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October 01, 2018

Are You a Climate Change Denier?

Be careful before you answer; you could be mistaken.

Thanks to climate change, I recently sailed from Bergen, Norway to Lerwick in Scotland’s Shetland Islands. If I’d made this trip just 6000 years ago, I would’ve had to walk. The North Sea, to my ignorant surprise, is very shallow, less than 400 feet deep most of the way across. That’s one of the reasons we sailed past so many oil rigs.

Most of the gene pool in the Shetlands is Scandinavian today. Those genes sailed on Viking boats following roughly the same course we did. The Shetland Islands were larger then and many of the forts built by and against the Vikings have tumbled into the sea along with the decaying cliffs. Climate change.

But there were people in the Shetlands before the Vikings came invading. Both Neolithic and modern humans walked across what is called Doggerland to get to what is now the British Isles. Periods of glaciation apparently wiped out or drove out the early Homo species as well as us Homo Sapiens several times over the last 600,000 years. Watch out for climate change! Our species was finally there to stay about 8000 years ago when the latest warming trend was well-established. The earth kept warming, though; and by 6000 years ago Doggerland became seabed and Britain became the British Isles. (see an excellently sourced Wikipedia article for facts cited here).

Which brings us to a lavishly illustrated and well written NYTimes article last week bemoaning the loss of artifacts in Scotland’s Orkney Islands to the still-rising seas. Correctly the article blames the crumbling cliffs on climate change. There is this very interesting sentence: “Since 1970, Orkney beaches have eroded twice as fast as in the previous century.”

The implication is clearly that the threat to artifacts has been heightened by anthropogenic (human-caused) climate change. Let’s assume that these measurements are accurate and that they can be applied worldwide and that the fluctuation since 1970 is not just a random fluctuation (obviously none of these assumptions are literally true). The implication is that human activity has doubled the rate of sea rise. Looked at another way, if there’d been no anthropogenic input, the sea would still be rising – as it has been for the last 20,000 years – at about half the current rate. All of these artifacts, the Micronesian islands, and all the other areas on earth near sea level would still be slated for inundation just like Doggerland and the former land bridge across the Bering Strait – only it’ll take twice as long. If you don’t believe climate will continue to change, with or without human input, you are denying climate change!

Of course the cycle could reverse as it has before, even though we know very little about what caused these earlier changes. Then we’ll have advancing glaciers rather than rising liquid water to contend with. It’s happened to our species before. Climate changes!

Why am I ranting about this? Clearly I am convinced (“belief” is for religion and not for science) that climate changes; anyone who denies that is clearly uninformed. My concern is that we may be spending vast sums on perhaps dubious ways to prevent climate change instead of spending that money on ameliorating the effect of change, which may be inevitable. If areas of the world are going to become uninhabitable because of rising seas or rising temperatures, shouldn’t we be preparing to help people leave those areas? If other areas will become habitable, as the British Isles did 8000 years ago, shouldn’t we be thinking about how to move people and agriculture there?

Instead we’re allowing and even incenting coastal development with subsidized insurance as if the seas will magically stop rising Coverage of damage from Hurricane Irma, despite the obligatory references to manmade climate change, has been refreshingly accurate in attributing the rising monetary damage from storms to denser and denser seaside development.

We know that climate changes. We know that the direction of climate change for the last 60,000 years has been generally towards warmer (longer term it’s been towards colder). We know that CO2 is a greenhouse gas (meaning it traps heat which might otherwise leave earth for outer space) and that the level of CO2 in the atmosphere has been increasing lately and can reasonably attribute a major part of that increase to increased emissions from burning fossil fuels (and non-fossil fuels like wood). Despite a lot of sloppy science and science-writing, we don’t know with any precision how much anthropogenic activity is accelerating climate change. We can’t know that without knowing how much temperatures would be rising in the absence of this activity. We need a baseline but we don’t yet have the science to explain past climate change so we can’t possibly say what climate change will be in the future with or without human intervention.

Many argue that there’s been an increase in warming since the anthropogenic sharp rise in atmospheric CO2. Some of the observations are debatable; but, even if there were no arguments about the facts, the conclusion that the increase in CO2 caused the increase in warming is debatable (that doesn’t mean it’s wrong). The more we learn about natural phenomena, the more we observe that change is rarely smooth but proceeds in a saw-toothed jagged (fractal) pattern. It is wrong to assume that the last 60,000 years of warming have followed an even slope up; they haven’t. It is premature to assume that a 50 year trend is more than a statistical blip or the result of some cause we don’t yet understand.

Climate science is one of the most important studies (with government subsidies) that we ought to be pursuing. But money put into that field will be wasted if it is only spent on reinforcing the politically correct but unproven (but possibly true) thesis that we are both causing the bulk of climate change and that we can significantly slow this change.

Natural climate changes. Can the intellectual climate change enough to allow us to understand the natural climate without slogans, invective, and semi-religious or partisan beliefs (of any flavor) clouding our view? Those who don’t believe that climate will change without human help, don’t believe in climate change any more than those who somehow deny that the climate is changing at all!

See also:

Past Climate Change – the Pictures

Combating Climate Change - The Nuclear Option

Believers and Deniers

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