Sunday, October 09, 2005

Good Global Warming Primer

Our lil' hometown paper, the Seattle Times, ran a front-page article this Sunday entitled, "The Truth About Global Warming." If you're new to some of the issues surrounding global warming (i.e., scientific debate, industry funded-skeptics, etc.), this is a great starting point. (It's also got some easy-to-understand charts and graphs for the scientifically challenged--like myself.) Here are some of the article's key points, first in terms of science:

Researchers skeptical of the idea have suggested alternative causes for rising temperatures and carbon-dioxide levels. They've theorized about natural forces that might mitigate the effects of greenhouse gases. But no one has been able to explain it away.

"You would need to develop a Rube Goldberg-type of argument to say climate is not changing because of increasing carbon dioxide," said Battisti, 49, who directs the UW's Earth Initiative to apply science to environmental problems.

Global average air temperatures have risen about 1.2 degrees over the past century. The warming is also apparent in the oceans, in boreholes sunk deep in the ground, in thawing tundra and vanishing glaciers.

Earth's climate has swung from steamy to icy many times in the past, but scientists believe they know what triggered many of those fluctuations. Erupting volcanoes and slow ocean upwelling release carbon dioxide, which leads to warming. Mountain uplifting and continental drift expose new rock, which absorbs carbon dioxide and causes cooling. Periodic wobbles in the planet's orbit reduce sunlight and set off a feedback loop that results in ice ages.

All of those shifts happened over tens of thousands of years — and science shows none of them is happening now.

Instead, atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide are increasing at a rate that precisely tracks man's automotive and industrial emissions.

"The process is 1,000 times faster than nature can do it," Battisti said.

And next, in terms of industry attacks on the science:

Over the past decade, coal and oil interests have funneled more than $1 million to about a dozen individual global-warming skeptics as part of an effort to "reposition global warming as theory rather than fact," according to industry memos first uncovered by former Boston Globe journalist Ross Gelbspan.

From 2001 to 2003, Exxon Mobile donated more than $6.5 million to organizations that attack mainstream climate science and oppose greenhouse-gas controls. These think tanks and advocacy groups issue reports, sponsor briefings and maintain Web sites that reach a far wider audience than scholarly climate journals.

Of course, there's nothing wrong with business questioning whether global-warming science justifies actions that may have profound economic impacts. And science can't advance without an open exchange of ideas.

But climate researchers say skeptics are recycling discredited arguments or selectively using data to make points. And as Oreskes showed, few skeptics publish in peer-reviewed journals, which check for accuracy and omissions.


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