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Something Wicked This Way Comes

by H. Bruce Rinker, Ph.D.

In the greenhouse adjacent to my lab, I grow dozens of species of tropical plants.  Orchids, bromeliads, banana palms, cycads, and ferns are among my favorites.  With its warm, wet air and lush-green visage, the little hothouse is a much loved spot for my students and colleagues during Roanoke’s harsh winter months.

For me, the word, greenhouse, evokes blissful images of color along with rousing fragrances and rich earthy smells.  A moment of quiet work in my greenhouse carries me ardently into faraway exotic landscapes like Amazonia and the Yucatán, two of my favorite places in the tropical world.

The word, greenhouse, also calls to mind another, more pernicious relevance: climate change.  Climate change in this context refers to any change in climate over time that is attributed directly or indirectly to human activity that alters the composition of the global atmosphere and that is in addition to natural climate variability observed over comparable time periods.  A natural greenhouse effect exists to keep Earth warmer than it would be without its atmosphere, thanks to its cozy blanket of carbon dioxide, methane, water vapor, and other so-called greenhouse gases.  It turns out that these invisible gases in the planet’s atmosphere act like the glass walls in my greenhouse: the translucent glass allows solar radiation into the structure but traps the resulting heat to keep the interior toasty warm.

We know, however, that changes in the atmospheric abundance of greenhouse gases and aerosols as well as in solar radiation and in land surface properties can alter the energy balance of the climate system.  If the balance in the amounts and fluxes of greenhouse gases shifts, then Earth’s overall climate will change accordingly.

For our day, two big questions concern us humans.

Have humans impacted Earth’s atmosphere in any measurable ways?  The short answer: yes, definitely.  Examples include increases in the amount of atmospheric greenhouse gases from industrial and agricultural activities, particularly carbon dioxide from fossil fuels, and increases in particulates from industrial pollution and deforestation.

Have humans been drivers of climate change?  The short answer: yes, extremely likely.  Global atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide have increased markedly as a result of human activities since the 18th century and now far exceed pre-industrial values as determined from ice cores spanning many thousands of years.  Given the strong correlation between carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere and temperature, it follows that increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases lead to increasing temperatures and, consequently, to sudden and dramatic surprises in the world’s climate.

In early December, I was one of more than 27,000 attendees at the COP16 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Cancún, Mexico.  The international gathering was upbeat, organized, focused, and hope-filled as world leaders attempted to find sustainable solutions to one of Earth’s greatest environmental challenges.  Uninformed and misleading comments by pundits and politicians notwithstanding, the science behind climate change is robust and convincing.  Even that silly incident in November 2009, dubbed “Climategate” by the media, involving hacked e-mails of climate scientists from the University of East Anglia did not compromise the science but only a handful of scientists.  Does it come as a surprise that scientists are human and, thus, have their faults and foibles like anyone else – including the Glenn Becks and Rosh Limbaughs of the world as they babble on with their off-base fiction?  The conference put to rest “Climategate” as a tempest in a teapot and then addressed significant topics related to climate change.

A few of the take-home messages from my participation in the conference: (1) the evidence for global warming is unequivocal based on actual observations with the most rapid warming since the 1950’s and very likely (95% probability) anthropogenic, (2) the array of disinformation must be countered with a succinct, constructive narrative, (3) fear is not a sustainable emotion, but hope is, and (4) science has done its job regarding such a pervasive and complex issue as climate change.

One of the witches in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, prophesied, “Something wicked this way comes.”  The wicked thing, of course, is the murderer and traitor, Macbeth, but she could have been talking about climate change with its human causes, all of them ultimately selfish, ominous, and blinkered.  Climate change is upon us.  It’s our fault.  But it’s also an opportunity for humankind to unite as a species, “the power of 6 billion” as the world’s only superpower, to turn climate change into a success story for Earth and all its rich biodiversity.

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4 COMMENTS

  1. From 2001 through October, 2010 the atmospheric CO2 increased by 21.8% of the total increase from 1800 to 2001 while the average global temperature has not increased significantly and the trend of the average of the five reporting agencies from 2001 through 2009 is actually down. They all report the results of their measurements on the web so anyone with a computer can check these numbers. The 21.8% CO2 increase is the significant measurement, not the comparatively brief time period.

    The factors that resulted in the 20th century global temperature run-up have been discovered. Added atmospheric carbon dioxide plays a minor if not insignificant role.

    A simple equation, with inputs of accepted measurements, calculates the average global temperatures since 1895 with 88% accuracy. (87.6% if it is assumed that added atmospheric carbon dioxide has no effect) See the equation, an eye-opening graph of the results and how they are derived in the pdfs at http://climaterealists.com/index.php?tid=145&linkbox=true (see especially the pdfs made public on 4/10/10 and 6/27/10).

    The future average global temperature trend that this equation calculates is down.

    As the planet cooling trend continues Climate Scientists grasp at straws to keep the grants coming. Tens of billions of dollars wasted so far. A lot of Climate Scientists are embarrassed now. Some will probably hold out for total humiliation.

    It will be a long time before ‘science’ recovers from the AGW Mistake.

  2. May I suggest that this responder read Dr. Rinker’s informative article published earlier this year, entitled “Of Golfers and Our Global Crisis: Pascal’s Wager Re-visited”?

    In this article, Dr. Rinker reminds us that the naysayers about climate change have never told us what might happen if they’re wrong! What if we continue to belch carbon emissions into the air from the combustion of carbon-based fuels, if we continue to deforest the planet, and if we continue to use up nonrenewable natural resources as we have thus far? Let’s wager that climate change IS human-caused and act accordingly. If nothing else, we might learn some lessons in moderate living and establishing a benign and healthy relationship with the Earth. We’re not the only species on the planet!

    Thousands of years of evidence, glaciers melting worldwide, sea levels rising measurably. How much longer will some politicians and talk-show hosts keep their heads in the sand? Of course, let’s not forget Dr. Rinker’s message about hope. We can turn this around, but we will need everyone at the table, working honestly (not politically) on the issues at hand. I much prefer to trust the peer-reviewed science behind this potentially dreadful issue than an occasional hothead who twists the data for his own self-interests.

    It’s time for us to act NOW!

  3. Another great article Dr. Rinker~! I truly enjoyed reading it. I know that little greenhouse of yours and I love it~! There is no better place to go to refresh a cold winter’s mind, than a place where God’s beauty is thriving and lush!!

  4. This article is not only convincing but inspirational.

    I love the way you end: “it’s also an opportunity for humankind to unite as a species, “the power of 6 billion” as the world’s only superpower, to turn climate change into a success story for Earth and all its rich biodiversity.”

    And your third take-home message from the UN climate conference is itself enormously hopeful: ” fear is not a sustainable emotion, but hope is.”

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