As a fierce and uncompromising cold grips the east coast of the United States, a particular celebrity-turned-leader-of-the-free-world issued a pridefully and blissfully misinformed tweet proclaiming that a “little bit of that good old global warming” may be just what we need to make this country great again. With his sweeping declarations that climate change is nothing more than a scheme dreamt up by liberals — and for some reason, 98% of climate scientists around the globe — to rain on the parade of big business, Mr. Trump seems determined to make his vision a reality as he plots a course to nullify regulations and agreements that were put in place to protect our environment, the water we drink, and the air we breathe, from pollutants, contaminants, and greenhouse gases.
Before we allow the unintentional comedy of our casino-magnate-in-chief to reduce us to disdainful sighs, and/or giggles, we should take some time to analyze the seriousness of his statements on climate change, science, and reason in general, and just think…
For Mr. Trump to joke about moderating cold weather by wishing for climate change is akin to hoping to solve an overpopulation crisis by keeping your fingers crossed for an increase in mass shootings.
What is perhaps more distressing than the number of ‘likes’ received by this profoundly dangerous bit of comedy is the fact that a grown man who is leading the nation (and theoretically the world) lacks a basic understanding of scientific principles and still doesn’t know the difference between weather and climate.
Let’s use an analogy that perhaps a business-minded person could understand: the stock market.
The Dow Jones industrial average recently hit 25,000 for the first time ever. While this bull market surely can’t, and won’t, be sustained indefinitely, it has been trending upwards for some time now. However, within that soaring average, you have stock prices that plunged to all-time lows. Despite this, the general trend remains skyward for the time being.
Similarly, the average global land and sea temperatures have, too, been trending upward — since about the time of the industrial revolution. Within that time, it would be incorrect to say that there haven’t been significant highs and lows in temperature. However, the overall curve is an upward one.
To confuse an individual stock price with the Dow Jones industrial average is an error on the same level as conflating weather with climate. Barnes & Noble dropped about 13% in the last few days. To Mr. Trump, this must be an indication that the stock market as a whole is flagging.
Aside from normal variations in weather, these frightful and unseasonable cold snaps have their roots in climate science and climate change.
It has long been well known and understood that at the north pole sits a massive swirling hurricane known as a polar vortex. Normally, cold air swirls in this area of low pressure around the north pole. A strong jet stream keeps that swirling wall of cold air relatively isolated around the north pole. However, with the loss of sea ice, and warmer ocean temperatures, the polar jet stream, which usually keeps the swirling vortex of cold air contained, weakens. The weakening of the jet stream allows it to meander more than normal. This allows cold air from the arctic to penetrate much farther south than it could with a stronger jet stream.
The climate is warming and causing greater extremes in weather. It seems counterintuitive, and in hindsight, branding climate change initially as “global warming” may have been a huge mistake. Some people who refuse to seek the truth continue to tout that global warming can’t be real as long as it’s still really friggin’ cold in winter.
Why, though, do greenhouse gases “trap” heat in the troposphere?
In the middle of the 1800s, physicist John Tyndall conducted several experiments that conclusively show that certain molecules present in Earth’s atmosphere — namely carbon dioxide, water vapor, and methane — trap and re-emit heat from the sun and help to keep the planet warm. These greenhouse gases in the atmosphere have the ability to actually absorb and re-emit infrared radiation (heat) from the sun. Not all molecules are effective in absorbing infrared energy. However, due to the molecular structure of carbon dioxide, water vapor, and methane, these molecules can vibrate and re-emit infrared radiation in ways that simpler molecules like nitrogen and oxygen can not. These molecules exist natrually in the Earth’s atmosphere, however, without any greenhouse gases, Earth would have a much colder climate. Unfortunately, these helpful temperature regulating gases can become too much of a good thing in much larger quantities. Carbon dioxide and methane are by-products of many industrial processes. These molecules are released in the form of gases that drift upward and collect in the troposphere. The collection of greenhouse gases in the troposphere absorb and reflect heat that would normally be lost into the stratosphere and upper layers of Earth’s atmosphere. The buildup of heat gradually creates an increase in global land and sea temperatures. Greenhouse gases act almost like your coat does in winter. A winter coat doesn’t keep the cold out, but rather, it keeps the heat in.
