The (Political) Scientist a 22 year-old, politically-charged, aspiring physicist. Not a political scientist, but a (political) scientist.
As the excitement grows in anticipation of the enthralling athletic drama that’s sure to accompany the upcoming London Olympic Games, excitement is also growing among climate scientists as we approach yet another unfortunate emissions milestone. (Maybe “distress” is a better word than “excitement”) The milestone that we’re approaching without so much as a blink is an atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration of 400 parts per million (ppm), 50 ppm higher than the dangerous “tipping point” concentration 350 ppm. For reference, the atmospheric CO2 level in 1960 was 315 ppm.
But while the news of this milestone gets pushed to the bottom of the news reel by stories about Nastia Liukin’s surprisingly poor performance at the US Olympic trials and Michael Phelps’s decision not to race in the 200 meter freestyle, I’ve stumbled upon an analogy for the oft-misunderstood inner workings of climate change science that is, of course, Olympics-themed. If you’re a climate change denier, then listen up: this is intended for you.
(Before I begin, let me first communicate my motivation here. For a moment, step away from the climate debate and try to view it from the perspective of an alien making her first visit to earth. When the scientific community agrees about something, we take heart. When they told us that too much sun exposure causes skin cancer, we started applying sunscreen. When they warned us that the use of the pesticide DDT was devastating Bald Eagle populations, we banned DDT and the iconic bird made an impressive comeback. If a team of surgeons tells you that you need an operation, you’d be a fool to refuse it. So I find it very interesting that the entire international community of climate scientists is constantly discovering and rediscovering that our carbon dioxide emissions are warming the planet, and yet people remain unconvinced. Thousands of climate scientists are warning us about the demonstrated effects of human activity on the climate, and yet millions of laypeople who do not understand (or care to understand) the science think their judgment is equally valid. Unfortunately, it’s not. Climate science is a scientific issue, and non-scientific opinions are irrelevant. That’s the message I’m trying to convey.)
There are two different types of events in the Olympic games: those judged by one simple measurement, and those judged by several. For an example of the former, consider the javelin throw: everyone throws a stick, and the person who threw the stick the farthest wins. There’s not much room for error here - your javelin is either farther than everyone else’s, or it’s not. Similarly, the winning sprinters cross the finish line before the losers, winning long jumpers sail further into the sand pit than their opponents, and the winning pole vaulters reach the highest altitudes.
As an example of the latter category, consider gymnastics. There’s no cut-and-dry measurement to determine victory — rather, one’s performance is judged by a complex (and often controversial) combination of a multitude of measurements. How difficult was the routine? Did the gymnast keep her legs straight and toes pointed? Did she stick the dismount? Just as gauging the quality of prose requires extensive time and thought, while the merit of work on a math problem can be quickly determined, judging gymnastics is a multifaceted and intellectual affair that enjoys none of the dumb simplicity of choosing a gold medalist in the javelin throw.
In this way, the science behind climate change resembles gymnastics. A determination of the bottom-line quantities of interest — how will global average temperature change, how much of an increase is dangerous, what is the correlation to carbon dioxide concentration, etc. — is a difficult enterprise that combines many different considerations. There’s no one single measurement that will tell you everything you need to know. The science is as complex as the climate itself. And, as anyone who has ever sat in the sun and read yesterday’s prediction of rain knows, the climate is notoriously complex.
To give you some idea about the complexity involved: Increasing the amount of CO2 in the air will cause more solar radiation to get trapped in our atmosphere. A small increase in global temperature could devastate certain plant and animal populations. But how much of an increase? It could cause certain areas to get much hotter, and some to actually get colder. The heat could cause more seawater to evaporate and form clouds, thereby blocking out the sun and cooling the planet back down. Or the warmer oceans could cause more El Nino-type weather patterns (which are caused by warmer Pacific waters), resulting in increased cloud cover and precipitation. The melting of polar ice caps, whose white surfaces reflect incoming sunlight back into space, could trigger ever greater warming. Since warmer ocean waters hold less dissolved CO2 than cold ocean waters, the warming of the oceans may release even more CO2 into the atmosphere and compound the warming.
So… it’s complicated. And we don’t know exactly what small changes in global temperature will bring. But the scientists on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have done an incredible job navigating the incredible number of variables, evaluating the climatic gymnast on her performance, and producing precise scores that are consistently verified by empirical data years later.
But the mind that is not scientifically trained cannot comprehend the number of variables in play and the large effect that each can have. The untrained mind will reduce the question to a simple measurement of the javelin: this winter was uncharacteristically cold, therefore the planet cannot be warming; any form of planetary-scale change is simply unfathomable and therefore impossible; climate change is being pushed by left-wing political groups, and is therefore immediately suspect; plants take up carbon dioxide and produce oxygen, therefore plants will prevent carbon dioxide levels from increasing; the planet has gone through natural climate changes before, so this one must be benign; the atmosphere is incredibly large, therefore humans cannot reasonably affect it (never mind that the planet is large and yet we inhabit its every corner); there are too many variables in play, and no scientist could ever extract a meaningful prediction from them.
Climate science is not this simple. It takes countless factors into consideration, and yields comprehensive and thorough predictions. Climate scientists, who literally have devoted their lives to studying global warming, have shown us that it is very real. 98% of them agree.
Our population needs to begin seeing the irony in disagreeing with scientists in one field while universally respecting the scientists in all others without question. The knowledge that we have about global warming should motivate us to immediately begin mitigation measures. But these measures will never be implemented if we continue feeling entitled to disagree with the recommendations of the climate surgeons.
So all you need to remember is that climate change is like gymnastics, not the javelin. But for some reason, I doubt that climate change will become an Olympic sport any time soon. Keep your fingers crossed that carbon emissions does — that’s an easy gold for the United States.
The Political Scientist is a 22-year-old aspiring physicist that is currently working as a junior researcher at a California university. When he’s not researching Alzheimer’s disease, the Political Scientist is watching the news, reading the news, or discussing the news.