(Slate) – Here’s a simple quiz: How do you know when you’re about to read a forehead-slappingly silly article about climate change? Check the venue: Is it the Daily Mail, the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Post, and/or anything owned by Rupert Murdoch and News Corp?
If yes, then, yes. Chances are, what you’ve read only comes within a glancing blow of reality.
This week, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change will release its fifth Assessment Report on the state of the climate. This overarching report gives summaries of the work and conclusions from numerous climate science research groups, has over 800 authors, and dozens of expert review editors (though not all are experts; anyone can sign up). Leaks have been rampant, and that has given people a chance to put their own spin on the report, as you’ll see in a moment.
But: The bottom line is that the Earth is warming up. Although land and ocean surface temperatures have been relatively flat for a number of years, that is not the only or even best way to measure the amount of extra heat absorbed by our planet. Much of the heat has gone deep, dragged down into the ocean depths where it has been building up. A downswing in the Pacific oceans natural temperature cycles has temporarily masked the always-upward trend in surface temperatures. The past three decades have very likely been the warmest 30-year period in the last 800 years, and likely to have been for the 1400.
The cause? Us. We’ve been dumping carbon dioxide, a known greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere for decades, measurably increasing its amount (and affect). CO2 is transparent to visible light, but opaque to thermal infrared (or, more simply, heat). Light from the Sun warms the ground, but as we put more CO2 into the air, that heat has a harder time radiating away into space.
And so the Earth warms.
This is all pretty simple, and very evident. Unless, of course, you limit your reading to the venues listed in the first paragraph of this article. Then you get a very different, and grossly wrong, picture of our situation.
I can start with Matt Ridley’s OpEd in the Wall Street Journal on Sep. 14, for example. In it, he tries to make the case that a warming Earth won’t be so bad. As things heat up, he claims, “the overall effect of climate change will be positive for humankind and the planet.”
Oddly, he makes this statement without pointing to a single study backing up his claims. He just states it like it’s true. However, we know that’s not the case. Let me be clear: Like any change, there will be some benefits, but the problem is we don’t know exactly what those will be, and we’re gambling with the planet’s life support system. Ridley makes a few off-the-cuff claims—fewer deaths due to extreme cold, extending the range of farming farther north—but doesn’t mention that long heat waves (which will get hotter) are deadly as well, and will last longer as we warm up, and that as farming moves north the folks at the southern end of the range will get pushed out. When a used car salesman only tells me the good stuff about his product, my skeptical alarm bells ring pretty loudly. Why should it be any different when it comes to climate? [more]