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Home / Articles / Views / Lab Notes /  Unraveling misconceptions of climate change
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Monday, February 28,2011

Unraveling misconceptions of climate change

By Matt Benjamin
To those of us living in Boulder and surrounding communities, it may come as a surprise that many people remain unconvinced that the use of fossil fuels is the main contributor to current climate change.

But before diving into the discussion of the consequences of climate change it’s worth identifying some misconceptions first. The terms “weather,” “climate change,” “the greenhouse effect” and “global warming” are often confused for one another and are sometimes simply misunderstood. These terms mean very different things.

“Weather” is what happens tomorrow or next week. Climate is the average of what happens over years. That’s important to remember because one particularly hot or cool week or month does not mean that climate is changing. Only by averaging over years do climate trends become observable.

“Climate change” is a measure of the long-term differences of weather patterns across the world over periods of decades to millions of years. Long-term increases or decreases in ocean temperature or acidity, glacier and ice cap coverage, trends in the amount of snow and rain, and the frequency of severe storms like hurricanes are all examples of climate change. Earth’s climate has changed countless times throughout its 4.5 billion-year history, but this change is often very slow, with long periods of relative stability. Records indicate that the Earth may have once, or even multiple times, been almost entirely covered in snow and ice over its history; there is also evidence that suggests that at other times in the past the Earth has been exceptionally hot. Think of Earth’s climate as a pendulum swinging back and forth from hot to cold roughly every 10,000 to 100,000 years. Climate change is a natural phenomenon, and our actions are accelerating this process.

“The greenhouse effect” is often the most misunderstood of these terms. The greenhouse effect is essential to the survival of life on this planet. Just as a greenhouse provides warm and moist conditions in which we grow plants, our planetary greenhouse effect is responsible for the same warmth and moisture, but on a much larger, planetary scale.

Almost all of us have experienced getting into our cars on a warm summer day and realizing that the car’s interior is much warmer than the outside. This is the greenhouse effect in action. Visible light from the Sun goes through your car windows and is absorbed in the interior causing an increase in temperature. The seats then radiate energy, but in the form of infrared rather than visible light. Even though we can’t see infrared light without specialized equipment, it can be felt in the form of heat.

There is an infrared camera in the lobby of Fiske Planetarium that visitors can use for free. Visible light escapes through the windows while the infrared light remains trapped, resulting in an increase in temperature.

Earth’s atmosphere behaves just like our car windows. Some of the gases in our atmosphere, such as carbon dioxide, methane and even water have the ability to trap and/or block the transmission of infrared light.

Without the greenhouse effect, infrared light leaving the Earth’s surface would escape into space, leaving the Earth much cooler than it is, particularly at night. The gases in our atmosphere prevent that from happening and trap the heat. Earth’s average temperature is roughly 15 degrees C (59 degrees Fahrenheit), whereas its temperature without the greenhouse effect might be -16 degrees C (3 F). The greenhouse effect is not, in itself, a problem; rather, it is having concentrations of greenhouse gases that are too high that is of great concern.

An example of what happens when such concentrations are too high can be seen by looking at our planetary neighbor, Venus: the Venusian atmosphere is more than 96 percent carbon dioxide (compared to 0.038 percent on Earth), and the temperature can reach 460 C, which is hotter than your oven can get. On the other hand, the planet Mars has a very thin atmosphere is quite cold at -63 degrees C (-81 F). Venus, Earth and Mars are often referred to as the “Goldilocks” planets. Venus is the porridge that is too hot, Mars is porridge that is too cold and Earth is just right.

Finally, the term “global warming” is often used when referring to anthropogenic (human-caused) climate change. Since the end of the industrial revolution in the late 1800s, the temperature of the Earth has rapidly increased, and this trend has been seen in temperatures recorded in many locations around the globe.

But an average warming of the climate is not the only result of climate change. Climate models also predict more extreme weather episodes such as hurricanes and heavy precipitation, including snow in some places, and the climate history of Earth shows that many periods of rapid climate change were accompanied by episodes of extreme weather. Towards the end of 2010 and into the beginning of 2011 we have seen a lot of extreme weather across the world, from massive winter storms bringing snow to Atlanta, Ga., to unprecedented flooding in Australia, to a devastating heat wave in Russia. For us in Colorado we are still seeing a wetter-than-normal winter season in the mountains, and at the start of the new year, the average snowpack across the state was 140 percent of normal. This is only a year, so it should be described as weather, but it is the trend that “global warming” is predicted to cause. If you hear the media or politicians claim that a recent stint of cold-weather events is proof that global warming is a myth or made up, they are simply wrong.

