Science and Climate Change: Now is the Time to Talk about It

There’s a recent idea being floated by U.S. government officials who are climate change deniers. It goes something like this: “Now is not the time to talk about climate change while people are suffering.” On the contrary, at a point when people have lost homes, businesses, and possibly their lives to ramped-up storms, now IS the time. It has been time for decades. The science supports the conclusions that humans have affected our planet’s climate. I’m all about the science. We should all be all about the science — it provides the evidence for what is happening.

There’s also another misconception floating around that climate change causes hurricanes. I’ve seen this one repeated endlessly across social media, often by people who seem to forget that hurricanes, typhoons, tropical storms, and blizzards have always occurred. The fact that they happen is NOT the problem. Storms are part of our atmosphere and climate and life on Earth has put up with them for 3.8 billion years. The plain fact is, humans are affecting the planet’s climate in ways we need to understand. The data support that idea, as you can see in this video from NASA.

We have at our disposal a number of Earth-observing platforms in space, delivering current views of our planet and its storms, and data about greenhouse gases. Countries around the world have these systems. Scientists constantly monitor weather conditions around the globe. That information helps save lives and property by providing information for forecasts. It also can show us how the climate is changing. THAT is the power of science. It’s part of planetary science, something we do at every other world in the solar system. The fact that we can use our fantastic space science resources to study our own planet is a good thing. Those resources are supplying the information we can use to talk about how climate change is affecting life on our planet. And, that’s what we should be doing.

The Effects of Climate Change

The simple fact is that climate change made Harvey and Irma, and the heavy storms in southeast Asia  worse than normal. That’s an undisputable fact. The science backs it up. The same data that tells us about sea temperatures and atmospheric changes that cause these storms also provides extremely valuable insight into the effects of climate change.

A few years back, I was involved in a project to explain climate change in ways that people could understand it. We found that direct language was best. For example, warmer temperatures not only heat the atmosphere, they heat the oceans, causing profound effects. Ice melts and eventually raises sea level. Sea life migrates or disappears or is damaged.

Climate change makes cold places colder, hot places hotter, storms stronger. In some places, it brings unusual weather such as hotter than normal conditions, ranging from the polar regions to the equator. Those are the weather consequences of climate change. It’s happening. We can measure it and observe the results.

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Rainfall from IRMA as measured by NASA’s Global Precipitation Measurement mission. Courtesy NASA.

As we have seen in the U.S., India, Nepal, Bangladesh, and other places over the past weeks, stronger storms are bringing devastation. Flooding, heat emergencies, and the prospect of insect-borne disease and contamination threaten people’s lives. In Florida and the eastern Caribbean, in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma and in Texas after Harvey, the lack of air conditioning is threatening people’s health. Older people and babies are most at risk. As well, crops have been destroyed, which disrupts some parts of the food supply chain. There’s no question about any of these effects. They’re happening. NASA was able to measure everything from wind speeds to rainfall amounts. This is data we can use, and we should. 

I don’t think anybody disputes that climate change is doing damage. What’s under dispute (and shouldn’t be) is the role that humans play in contributing to climate change. The science is there, too. We just have to want to believe it. Many of us do. Some do not. They don’t like what they’re finding out from the science. Of course, nobody likes that we’re affecting this planet’s atmosphere. It requires us to assume a level of blame that some do not want to hear about, either due to politics or possible harm to their financial status. Yet, around the world, people ARE being harmed, not just their wallets, but their homes and lives. We don’t have the luxury of sticking our heads in the sand nor of trusting leaders who do.

What You Can Do

Learn about climate change from the scientists who make the measurements and do the analysis and know the effects. They are the best qualified to talk about the subject. It’s what I did when I studied atmospheric science back in the day. It’s what I did when I wrote an exhibition about climate change for the California Academy of Sciences in 2008. I wanted to know the science. You can find out, too, without having to get a graduate degree. There are plenty of sources that explain it best. Read this page at NASA (while it’s still there). Check out these white papers at the National Academy of Sciences. Read what the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has to share. See what the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has to say based on its long-term studies of the atmosphere.

Trust the Science

The science from these sources is not opinion or religious dogma or political dodgeball. It’s hard data and facts, something we all should pride ourselves in checking out. Follow the science, learn about it, learn what the effects of climate change are. Educating yourself with qualified science is the best route.

You know who isn’t qualified to talk about climate change? Politicians, particularly those who are paid by fossil fuel interests and others who don’t want climate change even mentioned. You wouldn’t trust your bank account to a clown, would you? Or your health to a truck driver?  No, they may be professionals in their areas of entertainment or moving supplies around the country. But, to get educated professional advice on climate change, science is your best bet. Go to the actual experts who know what they’re talking about. These are the people who have done the work, walked the walk and talk the talk. Dodgy “think tanks” and “institutes” that are fronts for science deniers are not good sources, no matter how “homey” and “Americana” their logos may look.

What’s Being Done Around the World

To mitigate the effects of climate change, people in most other countries around the world are paying attention to the science. They’re stopping the use of fossil fuels. They’re moving to sustainable resources for electricity and transportation. I’ve seen it as I travel around. They’re improving on technology that first made an appearance back in the 1970s and 80s, when fuel crises abounded. Then, as fuel prices dropped, solar and wind lost popularity in the U.S. The technology migrated overseas. Not good for the U.S. economy, but definitely good for others.

The U.S. is not the world leader in renewable energy sources, although it’s moving fast to catch up to countries that do respect the science. Companies that are investing in wind and solar energy technology are providing jobs and investment opportunities. Much of the U.S. is dotted with wind farms; our military is seriously moving into solar power where necessary. Many more companies across all market sectors are making the commitment to sustainable power. This can only be good for the economy, as Korea, China, Germany, and many other countries already know.

Personal Thoughts

Several years ago, the region I live in suffered catastrophic floods. Images from that time look nearly identical to images we’re seeing of recent hurricane damage in the U.S. and flooding in Southeast Asia. The flooding was caused by unseasonal torrential rains. People lost homes, businesses, and lives.

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Drought-fed fire in Colorado in 2016. Copyright 2016, Carolyn Collins Petersen.

In more recent years, our part of the country has been subject to severe drought-fed fires. In fact, right now, most of the U.S. West has fires burning. These create smoke and conditions, and destroy forests and homes, critical habitats for both wildlife and humans. Climate change is definitely part of the equation for the floods and droughts. Yes, they happen anyway, but climate change has made them worse.

What I Did

I wanted to learn more about how to communicate the science and effects of climate change. So, in March this year, I took a three-day workshop training with the Climate Reality Leadership project. It was a way for me to explore methods of communicating with others about the effects of climate change. Yes, I’d learned the science some years ago, and continue to follow the work being done to understand just how human activity has contributed to climate change. I and a thousand other people at the workshop learned about ways to talk about what is happening to our climate and how we can work to change that.

It’s in our hands, people. We live on a world we’ve influenced. It’s our duty to take the science and what it’s telling us seriously.

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