon us.

The speaker presented research on gases trapped in an ice core from Antarctica reaching back hundreds of thousands of years. One graph showed a familiar up and down of greenhouse gases with the ice ages, all long before human activity played any role. But then he showed new results on the isotopes in those gases – their fingerprint, if you will – and compared it with various sources. A final slide made it clear: in the past two centuries, we had flooded our atmosphere with the carbon from fossil fuel. No natural source could do this. For the first time in half a million years, we had changed our air. It was now full of exhaust.

Walking back to my office, I thought, “wow, this is going to be a real problem someday.”

Twenty-two years later, we are on the brink of that day. With climate, it’s hard to point to a single year and say “this was the moment it changed.” But this year, I can say: it has begun.

If you want to quibble, fine, let’s agree to this: Sometime in the first two decades of this century, the warming of our planet from greenhouse gas emissions went from something models predicted and scientists detected, to something palpable, a clear and present change that no observant person can ignore.
No longer ignorable: climate change is here
For each of the past eight months, global average temperatures have shattered – not just exceeded, but shattered – the records for that month in the past 150 years. Snow this spring retreated at a blistering pace, and covered less area than in any year since satellites began snapping pictures in the mid-1960s. Sea ice cover in the Arctic has set a record – the least ice ever seen for the day – nearly every day since April 1. Ocean surface temperatures stand at near-record highs; snow melt area on Greenland exceeded anything we had seen in a century in 2012, yet 2016 may rival it. Ocean acidity has reached a record, due to excess gas dissolved into it. The evidence could not be clearer.

Having been at many faculty meetings, I can tell you that it is well-nigh impossible to get 97 percent of scientists to agree to a simple coffee break, much less an interpretation of data. This alone should indicate the level of proof that has been attained.

Yet uncertainty about climate change in the public mind has continued, fueled by groups that either detest consensus or have a vested interest in the status quo. NSIDC is a resource for everyone about cold places and how they are changing. We hear from wonderfully inquisitive school-kids, college students, and earnest adults with honest questions about the science of cold areas and change all the time.

Then there are other messages, or web-posted comments or tweets, that seek solely to obfuscate. “Climate changes all the time.” Quite true, but we’ve never had seven billion people depending on a moderate climate before. “It hasn’t warmed since 1998.” True… for a few years. Then we had nine of the ten warmest years on record. Worse are the libelous comments: “NSIDC lied!”  No, NSIDC adopted a new processing scheme, or new satellite, or new peer-reviewed analysis.

There is no doubt that the scrutiny of people eager to find a crack in the intellectual armor of global warming makes NSIDC better: more careful, more precise, clearer. But of course, that doesn’t satisfy critics. In science, the underlying assumption is that your colleague will be convinced by facts. The debate between science and skeptics is not science – not for the skeptics. Scientists though have a strong weapon against challenges: we are committed to improving understanding, and testing it ourselves.

This is a major point. There is already a vigorous discussion, full of challenges and alternate explanations, every step of the way in building our understanding of climate change. Long before a skeptic blog or a sassy emailer gets a notion that they have outthought the experts, there are challenges from new data, new ideas from brilliant students, new contributions from archaeology, botany, oceanography, astrophysics – all brought into the forum, or arena – of scientific discussion and thrashed out.

Solutions, despite deniers

After so much exposure to the vague, incoherent arguments of climate change deniers, it long saddened me to think that they collectively might have slowed our progress toward agreements and solutions.
Now, though, I realize there is in fact real hope emerging for the problem of climate change, and the reason is innovation and entrepreneurship. The recognition by businesses and young minds that there is an emerging need on the horizon is a force that neither side controls – a force not for good per se, but for progress. This has placed us in a position to solve this issue.

Wind power growth has been astonishing because it is profitable. Solar power growth looks similar. We now accept the logic of expensive lighting that lasts, if it uses far less power. Moreover, coal power is on the decline in the US because it is not profitable.

Global warming is no longer an anticipation. It is no longer something for children or grandchildren to worry about. This is it. We have created the global warming era, now. And yet, almost unnoticed, the tools to solve the issue have begun to appear. The deniers and delayers have lost simply because they could not hide the economic logic of addressing the problem, or convince entrepreneurs not to invent.

Twenty-two years ago, as I walked somberly back to my office, it appeared that we had no tools in hand, no path toward solving the challenge of global warming. Today we have many options, and most importantly, we have a global generation of people who understand world climate change and are looking eagerly for ways to mitigate it.

Featured image: arctic sea ice in varying thicknesses. Courtesy of NASA.

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