Most scientists would say that climate change is real. The Earth has lots of past proof that climate changes all the time. So much so, that anyone (scientist or not) can proclaim it true, because it is easier to prove than the existence of some all-knowing being.
The truth is that most people on Earth today would do just the opposite, though. They’d tell the scientists that they believe in God, but not climate change. Sorry Carl Sagan. You got nothing on the Pope.
It’s a beautiful spring day after a very long winter. Guess what? That is empirical, verifiable proof that climate change occurs on a seasonal time scale at temperate latitudes. No one’s denying that. You can believe in God or not. Doesn’t matter on that one. Climate change is real. Amen.
Now for a harder part. Can I, as a scientist or non-scientist, reliably predict that there will be a summer this year, meaning that it will get hotter here and that it will likely not snow in July? Probably can. As any 4th grader can tell you, the Earth tilts toward the sun in summer, and more sunlight hits the temperate zone making it hotter. But guess what? An enormous event may alter the tilt of the Earth, the sun might explode, or an alien race might destroy the Earth to make a highway (see the wonderful Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy). There is a minuscule probability that summer won’t come this year.
Now for an even harder part. Can I predict that winter next year will make a lot of snow? If I am a climatologist, I run lots of sophisticated models on clustered computers, I look at sunspots, the brightness of the sun, the heat trapped in the oceans, and other stuff, and I make a prediction. Any climatologist will tell you that the predictability isn’t that great. It is still better than betting that an alien highway will be built…but to a society accustomed to good cell phone service, a reliable meal, and gas at every highway exit, they’re not that impressed.
Now, jump on the climate change bandwagon. We know that carbon dioxide concentrations are being pumped into the atmosphere at alarming rates. We know that in the distant past, there was a nice correlation between carbon dioxide concentration and atmospheric temperature. But we don’t have a causal relationship that’s nearly as reliable as a tilting Earth and the seasons. And that sucks. But that’s the way it is.
There were lots of other things different on Earth when carbon dioxide levels where high and Earth’s temperatures were undeniably hotter. Dinosaurs. Big, chunky continents were located in different places (e.g., near the equator). Lots of brachiopods were in the ocean. And really early on, nothing was alive on land.
So, we scientists living in this warm period in between ice ages flip out and tell society that it is going to get hotter on Earth and we show that, yes indeed, over the past few decades, we’ve had some scorchers and expect everyone to come outside and demand to have their lights turned off because we still rely mostly on fossil fuels and we don’t have the will to put that messy carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrogen compounds somewhere out of the way.
But it was really cold this winter in North America and spring came again. So, scientists, we’re not that convinced, society says. Some of us do worry about that Arctic sea ice. But that may just be a fluke and it will come back next year.
The reality is, and always will be, that humans are empirical, analog creatures responding to immediate stimuli in the environment.
None of this worrying about that future generation bull.
That’s not how 99% of us roll evolutionarily.
And that’s ok.
But when it comes to policy and stewardship of our resources and the future of our planet, there are clever ways to solve the looming problems, whether rising carbon dioxide concentrations are going to be really that damaging with the current configuration of oceans and continents on the planet.
First and foremost. Get off the bandwagon. Admit that, yes, climate change is normal on Earth. But until you can convince Joe Public what the weather will really be like next season (which you can’t), don’t expect them to trust you much about predicting temperature on Earth in the next 50 years.
Second, my dearest colleagues. Compromise. Getting off fossil fuels is going to be hard. Just saying to society that we need to “pull the band aid and damn the economic consequences” is not going to work. Give society the solutions for energy conservation, carbon sequestration and efficient energy storage/transmissions with realistic promises and economic realism (i.e., work with economists before you go down the path of discovery NOT LATER).
Third. Learn acceptance. Look at what we’ve already done to the environment with habitat fragmentation, invasive species, complete alteration of almost all our watersheds, pollution, etc. Prioritize climate change in the context of all the other horrific calamities facing us today and accept that climate change is coming, like it or not. It will be colder or hotter in some places. Weather will likely be less predictable. But there will still be seasons. That’s about all we can really say for now to our people, unless the aliens get their highway.
Be patient with us. We are smart but not very good at teaching you about what we learn.
Also, realize that science is a messy, subjective business. We don’t get it right every time. We make lots of mistakes.
Give us money. Believe it or not, we do make your lives better. Had polio lately? Like your satellite TV? How about that good gas mileage on your hybrid? Or that new hip replacement? Did you have a baby when you shouldn’t have been able to? All of this good stuff was funded by tax payer dollars that were eventually commercialized for your pleasure and longevity. If you cut us off, it will be back to the Flintstones for you.
And who will help develop that next generation of air conditioning when it gets really hot outside?