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“The world from our childhood is no longer here. Our young children today are seeing so much change, but it is difficult for them to understand the pace. We are losing so much of our culture and connections to the resources from our ocean and lands.”
One interesting fact about the climate crisis is the massive disconnect between the scientific reality and what the average person has known, understood and believed in the decades since climate scientists became seriously concerned in the 1950s. For example, it’s been nearly 65 years since one of the greatest scientific minds of the 20th century, Roger Revelle, Director of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, predicted that burning fossil fuels and adding carbon to the atmosphere in the form of carbon dioxide could “in 50 years or so…have a violent effect on the Earth’s climate.”
It’s been 55 years since President Lyndon Johnson warned the U.S. Congress that human beings had “altered the composition of the atmosphere on a global scale through…a steady increase in carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels.”
It’s been over 40 years since Robert M. White, the first administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) wrote, “We now understand that … carbon dioxide released during the burning of fossil fuels, can have consequences for climate that pose a considerable threat to future society.…The potential…impacts [are] ominous.”
Shortly after this, the Jason scientists, “a secretive group of Cold War science advisers,” that most Americans have never heard of, predicted that “atmospheric CO2 might double by the year 2035, resulting in mean global temperature increases of 2 to 3°C, and polar warming of as much as 10 to 12°C.”
As predicted long ago, “the Arctic climate is changing faster than anywhere else on earth” and Alaska winter temperatures are already 6 to 9°F warmer now than they were in 1970.
It’s been over 40 years since the National Academy of Sciences issued the Charney report, concluding: “If carbon dioxide continues to increase, [we] find no reason to doubt that climate changes will result, and no reason to believe that these changes will be negligible.”
They found “incontrovertible evidence that the atmosphere is indeed changing and that we ourselves contribute to that change” and wrote, “Atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide is steadily increasing, and these changes are linked with man’s use of fossil fuels and exploitation of the land.”
At the time of this report, atmospheric concentration of CO2 was about 335 parts per million (ppm), approximately 55 ppm above the preindustrial level of 280 ppm. It reached nearly 416 ppm last May and is rising about 3.5 ppm per year. The burning question for scientists in 1979 (as it is today) was to predict how warm the earth would become when we doubled atmospheric levels of CO2 to 560 ppm. This is referred to as “climate sensitivity.”
These authors concluded, “that the equilibrium surface global warming due to doubled CO2 will be in the range 1.5°C to 4.5°C, with the most probable value near 3°C. In other words, while Jimmy Carter was still our president, a few of our top climate scientists predicted that our planet would warm as much as 3°F to 8°F as the result of our greenhouse gas emissions. Interestingly, most scientists still believe this prediction is pretty accurate.
It’s been over 30 years since Bill McKibben published The End of Nature, the first book written for nonscientists to focus on humanity’s inadvertent assault on its own life-support system.
It’s been 25 years since the world’s scientists gathered, reviewed the totality of published climate science studies and released a report acknowledging that “human activity is a likely cause of the warming of the global atmosphere.” This was the second report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The report confirmed that CO2 “remains the most important contributor to” human-caused climate change and projections of a steadily hotter world and unremitting sea level rise means we are altering “the Earth’s climate to an extent unprecedented in human history.” The report also found “that many important aspects of climate change are effectively irreversible.”
It’s been over 20 years since Ross Gelbspan published his book, The Heat is On: The Climate Crisis, the Cover-Up, the Prescription in which he wrote, “The reason most Americans don’t know what is happening to the climate is that the oil and coal industries have spent millions of dollars to persuade them that global warming isn’t happening.”
It’s been nearly 14 years since I first laid eyes on the 2006 Time magazine Special Report on Global Warming featuring an image of a polar bear on thin ice on the cover and the ominous warning that we should all be “VERY WORRIED.” In response, I went to my local bookstore and bought all the global warming books I could find (which was two copies of the same book – in those days there weren’t a lot of books devoted to this issue). I bought two copies of Boiling Point: How Politicians, Big Oil and Coal, Journalists, and Activists Have Fueled the Climate Crisis – and What We Can Do to Avert Disaster. In his book, Gelbspan described the problem and offered solutions but worried “whether or not there is still time to implement them. Absent a sudden, worldwide energy revolution – with all the fundamental changes in our current economic environment that such a transition requires – the answer seems depressingly apparent.”
