Climate Dispatches: Science is revolutionary — sometimes people like it, sometimes they don’t

As a scientist, I find joy in now having a Federal government that is willing to be guided by science. And there is good reason for everyone to feel this way. After all, our entire civilization has been built as a result of Science and its companion disciplines of Engineering, Technology and Mathematics. Is this giving STEM more credit than is due? Then consider your life with no electricity. No gasoline for your car. But that wouldn’t matter because we wouldn’t have the metals, plastics, glass and rubber to make cars. No antibiotics or other life-saving drugs. No Internet. No cell phone. Oh my!

Science is a way to learn about our world. It’s a process starting with a questioning mind, rational thought, observation, testing, and experimentation. This develops evidence that can be tested by other scientists. The greater a new theory departs from our current understanding, the greater the scrutiny, which again involves testing and developing new evidence that helps to confirm or contradict the theory.

Scientists are trained to be skeptics. (An aside: the media misuses this term when calling climate change deniers “skeptics.” Evidence will not change their minds.) When the preponderance of evidence supports a theory, scientific consensus can be achieved. Long ago we reached scientific consensus that the Earth is a rocky planet circling a common type of star we call the Sun. There is no need for further research. (Nonetheless, 2% of Americans think the Earth is flat!)

How does our society – the general public – regard scientific advances? In the examples above, usually with great enthusiasm. But science doesn’t always give us information or concepts that we like. Science can be revolutionary. It can be a threat to the beliefs of many people, or to their financial interests.

As Upton Sinclair is credited with saying, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!” Perhaps that explains where we stand in the battle to provide a livable planet for future generations. The fossil fuel industry is not going to say, “OK. We get it. We’ll pack up shop and go away.” In fact, leaked analyses done by Exxon and Shell in the 1980s show that they knew exactly what would happen if we continued burning their products. So what did they do? They buried their internal reports, ramped up production, and worked behind the scenes (dark money) to undermine climate change legislation.

To varying degrees, we have been warned about global warming for about 30 years. But until recently it seemed to be in a time and place far, far away. Now people are realizing that the consequences of a warming planet are happening here and now. They see that sea level is rising because of melting glaciers and ice sheets, hurricane winds and rain are more intense because of a warming ocean, there are more droughts and floods, coral reefs are dying because of rising ocean acidity, heat waves have become hotter, California wildfires are more devastating from drought and higher temperatures, and crop failures force mass migrations of hundreds of thousands of people. It may seem counter intuitive, but the deadly frigid storm that swept down through Texas last month was the result of the rapidly warming Arctic, which unleashed the Polar Vortex, a part of the jet stream that used to stay confined above the Arctic Circle.

Among climate scientists, consensus has reached 97% that 1) climate change is real, 2) it’s happening now, and 3) we are the primary cause. Most of the remaining 3% earn a living, directly or indirectly, from the fossil fuel industry. Global warming is not a hoax. The accelerated warming since pre-industrial times is not natural. It is well-understood science.

We know the primary cause is our release of greenhouse gases that absorb heat radiating from Earth toward space, then re-radiate it back toward Earth. The most important greenhouse gases are:

  • Carbon dioxide (CO2) from burning coal, oil, and natural gas
  • Methane (CH4) from belching cows and leakage in oil and gas fields
  • Nitrous oxide (N2O) from fertilizers, and
  • Hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) from millions of leaking air conditioners around the world.

For CO2 alone, the worldwide average amount we spew into the atmosphere equals the weight of about 300 Empire State Buildings … every day!

Most people will do whatever they can to ensure that their children and grand children can live healthy, productive lives. But the time has come for us to expand our thinking. We need to ensure that Earth remains hospitable for future generations. Please support – with your time and/or dollars – organizations and leaders who work toward this goal.

There are many such organizations, but two I know that do excellent scientific research are the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF). Citizens Climate Lobby works on a bipartisan basis with legislators in every U.S. Congressional district to enact an important market-based approach that would put a price on carbon and other greenhouse gas emissions, and return the money to U.S. citizens. And as we all know, the new administration in Washington has made addressing climate change a top priority. We have no time to waste.

John Henry Beyer is a Truckee resident. He is a Ph.D. geophysicist, now retired from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, where he managed research on the development of climate change mitigation technologies.

Copyright for the cartoon, created by illustrator Mark A. Hicks, is held by the Union of Concerned Scientists, which granted permission for its use. Visit Mr. Hicks’ website at and blog at Thanks to Mr. Hicks and UCS for their help and cooperation.


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