Data Sense: Data indicates that climate change is real
April 4, 2014
There has been a lot of discussion in the Yampa Valley recently about the topic of climate change. One interesting thing about the topic is that although a tremendous amount of data is available, there also is a seemingly equal amount of public confusion. The confusion is not limited to the Yampa Valley — at the national level there is an ongoing disconnect between what the climate data says and what people believe about climate change. The best way to lend clarity to the discussion is to dig inside the numbers. As it turns out, the data tells a clear, compelling and consistent story.
Let's start with expert opinion from climate scientists around the world who have studied the issue. Based on latest available data, 97 percent of climate scientists have concluded that climate change is real and human activities are contributing to the warming. This consensus is not the result of a single study — rather it is driven by a stream of scientific evidence throughout the past two decades from virtually every membership organization of climate experts. Furthermore, the recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a collection of more than 800 leading climate scientists, reaffirms that climate impacts already are occurring. The IPCC report is consistent with the findings of other authorities such as the National Academy of Sciences, U.S. Global Change Research Program and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. So there is no real debate among the experts about whether climate change is happening or whether humans are contributing to it.
That's expert opinion, but what about the public opinion? A recent study by George Mason University titled "Climate Change in the American Mind" provides some insight on this topic. According to the study, Americans' belief in the reality of climate change has increased from 57 to 70 percent during the past two years. This 13 percent increase in 24 months indicates that the opinion of the general public is becoming increasingly congruent with climate science. This is similar to what happened with public perception of the link between cigarette smoking and cancer in the 1960s. A Gallup survey conducted in 1958 found that only 44 percent of Americans believed smoking caused cancer. By 1968, in the face of mounting evidence, 78 percent of Americans believed in the link.
What about the physical evidence? Isn't there some uncertainty about whether climate change actually is occurring? Not really. After remaining stable at about 280 parts-per-million for millennia, carbon dioxide began to rise in the 19th century, starting with the Industrial Revolution, and passed the 400 ppm mark in 2013. Since the late 19th century, the global average temperature has risen by 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit. According to NOAA data, the 10 hottest years on record have occurred since 1998. In the U.S., record high temperatures outnumber new record lows by a ratio of 2:1.
The impacts of rising temperatures are readily apparent and clearly documented: Artic Sea ice is shrinking, the Greenland and Antarctica ice sheets are melting more rapidly, the world's oceans are acidifying as they absorb greater amounts of carbon dioxide, and sea levels are now rising twice as fast as they did in the 20th century. There's no cherry-picking this data because the body of evidence is vast and well-documented by many organizations including NOAA in their most recent "State of the Climate" report. The data can be viewed at the National Climate Data Center at https://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/sotc/.
Of course, climate science doesn't provide all the answers on what, if anything, can and should be done to address climate change. The degree, timing and cost of the human response to climate change is at the heart of international, national and local climate change debates today. So let the debate continue in the Yampa Valley. But let's make sure the discussion is grounded in data so that it remains focused on science rather than science fiction.