During a two hour event on climate change, two editorial cartoons summed up the misconceptions atmospheric scientists, a policy expert, and an environmental lawyer tackled before a packed auditorium.
The first cartoon, which was drawn by British cartoonist Chris Madden, depicts a man playing an ostrich, burying his head in the sand “over climate change is much easier now that half the world’s turned to desert.” Tongue-in-cheek yet very accurately, the drawing provides a glimpse into how the climate change (or “global weirding”) debate has lead to a majority of everyday Americans doubting the impact of global warming.
Results from the latest Gallup Social Series Environment poll demonstrate that Americans belief in global warming, uncertainty about its source causes (human activities or natural causes), and scientific evidence are declining. More Americans – 48 percent, to be exact – believe that global warming is exaggerated. Those who believe climate change is occurring have dropped by 15 percent, the “lowest since the first time Gallup asked this question back in 1997.”
“Right now the skeptics have been pretty effective about misinforming people,” Warren M. Washington, PhD, told an audience who filled the auditorium of Howard University’s Social Work Library.
“We have enough scientific work – internationally and nationally by organizations like the National Academies – who have looked at the problems and scientific challenges,” Washington said, “And they have come to the conclusion that we are entering into a phase of major human-caused, or anthropgenically-caused, climate change.
However, there are special interests out there that say, ‘No, it’s not changing and it’s not caused by humankind.’ And I have to strongly disagree with that view.”
Washington, chief scientist of the National Center for Atmospheric Research’s Climate and Global Dynamics division, specializes in three-dimensional computer modeling of Earth’s climate. Throughout his presentation, he employed several animated models to show evidence of how the global warming effect has affected regions around the world differently.
In one model, the upward trend of warming sea waters and record-making temperatures over the last few decades dramatically obvious. However, the rising temperatures slightly decreased after volcanic eruptions such as Pinatubo in 1991, and the more recent eruption of Eyjafjallajökull in Iceland.
“Volcano eruptions cool off the planet a little bit,” Washington said.
When volcanoes erupt, they primarily emit sulfur dioxide into the lower stratosphere where it becomes a sulfuric acid gas. That gas later becomes a “haze” that can reflect sunlight, thus reducing the heating of the Earth’s surface.
That sporadic cooling of the Earth’s surface does dramatically affect the overall carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere. Yet, the overall warming trend is undeniable.
“We’re in the 380 [parts per million] range and that will cause enormous change in the climate,” he said in response to a question from a student in the audience about meeting the “safe” 350 ppm target.
“Scientists like myself are very concerned that we’re not taking the proper steps to deal with this problem,” he said before dismissing geo-engineering schemes such as “stratospheric sulfate injections” that caused more problems than they solve.
But Washington did praise President Barack Obama’s contested 2011 budget proposal.
“He sees the future,” he said.
Although dismayed by the successful campaign of “climate skeptics”, Washington did not believe they should be prevented from voicing their dissent.
“Trying to suppress one idea is a bad idea in science,” he said.
He argued that research done by skeptical scientists such as MIT’s Richard Lindzen would either be validated or refuted by subsequent researchers seeking to corroborate their findings.