Teaching our children about climate change: Pt 1, Appendix– a climate science primer

10/07/2016 § Leave a comment


Before I get on with the main focus of this series of posts,  I thought maybe it might be helpful to some readers if I set the stage with a short overview of what climate science is telling us.  I know this is partial!  It is meant to just help someone get oriented, and suggest where to go next. There are many excellent books and websites that provide information on the nature of human-induced climate change. At the end of this appendix, I list a few, with comments about each.  Add
1. Already by the 1890s, scientists had understood the physical mechanisms by which an increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) would lead to climatic warming. The “insulating” effects of the small amounts of CO2 in the atmosphere are what keeps the earth’s climate hospitable for life as we know it. A surprisingly small increase, however, significantly slows earth’s loss of heat, so that the average temperature rises. The earth’s geography and its dynamic nature mean that this average temperature will be reflected in complicated ways, both directly and indirectly. At the beginning of the industrial revolution, which is also the beginning of significant and sustained use of fossil fuels, CO2 constituted about 280 parts per million (ppm) of the atmosphere. The present levels are just over 400 ppm.
2. There is a time-lag in the effects that come from thickening the atmospheric “blanket” with more CO2. The global temperature has risen perhaps as much as 1.3°C (2.3°F) above “pre-industrial levels” so far. (Note that the recent Paris Climate accord committed to limiting this increase to 1.5°C in order to avoid the worst predicted effects.)There have been exponential increases in CO2 emissions since that time, and because of the time-lag, we are therefore already committed to at least 1-2 degrees’ more warming, even if we ceased all CO2 emissions right now. It is very likely, given the slow pace of political and economic action, that we cannot avoid reaching 450 ppm, or even higher. This might commit us to an increase of at least 6° F (3° C) by the end of this century; the difference between our current climate and the last glacial period is about 9°F.
3. The 11 months ending August 2016 were each the hottest in the temperature record, and July 2016 was the hottest month ever recorded (not just the hottest July), and 2016 will be the hottest year. Over the last several decades, each 10 year period has been hotter than any decade in the prior weather record. The 1980s were hotter than the 1970s; the 1990s were hotter than the 1980s; the decade from 2000-2009 was hotter still. The current decade will be the hottest so far.
3. Because of how the weather system distributes heat, the Arctic is warming faster than anywhere else. While New England has warmed about 2°F in the past 40 years, the Arctic has warmed 8-10°F. Summer sea-ice in the Arctic is shrinking at a dramatic rate. As the ice has melted, the ground and sea, darker than ice, have absorbed more heat, thus speeding the melt. The melting permafrost has started releasing its vast reserves of frozen plant matter as CO2 and methane, another very powerful greenhouse gas. This is speeding the warming. If we do not dramatically decrease human-caused CO2 emissions, the natural emissions from these and other sources will soon increase so swiftly that they will become the most important factor in the CO2 imbalance, and human activity will not be able to prevent the earth’s tipping into a new, stable operating condition, dramatically warmer than anything humans have ever had to deal with.
4. Ocean levels are rising at increasingly rapid rates as the water warms, and as ice-caps melt (the West Antarctic ice-sheet has entered an irreversible melt, and Greenland is shedding hundreds of cubic kilometers of ice a year). The seas are absorbing CO2 and becoming more acidic at a rate that is astonishing researchers. Plants and animals are changing their ranges, or altering behavior, or going extinct, depending on conditions where they are, and their own physical constraints. Deserts are spreading in Africa and Asia. The great ice cap of central Asia is melting fast; this is serious because it supplies the Ganges and many other major rivers supplying water to China and south Asia. Similar effects on ice-fed watersheds are being felt already in South America and elsewhere.
5. Weather patterns are becoming more variable, with dry places mostly getting drier, and moist places (with important exceptions like Amazonia) getting wetter. Both precipitation events and droughts are becoming more extreme. Indeed, increased variability is a central expected outcome of global “warming,” because the increasing heat intensifies important weather processes like evaporation and cyclone formation. This is why the New York Times columnist, Thomas Friedman, no radical, likes to refer to “global weirding” instead of “global warming.”
6. There is increasing evidence from around the world about climate change impacts on organisms and ecosystems— species moving their ranges (where the human-altered landscape permits), becoming more or less abundant, evolving in response to the climate signal, changing their seasonal behavior (sometimes getting out of synch with other species they interact with)… the list goes on and on.  Since we have such an inadequate  understanding our fantastically complex and diverse biosphere, we are encountering many surprises and new puzzles.

