Here’s a great article in the Huffington post about growing food on Mars. At least it seems like a great article, as it appears interesting and informative. Yes, we can live on Mars! (Threshold question is probably being able to first successfully continue to live and improve on earth, however.)
It’s a great article, that is, until we get to these two sentences. Pay close attention:
The carbon dioxide in our atmosphere has increased from 0.03 to 0.04 percent over the past 100 years. We are only just beginning to study the impacts of this subtle change.
Sure, we could argue in a court of law that this isn’t technically a lie, or even “wrong,” since the rounded off math is accurate enough, and appropriate.
And if the “subtle” term is taken as a very poor synonym (in science terms, anyway), for “small,” and the statement considered devoid of context – and is therefore both meaningless, and misleading – the word itself, as it’s also subjective, isn’t a lie or even technically “wrong.”
But, putting aside the almost ridiculous “just beginning to study” phrase, these two sentences misconstrue and misrepresents the atmospheric CO2 change in just about as profound and fundamental way as possible.
A 33% change to earth’s fundamental insulation layer (what keeps the earth from being an essentially lifeless ball of frozen rock), that also suddenly occurs in what is a mere geologic instant – suddenly changing its long term insulation layer to levels not seen on earth in millions of years – scientifically, is anything but “subtle.”
Perhaps the article was written by a so called climate change “lukewarmer” who’s otherwise scientifically knowledgeable but by ideology or belief confused about the issue.
Or maybe it was penned by one who knows the issue to present a significant and relevant risk range of major climatic change over time, but simply isn’t considering or seeing the message the “subtle change” statement projects to those who don’t have the exact same understanding and thorough knowledge of the issue.
But either way, it serves as example of why there’s so much largely unrecognized confusion on this issue, and even more – and often fervently believed cherry picked misinformation led – misperception of it.
This is a misperception that runs rampant enough so that, while not widely reported or commented on, a majority of polls in Australia, the United Kingdom, Canada, and the United States for example continue to show that barely half – and sometimes not even half – of the representative adult population acknowledges or believes that yes earth’s climate is changing and yes it’s doing so at least in relevant part by anthropogenic caused changes to our long term atmosphere’s chemical balance.
So let’s briefly address what is wrong with those two sentences:
Small has no meaning in science devoid of context. A relatively small amount of the retinol form of vitamin A will kill you.
The vitamin A forms found in plants are essentially converted into A in the body as needed, so you can eat as much of it as you like. But you can’t eat as much real Vitamin A, or retinol, as you like, since while it’s an esssential nutrient for survival, it’s also a toxin that is lethal in still relatively small amounts.
Obviously this is not subtle. Yet any suggestion it is would belie the relevant bio physiological factors, such as the basic relevant dose response curve of human physiology.
So it is on climate change.
And so when, for instance, we hear one time presidential candidate Michelle Bachmann preach out out on the Congressional floor how climate change can’t be relevant because the amount of carbon dioxide in the air is so “small,” humankind has essentially reached the epitome of pure scientific and logical ignorance – uttering a statement that on its own couldn’t be any more irrelevant to the actual issue, yet at the same time appears to have sufficient relevant meaning that from Bachmann, and still today on “real science” climate change websites, comment boards, and in political speech hundreds of thousands of times over, it’s repeated as if some sort of relevant climate change mitigating or refuting, “fact” and not the context meaningless statement that it is.
The bottom line is this: If we’re outdoors and freezing, and a blanket is placed over us, we don’t think of the blanket, which occupies an infinitesmally small amount of the available air space over us, as “subtle.”
It’s not a perfect analogy to our atmospheric change, but it suffices: The long term greenhouse gas composition of the atmosphere is somewhat like earth’s blanket. Take it away, and essentially earth would then itself consist of a perpetually frozen and lifeless or all but lifeless ball hurtling through space.
And that “subtle” amount of long lived thermal radiation trapping gas, which then drives many of the conditions that help to make up our climate and in turn further affect earth’s net energy balance (such as evaporation of water and the ensuing if very short term but ongoing thermal recapture by those molecules, and the earth’s own reflectivity, or albedo, for example), scientifically is almost as non subtle as can be.
It’s the difference between a verdant earth teeeming with life, and one practically frozen solid, on which perhaps a few microbes might exist. Once again, not “subtle.”
The parts per million concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere can be seen as a “small” number, in absolute terms. But in science, small is very different from subtle. A small amount of coral snake venom is incredibly poisonous. Same thing. Not subtle.
But the real part of the problem with the reference is not the absolute number of molecules, but the reference to the change itself in those numbers as “subtle.”
“Subtle” conveys the idea that having any type of relevant effect as a resulf of this supposedly “subtle” change would almost be unexpected, and a surprise; when it’s not in the least. Change the earth’s long term atmospheric recapture of energy to a geologically significant degree, and the earth almost all but has to ultimately change, and likely over time at least, in the warming direction.
And that was what was first hypothesized many many decades ago. And it is what even outnumbered fear of ongoing ice age type cooling (made popular by an infamous Time magazine article in the 70s) in published paper form by over 5 to 1 over forty years ago, even after fifteen plus years of cooling and the fact that we were in an otherwise very slow earth cooling ice age, and before a veritable avalanche of additional (as well as empirically corroborating) information has been added.
