US President Barack Obama’s science adviser, John Holdren, took on climate change deniers in a comprehensive, data-heavy speech last month at the Kavli Science Forum in Oslo, Norway. Proclaiming that “the earth is getting hotter”, Holden went on to enumerate on the causes of climate change (human impacts) and its overall effect (not good), discussing at length the science that underpins the theory of climate change. For environmentalists and international officials frustrated with the US’s slow pace on combating climate change—which is decades behind Europe’s and many other nations’—Holdren touted that the Obama Administration had made progress on the issue and stated that the administration plans to pursue legislation again after a new congress is elected. However, given current predictions that Republicans will pick up seats in November, comprehensive climate and energy legislation seems unlikely since historically the majority of the GOP has been against tackling climate change.
Yet, Holdren argued that “most people are perhaps not sufficiently aware of the number of ways in which climate affects our well being,” citing how climate impacts not just weather patterns, but availability of water; the productivity of agriculture, forests, and fisheries; the spread of disease; the need for funds to be spent on adaptation; and the survival of the world’s species.
Much of Holdren’s speech addressed what he called the “five myths” of climate change, including that argument that warming is natural, that climate change impacts are far on the horizon, and that climate change won’t be bad for society. Systematically taking on each of these ‘myths’, often touted by climate change deniers, Holdren argued that for most of the world unmitigated climate change would mean massive disruptions to society and exponential increases in human suffering.
Except for a leveling off between the 1940s and 1970s, Earth’s surface temperatures have increased since 1880. The last decade has brought the temperatures to the highest levels ever recorded. The graph shows global annual surface temperatures relative to 1951-1980 mean temperatures. As shown by the red line, long-term trends are more apparent when temperatures are averaged over a five year period. Image credit: NASA/GISS.
“[Current climate change] is rapid compared to the capacities for adjustment, the capacities of ecosystems, and the capacity of social and economic systems to adjust, and it is going to be harmful for most places and most times,” Holdren said. “Some places for some time will get some benefits from climate change, but most places for most times and increasingly so going forward will suffer harm.”
Holdren admitted that the media frenzy over emails stolen from the University of East Anglia last December and a few mistakes by the IPCC show that “climate scientists are human too” and “more efforts at openness and transparency are warranted”, but, he emphasized, they do not impact the science behind climate change.
“The errors discovered so far are relatively few, and they are unimportant in terms of the fundamental understandings that I have been conveying here. And I kind of think it’s important to understand—some people imagine that the IPCC is the source of our understanding of climate—but in fact the IPCC is just one of the messengers,” Holdren explained.
The source, Holdren continued, of scientists’ current understanding of climate change is thousands of rigorous studies from around the world conducted by researchers subject to the peer-review process, the very same scientific process that underpins everything from evolution to medical breakthroughs to theory of relativity.
For those that argue that climate change impacts are far in the future, Holdren said they are missing the evidence before their eyes
“We’re seeing variously in different places around the world more floods, more wildfires, more droughts, more heat waves, more pest outbreaks, more coral-bleaching events, increasing power of typhoons and hurricanes, expanded geographic range of tropical pathogens,” Holdren said. “All of these plausibly link to climate change by theory, by models and by observed fingerprints—namely the patterns matching what you would expect if climate change were the cause.”
He also dismissed the idea that the sun, and not greenhouse gas emissions, are behind the warming world.
“If you look at the recent data where we have particularly good satellite measurements of what the sun is doing, there is no increasing trend in the solar output to explain the rapid, recent increases in surface temperature of the Earth,” Holdren said.
Renewable energy makes up less than one percent of energy consumption in the United States according to the Energy Information Administration’s Emissions of Greenhouse Gases in the United States 2004.
Although, President Obama has spoken little publicly about climate change since taking office, Holdren argues the administration has been proactive in moving the issue forward.
“[The administration has] put climate change leaders in a variety of key positions, made climate change a priority in initiatives in departments and agencies, revitalized the US Global Change Research Program and other interagency efforts, working with other major emitting countries, both industrialized and developing, to build technology cooperation and individual and joint climate policies” Holdren said.
As to the failure to pass climate and energy legislation, Holdren stated: “we will be back. We will try anew in the next Congress. And in the meantime, the EPA is moving ahead to control greenhouse gas emissions by regulation.”
