Last week, I began a class on climate change through Coursera. If you aren’t familiar with Coursera, you owe it to yourself to check it out. Hundreds of absolutely free classes from major universities. In some cases, you can even pay a fee and get college credit for the class.
The class on climate change is offered by the Scripps Institute at UC-San Diego. I was a physics major at University of Wisconsin – Whitewater when the warnings of global warming and climate change. In those days, concern was more for chlorofluorocarbons than for carbon dioxide–as both a greenhouse gas and for eroding the ozone layer. Also in those days, the data showing a departure from the expected climate values were inconclusive. The separation was small enough that deviations could be explained by random chance or natural occurrences. That was circa 1984.
Thirty years ago, I wasn’t convinced that human activity could modify our environment that drastically. After all, nature has time and again shown that she can heal herself. Fast forward to 2014. The first week of this class involved looking at the data–something I hadn’t gotten around to doing. It is unequivocal that human activity is responsible. The data is very sobering.
Thing is, the atmosphere is a very, very large system. The system as a whole does not make changes quickly. The damage is already done, whether or not we see it or believe it. Even if humans were to vanish from the earth this instance, it would take hundreds of years for the environment to stabilize and begin to heal itself. And that’s not what we have. We have a moving target, with more and more CO2 being pumped into the air daily.
CO2 levels from ice core data.
The problem is real, and I urge everyone to look at the data for themselves. Carbon Dioxide Trend data is public, and the problem isn’t going away. Atmospheric carbon dioxide content is accelerating. Polar ice is melting. Weather extremes are increasing. Polar ice, in particular is behaving worse than any models predicted.
What is most disturbing is how many nay-sayers hold sway over large swaths of the population. Even the most skeptical of scientists have finally accepted the data. Deniers today are people with an agenda, people who would be financially harmed by changing our ways of doing things, and the politicians who want to keep filling their pockets with money from people hurt by potential changes and regulations. And finally, there are the people who blindly accept what the deniers tell them without looking at the data for themselves. Remember, the tobacco companies still claim smoking does not cause lung cancer.
This is happening. We can’t stop it. It is not an easy problem to address, and I fear it won’t be addressed seriously until serious consequences are being felt–consequences that make the changes we feel today seem like business as usual.
Does that mean we have proven human activity is responsible? No, but all the evidence points to that conclusion. There is no data supporting an alternative and completely natural root cause.