Debate on Climate Change, Environmental Effects


As part of the Natural Science and Mathematics (NS&M) Colloquium series this semester, Nobel Peace Prize winner and Professor at Penn State University in the Department of Meteorology and Geoscience, Michael E. Mann came to St. Mary’s to discuss the reality and politics of climate change in Schaefer Hall on Oct. 26.

Mann began his talk by reviewing the evidence there is for the fact that humans have had and will have a significant affect on the earth’s climate. The earth warmed one degree Celsius over past century, and both sea levels and temperatures have risen while snow coverage around the world has lessened. According to Mann, the earth warms and cools naturally, however, based on solely natural models the earth should have cooled slightly in the last 100 years instead of warmed.

Critics might argue that all of these results are based on models and that it is impossible to accurately model something as complex as climate. Mann countered this argument by pointing to models such as Hansen’s Three Predicted Global Warming Scenarios, which have predicted very accurately the amount of global warming we have experienced in the last 50 years.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a panel of thousands of scientists working under the United Nations, has concluded that global climate change is “very likely” due to greenhouse gases. Mann pointed out that, “scientists don’t use the term ‘very likely’ lightly” and what it means is that they are about 90 percent sure of their results. Almost identical conclusions have come out of the scientific academies in almost all of the industrialized nations in the world.

At this point in time, it is possible to see the effects of climate change on the weather. On any given day in the United States there are record high temperatures and record low temperatures; a few decades ago the ratio of record hot to record cold days was one to one. Today it is two to one, in favor of the hot days. Any particular hot day is not evidence of climate change but the trend is significant. Rainfall also can demonstrate this trend: warmer sea temperatures lead to evaporation and more rainfall. “I liked the stats that he used to prove it was actually happening,” said senior Colleen Brummitt.

Since it is possible to already see such profound effects, it is reasonable to ask why no action has been taken. This is because the subject is highly politically charged. The first example Mann used to show this political masking was a memo written in 2002 by Frank Luntz, owner of the political consulting firm Luntz Global, which coached politicians in how to argue against climate change. Mann’s next example was of an event called “Climategate,” when private emails of scientists researching climate change were stolen and released to the public. Oddly enough, the following political attention was not focused on the theft but on the supposed fraud that the scientists discussed in the emails. Sarah Palin, former Governor of Alaska, wrote an opinion article in The Washington Post declaring that the scientists were deliberately hiding a decline in global temperature. This was not true, according to Mann. What the scientists had been discussing was how to shift people’s attention away from tree ring data that was wrong after 1960 so that it did not confuse people.

Mann found himself in the center of the climate change debate because of his work on the “hockey stick graph,” which has become an icon for climate change. Because of this work he was targeted by political opponents of climate change such as Texas Representative Joe Barton (R), who subpoenaed all of his research and data.

Barton’s subpoena was attacked by almost every news source in the United States and nearly every scientific journal. Mann stressed at this point that there were politicians on both sides of the aisle that have defended climate change and scientists. Mann praised former New York Representative Sherwood Boehlert (R) specifically as a national hero for calling out his fellow republicans for driving the Republican Party towards becoming a party of anti-science.

Barton was not the last to subpoena Mann. When Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli subpoenaed him, The Washington Post published no less than five editorials and two cartoons bashing Cuccinelli for the dangerous precedent he was setting under which any scientist could be stopped from doing their work if the Attorney General did not like their subject or findings.

The political debate and battle for acceptance of the reality of climate change is ongoing. This is a shame, according to Mann, because the scientific community accepted the reality of climate change two decades ago. The debate now should be how to fix the problem. If we stay on this track, says Mann, “[the] coral reefs will be gone within 40 to 50 years” and crops in the tropics will suffer significantly. If we want to avoid this, we have to bring our CO2 emissions to a peak within the next decade and below the levels of those in the 1990s by the mid-2000s. This cannot be accomplished by individuals reducing their carbon footprint; we need to put a cost on emissions.

“I don’t want a world where my daughter can only show her children polar bears in zoos and that is what we are heading towards,” Mann says. So, there is still hope; we can still do it, but it has to happen soon.