Unfortunately, deliberate misinformation also clouds the climate debate. In the media you can find claims of a “climate conspiracy” among scientists (often on sites paid for by those who don’t want to face climate change.) But weather and earth scientists don’t hold secret meetings; they are open to anyone who wants to attend. At the American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco 15,000 to 20,000 participate. Scientists from all over the world report on what is happening to air and ocean temperatures, glaciers, volcanoes — you name it. Not all, but an overwhelming majority find evidence that demonstrates increasing climate change. The scientists aren’t hiding anything. In fact, most are happy to talk about their work if you ask. The evidence of climate change has increased over the last several decades, and that is what scientists are reporting.

Now that we have clarified these sometimes confusing terms, we can focus on what we can do to change things, and what happens if we do nothing. First, many kinds of data clearly show climate change in the form of a trend toward warmer temperatures. Scientists agree that the Earth’s climate is warming. The real question facing us is how much of this warming is “anthropogenic” (caused by the actions of mankind). For instance, is all of the warming caused by humans, or is most of it natural, with our actions accounting for a small fraction? If our impact on global climate is large enough, the planet’s natural regulatory mechanisms may become overwhelmed and lead to further, even more dramatic increases in both temperature and extreme weather events in the future.

The two main sources of anthropogenic global warming on Earth appear to be the release of greenhouse gases as a result of the burning of fossil fuels, and global deforestation. While the burning of fossil fuels is the most obvious culprit in global warming, the role of trees and vegetation in providing a natural defense against concentrations of greenhouse gases is often overlooked. Forests pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere during photosynthesis, and emit breathable oxygen as a byproduct. Widespread deforestation due to human activity is seriously crippling one of our planet’s climate regulation mechanisms: according to an Environmental Protection Agency study from 2005, a one-acre forest can sequester two metric tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) in one year. Two metric tons of CO2 is the same amount of CO2 released when using 227 gallons of gasoline. A Department of Transportation study states that each driver in the U.S. uses about 730 gallons of gas per year. When we put it all together, this means it takes roughly three acres of forest to offset your yearly carbon emission from driving you car.

Do we need to stop burning fossil fuels entirely? Some might say yes, but most agree that this is unlikely to happen as long as such fuels remain available. What actions can we take? As consumers, we have a great deal more power to effect change than we might suppose, and our actions don’t rely on government action to impact the global climate. Even small steps toward making clean energy cost-effective and improving efficiency in our appliances, homes and vehicles can have a real-world impact. Agricultural changes that enable more efficient use of land can help to reduce deforestation, as can minimizing the use of plant products that are not derived from renewable sources. There is no single, magical solution to global warming and climate change, but the vast majority of the evidence tells us that we can no longer wait to take action.

For more on this article please go to http://fiske.colorado.edu/sciencecolumns.php

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Sorry, probably my fault, but I didn't see where you cited any sources or did any studies yourself proving that a global change in the climate is happening.

 

Visible light from the Sun goes through your car windows and is absorbed in the interior causing an increase in temperature. high street lenders

 

REPLY TO THIS COMMENT

To hambonation - you can check the official positions of these organizations:  The American GeoPhysical Union, the National Academy of Science, The American Institute of Physics, The National Science Foundation, the American Assoc. for the Advancement of Science, the American Chemical Society, the Soil Science Society of America, the American Physical Society, the National Research Council, NOAA, the Royal Society of the UK, NASA just to name a few.

But, I suspect you are a crank.  And, if you open your mind, and eyes, you can see the evidence here and around the globe.  The arctic is melting too in case you didn't hear about it, and sea level is rising.  Vegetation zones have shifted as have habitats for trees, birds and animals.

Google is a great tool for those really interested in knowing the facts.

 

 

"Vegetation zones have shifted as have habitats for trees, birds and animals." Oh yeah... where?

 

REPLY TO THIS COMMENT

The authr needs to think this through a little more carefully.

Like Venus, Mars also has 96% CO2 but is extremely cold. The temperature on Venus is due to the very high atmospheric pressure, not the chemical makeup of the atmosphere. Why do you think it is so hot in Death Valley and the Dead Sea?

 

Don't worry he was also off by about 100 years regarding the industrial revolution. It started in mid to late 1700s not late in the 1800s.