7. While the most important variable under human control is CO2 emissions from carbon combustion and deforestation, there is at present no evidence that humans are responding at the necessary speed and scale to prevent dramatic and indeed catastrophic changes in our climate which will last for at least a thousand years, affecting food supplies, biological diversity, and many other “ecosystem functions” which we take for granted and which are essential to our human systems. The best scientific analysis suggests that the worst case can still be avoided, if we take concerted action within the next 5-10 years. Energy conservation is a top priority (lowering the use), as is total and prompt conversation from fossil fuels to non-emitting sources of electricity. Social change is required both to take these and other radical steps — and social and spiritual work will be required within all communities to adapt constructively and justly to the hotter, stormier and more uncertain world that is now emerging.

For further reading
Here are three blogs which are good sources of reliable information, and also serve as gateways to many other sources of information, both more technical and less. There is a lot of good science writing in the blogosphere; as with other subjects, of course, there is also a lot that is less good. Start here, and follow their links.
Skeptical science. Provides excellent scientific explanations, and up-to-date science news. Provides a very accessible and reliable discussion of “most used climate myths.”
Climate Progress. This is run by Joe Romm, a physicist with a long career in energy policy. Lots of current science news, and Romm and guest bloggers analyze new research findings as well as policy proposals, climate politics, and many other related topics.
The Guardian newspaper has a strong climate change section, including a regular blog by Dana Nuccitelli, who also blogs for Skeptical Science.
Also check out Biosphere and Climate, a website that focuses on the biosphere’s reaction to climate change in New England, with links to many other resources and organizations.
Again, the number of powerful and useful new books on different aspects of climate change is exploding. Here are some to get started.
Climate Central (2012) Global Weirdness: Severe Storms, Deadly Heat Waves, Relentless Drought, Rising Seas and the Weather of the Future. This new book is an excellent, step-by-step primer on the basic science and some of the possible solutions for climate change.
Hanson, James (2010) Storms of my grandchildren. Hanson was the first prominent climate scientist to sound the alarm about the reality of climate change. Very solid science, and interesting if controversial suggestions for policies that can minimize the potential harm of climate change.
Kolbert, Elizabeth (2006) Field notes from a catastrophe. Lucid, challenging, and engaging science writing about the science and impacts of climate change. Originally a series for the New Yorker. Though 10 years old, still a great introduction.
Macy, Joanna and Chris Johnstone (2012) Active hope: How to face the mess we’re in without going crazy. Not about science, but about coping. A powerful guide for engaging with “the Work That Reconnects” : Coming from gratitude, honoring our pain for the world, seeing with new eyes, and going forth. Very much in harmony with the spirit of my own concern. Draws on the authors’ years of “despair work” and other faces of the spirituality of healing wounded spirits.
McKibbin, Bill (2010) Eaarth: Making a life on a tough new planet. Speaks in concrete and passionate terms about our present situation, and the challenge of responding constructively to the changes that are our present and future reality.
Pope Francis (2015) Laudato Si’: On care for our common home. This encyclical is available in a lot of editions. You may not be interested in Catholic teaching but this is one of the best attempts to explicate the interweaving of morality, science, economics, and social justice. Thought provoking.
Seidl, Amy (2009) Early Spring. A moving and well-informed exploration by an ecologist living in Vermont of the way that climate change affects the life and culture of New England.
Seidel, Amy (2011) Finding Higher Ground. Another lucid book from Amy Seidl, this time on how human and non-human organisms can adapt to the new world that is taking shape.


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