So, maybe you and I don’t agree on “clean coal” or cap and trade legislation, but can we at least agree on carbon dioxide?
I ask because I spent the first part of last week editing a series of interviews that I conducted at September's annual Comer Abrupt Climate Change Conference. While there, I stuck my microphone in the faces of as many scientists as I could, asking them to explain what it was that they believed was essential to understanding the seriousness of climate change. Almost universally, their answer was, "carbon dioxide."
So here’s the short version:
Carbon dioxide is emitted by natural sources like volcanoes and the oceans, but also more famously by burning fossil fuels like oil and coal. Once the gas enters the atmosphere, it reflects heat that would otherwise radiate out into space, trapping it here and raising the surface temperature, doing things like melting glaciers and ice sheets, as well as generally altering moisture distribution all over the world. It's the greenhouse effect, which most Americans are familiar with at this point, thanks in no small part to Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth.
One of the scientists I met at the conference was geologist Richard Alley, an outspoken proponent of the notion that human activity is flooding the atmosphere with dangerous levels of carbon dioxide.
"The interaction of CO2 with radiation is not political," Alley told me. "What we do about it is.” And a very large number of people keep trying to link the science to one side or the other.
Another idea I heard at the conference was that scientists were afraid that public support of carbon dioxide emission reduction would fail to materialize until something catastrophic happened, and that by then it could be too late.
Scientific American addressed a similar issue in its November 2010 issue, telling the story of Judith Curry, a scientist who has been engaging climate change skeptics in debate—something that’s earned scorn and harsh words from her colleagues who, to quote the SciAm article, say that, “engaging the skeptics is pointless because they cannot be won over.”
Discussing science is a tradition, in large part because our understanding of the world is refined over time. We know that the Earth is not flat, and that it orbits the Sun, and we're not the center of the universe (though it's almost infinitely more complicated than that). Which is the point: science is complicated. Furthermore, it’s not American Idol, which is to say that science is not decided by popularity or by votes, but rather by veracity of fact.
Which brings me to this, dear reader: I’m clearly biased, as everyone is, really. I’ve spoken to scientists, I’ve spoken to librarians, and I’ve spoken to Republicans, and I’m not sure what to say, other than to ask, can we at least agree on carbon dioxide?
- blog by Eric Skalac, graduate student reporter, Medill School of Journalism, Northwestern University