Field Notes from a Catastrophe

Robert Reich said in a recent interview that he no longer believes in keeping a balanced federal budget. Why? Because in general, Democrats are fiscally responsible and Republicans are not. Bill Clinton managed to balance the budget and leave to George W. Bush a federal government that was actually taking in more money than it was spending. And what happened? Bush went on a spending spree (admittedly, helped by a recession) creating the most unbalanced budget in US history. Why should Democrats save so that Republicans can over-spend on their pet projects: tax-cuts (especially for the wealthy) and wars? Thus it is with the issue of global warming. Why should all the rest of the world do something about global warming when the biggest polluter does nothing? And this, I suppose, is why I am glad I no longer work as a “global change scientist.”

What brings this all up is that my niece (to be accurate: the daughter of the sister of the husband of my sister) sent me Field Notes from a Catastrophe by Elizabeth Kolbert. The book is a fun read when it is dealing with scientists (which is most of the book). It brings back fond memories of what it is like to be part of a large nerd community. She does an excellent job of showing scientists as regular people—except for the nerd part. For example:

While I was at CRREL [Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory], [Donald] Perovich took me to meet a colleague of his named John Weatherly. Posted on Weatherly’s office door was a bumper sticker designed to be pasted—illicitly—on SUVs. It said, I’m changing the climate! Ask me how!

It’s when Kolbert gets into the political side of the issue that it gets annoying. All the time that I was a graduate student and then a post-doc and finally a lowly assistant professor, I was highly skeptical about global warming. There were two issues:

  1. There was more warming in the middle of the 20th century than there had been since—up into the early 1990s—and the climate models did a very poor job of explaining this.
  2. The sunspot cycle alone seemed to do a pretty good job all by itself of explaining the climate we had seen during the 20th century.

From the mid-90s onward, climate modelers began to incorporate the sunspot cycle into their models. And as a result, everything came together. Once that happened (after I had left the field), I was convinced. As a result of this, I find the current denial of anthropogenic global warming (Or global warming of any kind!) extremely frustrating. It has become clear to me that those who deny the existence of human-caused global warming are exactly the same as those who deny evolution by natural selection. Their beliefs are faith-based; no amount of data or reasoning will ever convince them.

I repeatedly hear people make the same claim: “A lot of scientists don’t believe in global warming” or “A lot of scientists don’t believe in evolution.” In both cases, this is absolutely false unless our definitions of “a lot” are extremely different. What is true is that church groups recycle the same evolution non-believers to make it look like there is widespread dissent, just as conservative groups (like Faux News) do with global warming skeptics. There is, of course, much more room to question global warming than evolution. The problem is that most of those who do not want to believe in global warming do not have the slightest idea what the actual issues are. Instead of questions about errors in climate models, we get statements like those about how humans “create” carbon dioxide when they breathe—a statement that shows a literally laughable ignorance of the earth’s carbon cycle.

Of course, there is a problem on the other side. Most people who believe in global warming are ignorant—just not willfully so. Most could not explain why human exhalation of carbon dioxide is different from the carbon dioxide produced by octane combustion. (Hint: where does that carbon atom that we combine with oxygen come from? Perhaps a plant we ate, that takes the carbon atom away and spits the oxygen back into the atmosphere?) Books like Field Notes are slightly problematic because they depend too much an anecdotal evidence. It’s part of the whole, “Oh, what a hot summer! It must be global warming!” Or: “Oh, what a cold winter! There can’t be global warming! (To be fair, this book is not intended to be an argument that global warming is happening; it takes this as a given and there’s nothing wrong with that.)

Even knowing everything I know about this subject—which is a lot—the book is terribly frightening. I have no children, but I am young enough that I will probably see great human suffering due to climate change in my lifetime.

Book Darts!

The book my niece sent me was probably used in one or more college courses. It has at least three colors of highlighting! In case my niece is one of the highlighters, I have sent her a package of book darts, which, as anyone who knows me well knows, I think are the greatest invention since movable type.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

0 thoughts on “Field Notes from a Catastrophe

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