Holdren added that the American public remained solidly behind efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emission citing a poll released in August that found 71 percent of Americans supported regulating carbon emissions and 61 supported an international treaty.
“It is still the case, widespread rumors to the contrary not withstanding, that the American public supports and continues to support taking action on climate change,” Holdren said.
(07/26/2010) Not even intense international pressure, the BP oil spill, worsening floods, or the fact that the last six months have been the warmest on record globally was enough to push US climate legislation through the Senate. In the end the legislation died without a single Republican supporting it and a number of Democrats balking. Democratic Senate leader, Harry Reid, said they would continue to push climate legislation in the fall, but analysts say success then is unlikely given up-coming elections in November.
(08/09/2010) The summer isn’t over yet, but already seventeen nations have matched or beaten their all-time heat records. According to Jeff Masters’ WunderBlog, Belarus, the Ukraine, Cyprus, Russia, Finland, Qatar, the Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Niger, Chad, Kuwait, Iraq, Pakistan, Colombia, Myanmar, Ascension Island, and the Solomon Islands have all equaled or broken their top temperature records this year. In addition, the hottest temperature ever recorded in Asia was taken in Pakistan at 128 degrees Fahrenheit (53 degrees Celsius); this incredible temperature still has to be reviewed by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO).
(08/08/2010) Government officials are pointing to the drought and wildfires in Russia, and the floods across Central and East Asia as consistent with climate change predictions. While climatologists say that a single weather event cannot be linked directly to a warming planet, patterns of worsening storms, severer droughts, and disasters brought on by extreme weather are expected as the planet warms.
(07/22/2010) The world’s coral reefs are in great danger from dual threats of rising temperatures and ocean acidification, Charlie Veron, Former Chief Scientist of the Australian Institute of Marine Science, told scientists attending the Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation meeting in Sanur, Bali. Tracing the geological history of coral reefs over hundreds of millions of years, Veron said reefs lead a boom-and-bust existence, which appears to be correlated with atmospheric carbon dioxide levels. With CO2 emissions rising sharply from human activities, reefs—which are home to perhaps a quarter of marine species and provide critical protection for coastlines—are poised for a ‘bust’ on a scale unlike anything seen in tens of millions of years.
(06/25/2010) An analysis of the scientific prominence and expertise of climate researchers shows that the few who are unconvinced of human-caused climate change rank far below researchers who are convinced. Most news media accounts fail to include that context when reporting claims from the doubters.
(06/23/2010) The first five months of 2010 have been the second warmest on record, according to data released by the University of Alabama Huntsville.
(06/16/2010) A rash of flash floods has struck the US during this spring: Rhode Island, Tennessee, Arkansas, and most recently Oklahoma have all faced devastating floods that have resulted in the loss of property and in some cases tragic deaths. While flash floods have occurred throughout US history, the number of big floods this year appears abnormal at best, but not unexpected by researchers. Climatologists warned last year that an increase in floods and severe storms is very probable as the world warms.
(05/06/2010) Signed by 255 members of the National Academy of Science, a new letter in the journal Science expresses that researchers are “deeply disturbed” by the rancor toward them from some in media and politics. Furthermore the letter outlines, once again, that the science of climate change is based on “compelling, comprehensive, and consistent objective evidence that humans are changing the climate in ways that threaten our societies and the ecosystems on which we depend.”
(05/03/2010) A new study in Environmental Science and Technology (ES&T) concludes that the US could stop all emissions from coal-fired plants within 20 years time using only existing technologies and some that will be ready within the next decade. Such an accomplishment would go a long way toward lowering the US’s carbon emissions and mitigating the impact of climate change, according to the researchers.
(04/22/2010) The biodiversity crisis, the climate crisis, the deforestation crisis: we are living in an age when environmental issues have moved from regional problems to global ones. A generation or two before ours and one might speak of saving the beauty of Northern California; conserving a single species—say the white rhino—from extinction; or preserving an ecological region like the Amazon. That was a different age. Today we speak of preserving world biodiversity, of saving the ‘lungs of the planet’, of mitigating global climate change. No longer are humans over-reaching in just one region, but we are overreaching the whole planet, stretching ecological systems to a breaking point. While we are aware of the issues that threaten the well-being of life on this planet, including our own, how are we progressing on solutions?