Heads firmly in the sand since 1896

pumper-jobs-lined-upDonald Trump has called climate change a hoax invented by the Chinese.  His in-coming administration threatens the Paris Climate Accord.  Trump’s nominee to head the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, as Oklahoma’s Attorney General, fought EPA regulations and testified that, “I believe the ability to measure with precision the degree of human activities impact on the climate is subject to more debate on whether the climate is changing or whether human activity is contributing to it.”   Mr. Trump, in fact, campaigned on a promise (the Koch brothers’ dream!) to create a resurgent fossil fuel industry in the United States – more coal, more fracking, and more mining of the Canadian tar sands.

Someone needs to explain to these intellectually challenged individuals that the debate on global warming due to carbon dioxide emissions is over and has been over for more than a hundred years.  On Wednesday of this week, NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported that the last three years, in succession, were the warmest on record.  The actual science of global warming was described in detail in 1896.  We apparently need to explain to Trump and his buddies how basic science works.  Yes, cigarettes are bad for you, sex causes pregnancy, and, that fifth of Wild Turkey you just drank will intoxicate you.  You had best not drive.  Yes, Darwin explained evolution.  And, yes, burning fossil fuel causes global warming.   I know, as Al Gore said.   It’s all sadly inconvenient.

A friend of mine in the scientific community wrote me recently with the following details:


Svante Arrhenius

“In 1827 (yes, the early 19th century-this is not a typo) the French scientist Thomas Fourier postulated that the Earth’s atmosphere has a ‘greenhouse’ effect on the Earth’s temperature. Near the end of the same century, in 1896, the Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius published a landmark article in the London, Edinburgh, and Dublin Philosophical Magazine.  Entitled On the Influence of Carbonic Acid in the Air upon the Temperature of the Ground, this article spoke to the question of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2, or ‘carbonic acid’ as the term was then used) and its effect on our climate. The article was based on very fundamental and well-understood principles of visible and infrared radiation, including their emission by surfaces and their transmission through the air.

 In an era before computers and satellite imagery, Arrhenius had no choice but to distill the issue down to these fundamentals, and, even at that, his paper contains over 40 pages of results of extensive, painstaking hand calculations. But his conclusions are clear;  the Earth’s temperature is strongly influenced by carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. As an example, he predicted that a 50% increase of atmospheric carbon dioxide would lead ultimately to a 3.1 to 3.8 degree Centigrade rise in average temperature, depending on the season and latitude. This is remarkably close to what has actually been happening since the beginning of the industrial era, as carbon dioxide concentrations have risen from 280 to 400 parts per million.

 With today’s tools, scientists are considering additional factors that could affect the exact amount and rate of temperature rise, many of the factors being feedbacks such as increased absorption of the sun’s radiation that occurs as ice melts, or the changing cover of clouds as water evaporation increases in a warmer climate. Different computer models yield somewhat different details in the degree and pattern of climate change, doubtless fueling the propaganda of ‘climate deniers’ who claim that the scientific community is in ‘disagreement’. The simple fact is that modern models all converge to the same broad conclusion reached by Arrhenius, namely that the Earth’s average climate is warming importantly in response to atmospheric carbon dioxide. No credible scientist envisions the problem going away, and some potential scenarios could be much worse than those which Arrhenius predicted, if various feedbacks prove to act strongly.

As climate change scientists continue to refine these predictions, politicians, activists, and corporate interests debate the consequences of the predictable changes on human society and planetary habitability. However, there is no credible argument based on any known science that humans can continue to make large additions of carbon dioxide (and other greenhouse gases as well!) to the atmosphere without seriously risking the habitability of large portions of the land surface, the productivity and distribution of agricultural lands, the movement of diseases and pests, and other primary and secondary effects whose extent is not yet known.

 Fourier recognized the greenhouse effect almost two centuries ago, and Arrhenius laid out the basic physics and mathematics relating carbon dioxide to the temperature of Earth over a century ago. Surely by now it is time to recognize `climate denial` for what it is, a falsehood and a menace to our future.


Prof. Svante Arrhenius (1896) XXXI. On the influence of carbonic acid in the air upon the temperature of the ground , Philosophical Magazine Series 5, 41:251, 237-276.

Available online at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/14786449608620846)”


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