J. Derek Larson: Change is the norm with Earth’s climate — but not this fast
I am responding to Jeff Middlebrook’s opinion piece from Sept. 13, “Climate has always changed, never static.” I appreciate his intentions; he is warning us not to mindlessly jump on the alarmist doomsday bandwagon about climate change.
I am with him in one way: Statements like AOC’s “the world will end in 12 years” distort the science and do not help with a rational conversation about this important subject. But Middlebrook goes to the opposite extreme by repeating oil industry talking points designed to confuse and divide us. As a science educator, I am compelled to challenge this misinformation.
The argument that “there is nothing to worry about because climate has always changed” is a dangerous falsehood. From fundamental atmospheric physics, we know that CO2 is the most important driver of earth’s greenhouse effect and that CO2 levels have shown intimate association with temperature as far back as we can measure (at least 800,000 years with ice cores). In that time, CO2 has never gone above 300 parts per million (ppm). With current levels at 400 ppm and rising, that alone is reason for great concern. With “business as usual” emissions we will be at 900-1000 ppm by the year 2100.
As Middlebrook mentions, the dinosaurs thrived in those levels, along with the vast swamps that produced the oil we burn today. So 1000 ppm should put us in a lush world of abundant life, right? Here’s what the oil funded think-tanks conveniently leave out: At 1000 ppm and corresponding temperature/humidity, good portions of the tropical and subtropical latitudes could become uninhabitable by humans (and most above ground mammals that cool themselves with evaporation). Anyone interested in this subject should google “wet bulb temperature and human tolerance.” Here is one very readable source: https://phys.org/news/2017-12-south-china-stress-human.html.
All this doesn’t mean the world will end, but consider the cost of adapting to these conditions.
At odds here are two different mindsets: One insists we are arrogant to think humans are powerful enough to alter the earth system. (Case in point: The George Carlin routine that Middlebrook tells us to watch.) The other mindset is an evidence-based method that says we can and we have altered the system. The evidence is clear and sobering. But if you want comedy, I’ll end by quoting Jon Stewart’s classic, Burn Noticed, about tactics of the oil industry and their hired guns in government: “If scientists could be bought, these (expletive omitted) would have made it rain in nerd town.”
J. Derek Larson studied climate, earth systems, and oceanography at Stanford University and teaches a course at Sierra College called “Energy, Environment, and Climate.”