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Let’s set some things straight

Lisa Bunn | Thursday, December 10, 2009

 In light of the latest Viewpoints, the significance attached to the content of stolen e-mails from climatologists, the current Copenhagen Climate Change Conference and recent U.S. federal legislation, I think it would benefit and elevate the discussion if we straighten a few things out.

1. The Earth has a natural greenhouse effect which is a product of several gases that naturally exist in the atmosphere including carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and even water vapor. These greenhouse gases trap some infrared radiation and warm the Earth, allowing plants, animals and humans to live here (whereas nothing lives on the moon or Venus — the moon due to the lack of the greenhouse effect and Venus due to a very pronounced greenhouse effect). Levels of these greenhouse gases have fluctuated several times over the last 400,000 years, reflecting the ice ages and the interglacial periods. However, the concentrations of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere today have not been seen in the last 400,000 years.
2. However, ever since humans began burning wood, coal, oil and natural gas, we have slowly begun to put more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Since the Industrial Revolution, greenhouse gas emissions have greatly increased. We have also created synthetic chemicals like chlorofluorocarbons and hydrofluorocarbons, which did not previously exist, now act as greenhouse gases as well, and do not have a natural sink or process to decrease their presence in the environment.
3. Thousands of scientists have been monitoring and analyzing the Earth’s climate and have seen evidence that we are changing our climate. Thousands of other scientists have studied the chemistry of the atmosphere and the processes that affect the climate and have written thousands of papers documenting their observations and analyzing the results to understand what makes the climate function as it does, what impacts it, what effects the climate has on natural systems and ecosystems, and what the climate is likely to do in the future.
4. The results of this body of scientific research were summarized by scientists for policy makers in the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Assessment Reports, of which there have been four over the last 20 years. The scientific understanding of global climate change found in the IPCC is based on a wide range of scientific assessments, and therefore is not dependent on one university in England or anywhere else where climate science is studied. Despite recent claims that stolen e-mails in England disprove climate change, the emails do not state that global climate change is not happening or is a conspiracy among scientists. Whether or not the data from the university in England is faulty, a substantial amount of other legitimate climate research exists and proves that global climate change is happening.
5. The hardest thing for the general public to understand about climate science, and any science in general, is uncertainty. If scientists have a degree of uncertainty about something, that does not mean that it is a lie or untrue. Climate scientists, like doctors, predict that certain processes will happen based on their knowledge and research. For example, if a doctor tells a smoker that he or she is likely to get cancer if that person does not stop smoking, the smoker could still live a long, full life and never develop cancer. That does not mean the doctor lied; it means that based on past evidence and scientific knowledge about the effects of smoking on the body, lung cancer is a highly likely outcome of smoking. Similarly, climate scientists can make predictions with high probability about the effects of global climate change and when and to what extent those effects could happen. The Earth and its climate are even more complex than the human body, and the effects of climate change will vary across regions (this is why global climate change is a more accurate term than global warming).
6. While I have tried to explain the climate science as I, as a science major, have learned it, I encourage each reader to educate him or herself from the science itself. Get the information from the climate scientists themselves (www.realclimate.org). Even better, go to lectures around campus and meet the scientists themselves. How you value that information, the humans and other creatures affected by it, and what you decide to do about that is your prerogative. As one of my science professors, ecologist Jessica Hellmann has said, “Saying I don’t believe in cancer does not mean it ceases to exist. It just means that I am ignoring reality.” Let us argue about what we do in response to the scientific facts, not whether or not global climate change exists. I challenge you to listen to the sources of scientific knowledge, evaluate the results, and decide what that means for the world you want to live in and leave for future generations. 
This week’s column was written by Lisa Bunn.  She is a senior from Pasquerilla West. She can be reached at lbunn@nd.edu
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.