Secretary of Energy Rick Perry and EPA administrator Scott Pruitt recently stated that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere does not exert a controlling influence on climate. As a scientist who is working to help prepare the San Francisco Bay Area for the impacts of climate change, and who has given over 70 public presentations about climate science in the last 10 years, statements like these make my blood boil. This assertion ignores almost two hundred years of scientific evidence demonstrating that our future, and especially that of our children, is in great peril unless we transition away from fossil fuels.
Yes, nearly 200 years of research
Carbon dioxide’s influence on earth’s temperature (the “Theory of Global Warming”) was proposed in 1896 based upon physical principles demonstrated in the laboratory earlier in the 19th Century. Since then scientists have studied and tested this concept, a process driven by logic and skepticism (remember the motto of the oldest scientific society in the world, the Royal Society of London [founded in 1662]; “don’t take anybody’s word for it”).
This practice of skeptical examination continues to produce evidence documenting the threat of reliance of fossil fuels. Not only do average annual temperatures continue to climb, but the pattern and scale of the changes we observe can only be explained by the influence of rising concentrations of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. In fact, many of the physical and chemical patterns we observe today were predicted in previous decades using the theory of global warming.
Why do misleading statements from leaders matter?
Predictions for coming decades demonstrate ever more dangerous and costly impacts if we continue to rely on fossil fuels. A rise in global average temperature by a few degrees will change the distribution of water, the frequency and scale of forest fires and extremes of precipitation, the distribution of pests and diseases, the height of the oceans, and make it more difficult to grow the food required to feed the world.
These changes will threaten civilization due to economic losses, political instability, human migration, and conflict. This is why our intelligence and defense agencies are so concerned about climate change, and why young people (and their parents) should be outraged by the inaction of their political leaders.
Our release of greenhouse gases has already raised the average temperature of the ocean by a little over half a degree Fahrenheit, which sounds small, but actually represents what is arguably the greatest physical alteration of the planet by humans. This temperature rise represents an amount of energy (1023 joules) that is 10 billion times the amount of energy (1013 joules) released by the atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima.
Skeptics or simply ideologues?
Perry and Pruitt call themselves “skeptics,” but they’re not. True skeptics would propose an alternative explanation for how all of this energy has accumulated if carbon dioxide is not responsible. While one might suggest changes in the sun, it is well established that the sun’s energy output has actually been declining over the last few decades. True skeptics would also propose an explanation for why greenhouse gases are not causing the earth to heat up.
Pruitt and Perry cannot offer such explanations because they do not exist. This is a key reason the US Supreme Court held that carbon emissions could be regulated under the Clean Air Act as a threat to public health and safety. It is also why scientists have been warning every President since Lyndon Johnson of the danger of climate change caused by excessive greenhouse gas emissions.
The future is our choice
Because we have ignored the science for so long, some suffering is now unavoidable. But how much greater this will be in the future is up to us. The quality of our lives and those of our children depends upon accepting the physical reality of our impact on the atmosphere and taking action to reduce the emissions of heat-trapping gases through greater investments in clean energy.
Far from hurting our economy, these investments are already providing jobs, developing new domestic industries, and improving public health. Texas got almost 23% of its power from wind in the first quarter of 2017, and Iowa is now getting over 37% of its electricity from wind. Both states enjoy cleaner air as a result.
The willingness of Perry and Pruitt to ignore scientific evidence poses a significant danger to public health and safety and national security. Climate change caused by our emissions of greenhouse gases may be unprecedented, but it’s basic physics, and it will have devastating consequences if we do not take bold action.