An increase from 300 to 400 parts per million is an increase of 33%. A third is not even subtle in pure number terms, putting aside even the more important fact that pure number terms is not what’s relevant. Yet levels just in the industrial era have even risen more than a third, as have levels of other key greenhouse gases, with the next most important one rising far more. (Underestimated methane has more than doubled, for instance. And while it’s hard to assess levels going back millions of years, it, like carbon dioxide, essentially has suddenly shot straight up- and way up – from otherwise fairly measurable levels dating back trhough about 800,000 years or reliable ice core sampling. That’s very far from subtle as well, and part of the overall impact upon long term climate which the article references – a very key part.)
But far more importantly, that “subtle” change is also a geologically sudden – abrupt – increase of ambient atmospheric carbon dioxide to levels, as best as we can tell, that have not been seen on earth in several million years.
That’s not very subtle either.
That is, in a mere moment of geologic time, our earth’s “blanket” has been changed on the order of millions of years.
That earth’s blanket, after the sun, is the most fundamental component for determining climate on earth.
Again, many of the other components that go into driving climate are ultimately directed by incoming energy – the sun – and energy recapture – the atmosphere’s insulation layer (earth’s “blanket”).
These in turn affect the amount of white snow and ice versus, say, darker tundra or forest, and thus the amount of sunlight hitting the earth that’s absorbed and re radiated as medium wavelength thermal radiation – recaptured by atmospheric greenhouse gases – or reflected as far shorter wavelength sunlight – and not recaptured.
And they affect the amount of evaporation and ultimately water vapor patterns in the atmosphere, thereby indirectly but ultimately driving the concentrations of the single most “important” thermal radiation recapturing gas at any moment – water vapor.
Water vapor is “important” in that there’s so much of it on average it’s normally responsible for the majority of all atmospheric thermal radiation absorption and re radiaion. But not in the sense of ultimately driving climate. This is because water vapor is part of what climate is; an expression of it. That is, it is a reflection of conditions that of course help shape what climate is on an ongoing basis, but is not an underlying driver. Hence why water vapor is highly emphemeral and variable. An ongoing and constantly changing reflection of the climate that in turn becomes part of it because it also plays a key role in energy recapture.
And on climate change, this “climate reflection” of potentially changing water vapor conditions, for us anyway, is an extremely counter productive situation either way: Increased total water vapor only amplifies the overall heat energy recapturing effect and increases the intensity and number of larger precipitation events relative to what the earth’s systems evolved to support over the last few million years (as well, as, compounding the problem, what we built ourselves).
On the other hand, decreased total water vapor (the opposite of what has been so far observed) would only greatly intensify widespread regional changes and in many areas shift over to drought conditions even further – something that even with more precipitation (much wasted with larger intensity events), is already a major part of the relevant risk range of climate change to begin with.
That incoming energy from the sun, and the atmospheric recapture of thermal radiation energy versus reflected sunlight to begin with, which in turn depends in enormous part on earth’s albedo that shapes the amount of sunlight energy simply reflected versus absorbed and then thermally emitted and itself driven by total incoming and then atmospheric recaptured energy, as well as evaporation, in turn drive the energy balance of the earth’s ocean; which stabilizes, and, long term, perhaps drives or at least regulates or modulates earth’s climate as directly as anything else. But again is also a long term reflection of earth’s long term net energy.
And while many factors besides our own caused increased net emissions of greenhouse gases go into shaping those greenhouse gas levels, those factors, along with the oceans, ultimately, are still originally driven by a) the amount of total incoming energy (the sun) and b) the amount of energy that, given what is radiated back off of earth, is not subsequently lost to the atmosphere but is instead recaptured and thus retained to further increase earth’s total retained energy level.
And thus making a geologically sudden change to earth’s long term insulation layer, and the fundamental long term driver which in turn drives other conditions that help create climate and in turn shapes both short term variable and long term atmospheric insulative conditions that shape climate as well, the very polar opposite of “subtle.”*
Complex doesn’t equal subtle.
Saying climate change in one sense can be considered complex is fair.
Saying it is subtle mangles the subject, and further feeds rampant confusion and misperception on it – which, contrary to popular belief, is not simply rectified by telling people that “it’s a problem, so therefore believe us,” or simply assumingi it to be so, and which on balance both only greatly worsen perception on the issue.
Additionally, viewing this issue devoid of context, and in the sense of absolute numbers and fractions, rather than in that context of what those numbers and fractions mean in terms of earth’s recent geologic history, is one of the more fundamental mistakes made in terms of assessing what climate change really is – the impact of long term atmospheric change upon earth’s long term climate, and a broad risk of largely incalculable effects and risks – and perhaps even more importantly, communicating on the subject.
*This is, again, particularly the case when that sudden alteration is on the order of a several million year change, and occassioned in a mere geologic instant. And one that here, also, represents not a microscopically small fractional increase, but over 40% in just the last 150 to 200 years alone: And one that that is also accompanied by an increase of over 100% of the second most important (and underestimated) long term greenhouse gase; one that increased atmospheric warming of the earth’s historically colder surfaces, as well as it’s oceans, are in turn further increasing the long term levels of as well,with potentially if not likely wild ramifications.