Soon after, I began buying books like The Weather Makers: How Man Is Changing the Climate and What It Means for Life on Earth by Tim Flannery and Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change by Elizabeth Kolbert and Robert Henson’s book, The Rough Guide to Climate Change: The Symptoms, the Science, the Solutions, an excellent, detailed and comprehensive review of the state of the science at the time and an important precursor to his updated text, The Thinking Person’s Guide to Climate Change.
Years later, I did a favorable review of Henson’s book on another Internet site, which Bob read and messaged his appreciation. And then in 2013 we both attended a five-day Communicating Climate Science conference at Snow Mountain Ranch in the Colorado Rockies sponsored by the American Geophysical Union. I got to know Bob and many other major climate scientists and was impressed by their brilliance, their dedication to their scientific work and their obvious concern that the message of their life’s work was not being heard, understood and acted upon.
For those who do not know, Robert Henson is a weather and climate science writer at Weather Underground, the second most visited weather website globally, attracting more than 47 million visitors per month.
From 1990 through 2015, he was a science writer at the National Center for Atmospheric Research and the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, where he produced many hundreds of articles. Henson received his B.A. degree in meteorology and psychology from Rice University and an M.A. in journalism with a focus in meteorology from the University of Oklahoma.
Henson is also the author of Weather on the Air: A History of Broadcast Meteorology and coauthor of the textbooks Meteorology Today, now in its 12th edition, and Essentials of Meteorology, now in its 8th edition. He has produced lay-friendly summaries of National Research Council reports on climate stabilization targets and on Earth science applications from space. As a freelance author, Henson has written for Nature, Scientific American, AIR & SPACE/Smithsonian, Technology Review, American Scientist, and more than 50 other online and print publications.
And he was my guest for the hour on my Wake-Up Call radio program which will be broadcast on KKRN on Tuesday, February 11, 2020 at 88.5 FM. If you miss the broadcast, you can listen to it in the archives at kkrn.org.
When we listen to the wise ones like Bob Henson, we are reminded, as I have laid out here that the science of climate change is not new. We have known since before our civil war that CO2 is a greenhouse gas and helps keep our planet warm enough to sustain life. But as Bob explains, since our CO2 emissions are invisible and their consequences relatively slow to develop and easy to ignore, we are not responding with the urgency required
And yet, as Bob explains, the science keeps getting stronger as the problem worsens. Recently for example, scientists have been able to detect “the clear fingerprint of long-term, human-induced global warming…in any global single-day snapshot of weather since 2012.”
The hot world that scientists have been warning us about for decades is now here. The last six years have been the hottest years ever recorded and last summer, “400 all-time temperature records were broken across the globe. And now, the European Union’s Copernicus Climate Change Service (CCCS), officially announced that last month was “the hottest January in its data record.”
Meanwhile, scientists are expressing alarm at the discovery of “warm water beneath Antarctica’s ‘doomsday glacier,’ a nickname used because it is one of Antarctica’s fastest melting glaciers.” According to one of the researchers, the finding “suggests that (the glacier) may be undergoing an unstoppable retreat that has huge implications for global sea-level rise.”
Considered by some scientists “as the most vulnerable and significant glacier in the world when it comes to sea-level-rise,” the massive Thwaites glacier, at 74,000-square-miles, is about the size of the 16th largest state in the union, South Dakota. If it collapses, it “could release a mass of water roughly the size of Florida or Great Britain,” and “raise global sea levels by more than three feet.”
Robert Henson describes himself as a “worried optimist,” by which he means there is plenty to worry about with our changing climate but he insists it’s not too late to save the world for ourselves, our children and future generations. He views humans as a resilient species. But, as he and others have been warning about for several decades, we have no more time to lose.