 

CO2 on Mars you beat me to it (-: But I love this quote from the article: "Earth’s atmosphere behaves just like our car windows. Some of the gases in our atmosphere, such as carbon dioxide, methane and even water have the ability to trap and/or block the transmission of infrared light." Oh yes, even water [vapor] Well, at least he mentioned it. Some of the loonies out there don't.

 

JL
Sean, he states that it ENDED in the late 1800's not began. Great that your a history buff but might want to read a little closer before judging next time.

 

Steve, while it's certainly true that water vapor is the most frequently-occurring greenhouse gas, it's missing the point to say that carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases whose presence in the atmosphere is increasing don't have an effect on climate change. CO2 levels are incredibly important to the atmosphere; just because water vapor also is doesn't lesson that importance.

 

The Venus comparison is bogus. The reason the temperature at the surface of Venus is around 460 C is because of the enormous Venusian surface atmospheric pressure, which is ~93 times greater than the sea-level atmospheric pressure on Earth. At a height of about 49.5 km above the surface of Venus where the atmospheric pressure is the same as Earth's sea-level pressure, the temperature is ~17.6% higher (338.6K) than the average Earth sea-level temperature of 15 C (~288K), just as would be expected on a planet that is one-third closer to the sun (Venus: ~67.25 million miles from the sun; Earth: ~93 million miles). In other words, if the earth were suddenly moved to the Venusian orbit, the sea-level temperature of earth would be exactly the same as the temperature at an altitude of ~49.5km in the Venusian atmosphere, where the atmospheric pressure is the same. Venus atmosphere: 96.5% CO2. Earth atmosphere: 0.04% CO2. Conclusion: The so-called greenhouse effect does not exist. The temperature of any planet with an atmosphere is almost totally controlled by the atmospheric pressure and the amount of solar insolation incident upon it. You can easily check the numbers at Harry Dale Huffman's post about this at http://theendofthemystery.blogspot.com/2010/11/venus-no-greenhouse-effect.html.

 

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Your understanding of the Greenhouse effect is incomplete.

Yes a GHG will absorb & release within microseconds a photon of energy. BUT  at any given time all the photons are already being used to  create the 33C of greenhouse warming, then there are no more photons available if you add more GHGs or CO2. This is the realirty on Earth. There is an excess of CO2. Since all the photons are in use, if you add more you just add more CO2. It does not add to warming.

It is proven nightly by Mother Nature. When the sun sets & the number of photons decreases, IN SPITE OF man adding more CO2, the temperature goes DOWN. This disproves that more CO2 means more warming, every single night.

 

That was totally incoherent, John. There is not an excess of CO2. Think of it this way: is earth's surface visibe from space? Of course! Thus, light is escaping, and as such, with more c02 more light-and with it, heat- can be trapped. Until every single photon of light is reflected by greenhouse gasses, an increase in said gasses will result in global warming. And of course the temperature goes down when it's nighttime! This, as a matter of fact, actually disproves your point of maximum-capacity greenhouse gasses. Yes, if earth was perfectly insulated, a given area would not get colder at night. But use your brain- if it does get colder, than heat must be escaping! And that means that as greenhouse gasses increase, we will feel their effects proportionally. And by the way, Steves, yes, the atmosphere is almost exclusively co2 on Mars, but the total mass of Mar's atmosphere is about 1/200th of earth, and as such the impacts of the greenhouse effect are minimal.

 

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Preserve, Protect and Respect our Planet by Dropping the CO2.

Can we put our political agendas aside and work together on pollution and population control, not climate control? It’s happening anyways as the voters of the world walk away from the CO2 issue but certainly not the pollution issue itself. Climate Control was not about pollution, it was specifically about a CO2 death threat. Meanwhile, the UN had allowed carbon trading to trump 3rd world fresh water relief, starvation rescue and 3rd world education for just over a quarter of a century of climate control instead of needed population control.

Former climate control believers and remaining climate control believers all want the same thing, a sustainable and "civilized" planet, not a planet sustained on fear motivation, just to get people to turn the lights out more often.

It’s a beautiful planet and if we spent as much time loving and experiencing it as we do declaring it dead, we will be real planet lovers then.

SYSTEM CHANGE, not CLIMATE CHANGE If you still think voters will now say YES to making the weather nicer with taxes, YOU are the new denier. The world has walked away from the CO2 mistake. Continued defense of it isn’t helping anyone or the planet and even Obama didn’t mention climate in his state of the union speech. Let’s all get ahead of the curve as history watches us.

 

 
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