Experts: Threat of climate change not a myth or hoax

Human-caused climate change is real. Ice caps in the Arctic and ice sheets in Greenland are melting at an alarming rate. Sea levels are rising. And the world’s greenhouse emissions – carbon-based gases that cause heat to stay trapped in the atmosphere – need to be cut by 40 to 70 percent of their 2010 levels by 2050 so that the Earth’s average temperature doesn’t rise beyond a point of no return, negatively affecting the world’s food supply and threatening aquatic life.

Those are a sliver of conclusions made recently by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), an organization of the United Nations that analyzes years of peer-reviewed climate studies.

All of this research from expert scientists, and yet, the claim that global warming is a myth still is prevalent among certain communities and individuals.

Michael Mann, professor of meteorology at Penn State University, said that myth is fueled by anti-science propaganda.

“There is a common misconception that having a cold winter somehow invalidates human-caused climate change,” Mann recently said. “How quickly some forget, for example, that we have seen record summer heat in recent years. Oklahoma became the hottest any state has ever been during 2011. And 2012 was the warmest year on record for the U.S.”

Mann said that this past winter seemed colder than usual only because area people have gotten used to warmer temperatures.

“It was just a typical, old-fashioned (1970s-style) winter,” he said, adding that no all-time records were broken anywhere in the United States this year. “Even a 1970s winter feels very cold to us now, because the new normal is warm weather.”

Anyone who doubts the science should just look to the evidence, said David Titley, also a professor of meteorology at Penn State.

“A lot of people ask me if I believe in global warming,” Titley said. “But science isn’t about belief; it’s about evidence.”

Titley cited melting arctic ice that is causing sea levels to rise and warm.

“Ninety percent of the Earth’s heat is in the water, not in the air,” he said. “And the arctic has changed more than anyplace else in the world.”

Titley said it is characteristic of the arctic to have, “very hard, very thick, multi-year ice,” but that most of the ice in the arctic now is only one or two years old, forcing out fish and other animals to seek elevations and temperatures they are used to.

Just exactly how climate change will change the landscape of the Earth still is unclear, but the IPCC report said it will be detrimental to public health and potentially displace large populations of people.

Chris Forest, associate professor of climate dynamics at Penn State, and coauthor of an IPCC report that was released in October, said climate change will and already is having adverse effects on agriculture, as heavy rainfall and droughts become more commonplace.

“Every seed manufacturer has different varieties of corn or soybean or wheats that are appropriate for different climate environments,” Forest said. “So that is not so much of an issue. The bigger issues are irrigation and things like drought and the availability of water.”

Titley said the crops that will endure are the ones that can withstand warmer days, such as corn and soybeans, but that prolonged exposure to heat can induce stress in cattle and other livestock.

Perhaps that’s why Forest said one way of reducing our carbon footprint is by not eating as much meat, as the energy used to produce that food contributes to a significant amount of the United States’ carbon emissions.

“By consuming less meat, the crops grown to maintain livestock will go directly to the people,” he said.

More ways to reduce greenhouse emissions are through what Mann calls, “no-regrets” actions, such as bicycling to work or using public transportation, as well as purchasing more energy-efficient appliances.

“But any true solution is going to require that we put a price on the emission of carbon into the atmosphere so that the damages it does to our planet are internalized in economic cost/benefit calculations,” Mann said. “And the energy market playing field is leveled to the point where non-carbon based energy sources, such as solar and wind, can fairly compete in the marketplace.”

Mann added that electing public officials who recognize the importance of acting on climate change will benefit us all, emphasizing that the future of the planet is in political hands regardless of sound science, which Titley said needs to be taken seriously.

“Within the climate science community, the fact that climate change is happening is about as controversial as gravity,” he said. “It’s that level of certainty.”