Today, the Earth’s carbon dioxide content in the atmosphere has reached 400 parts per million and is currently climbing at a rate of 2 parts per million per year (and accelerating). It’s true that in prehistoric times, the carbon dioxide content of Earth’s atmosphere was likely close to 2,000 ppm. This wasn’t as big a problem as it would be today for two reasons. Reason number one is that humans weren’t around and weren’t trying to survive 150 million years ago. Reason number two is that the sun was much less bright and the Earth was much cooler than it is today.
Don’t mistake the brightening of the sun over the last 150 million years as the cause of the increase in global temperatures over the last couple hundred, though. The brighter sun that we experience today is a problem because of the buildup of greenhouse gases (see below). We can’t do anything about the sun, be we can do something about the amount of greenhouse gases that we pour up into our atmosphere.
Aside from having a severe misunderstanding of basic elementary school science principles, Mr. Trump continues to insist that — despite a scientific consensus that mankind is adversely affecting the climate — he knows the truth.
Let’s imagine for a moment that you walk from your house to your car to begin your daily commute. As you approach the vehicle, you are confronted by all the world’s auto mechanics. 98% of them agree after thoroughly inspecting your car, checking under the hood, and running simulations and tests, that the car will most definitely burst into flames the moment the key is turned in the ignition, instantly incinerating the contents and passengers within. 2% of them, who happen to be paid by GM say that you will be completely safe. Would you call a tow service and maybe get the bicycle out of storage, or would you insist that you know better than 98% of the world’s auto mechanics? Out of spite, some will no doubt say that they’d turn the key. Unfortunately, those who are choosing to turn the key are also the ones writing and repealing environment-protecting laws. Moreover, those who would turn the key, choosing to ignore the protests of their auto-mechanic, are doing so because their eye-doctor said it would be safe.
When examining claims — and those who are making them — it is important that we can recognize who is qualified to pass such judgements, and who is not. Much of the “evidence” against the changing climate comes from people who are very much not climate scientists, and who very much are on the payroll — so to speak — of large oil, gas, and coal companies who have a lot to lose should more people take the changing climate seriously.
Others try to claim that not only is the climate not getting warmer and the ice caps are not melting, but the Antarctic is actually gaining ice. Every winter, the ocean that surrounds Antarctica gradually builds up a covering of sea ice. This layer of ice cyclically melts during the summer. This cycle of building up and melting a covering of sea ice has a minimal effect on the global sea level. Presently, more sea ice is forming than is melting in summer which is somewhat strange. However, most of the polar ice exists in a sheet of ice that has accumulated over the course of millions of years. This ice sheet is melting at an ever-increasing rate and is far outstripping any gain that might be occuring elsewhere. The same thing is going on in the northern hemisphere with the ice sheets that cover Greenland. The claim that there is more ice forming than melting is a deceitful tactic designed to discredit actual evidence.
On the other hand, there are some who aren’t as completely wrapped up in a total denial of the evidence of reality as our Resident Reality TV Star. Some people actually acknowledge what science is telling us. However, they still don’t want to attribute the warming of the global climate to the activities of the species of bipedal mammalian industrialists:
“The Earth is getting warmer because the sun is getting hotter.”
It is true. Climate scientists acknowledge that the sun goes through cycles, and right now, the sun is going through a period where it gives off more heat than it used to. However, at the distance the Earth is, relative to the sun, the difference in temperature is negligible.
The elliptical orbit of the Earth around the sun finds us significantly closer to the sun in winter than in summer, yet temperatures fall instead of rise. If the temperature of the sun had such a great effect on the temperature of the Earth, our seasons would no doubt be very different than they are, assuming we didn’t burst into flames every winter.
So yes, the sun is warming, but it doesn’t play a very large role in the increase in land and sea temperatures from one year to the next. How else do we know this?
Let’s go back to another lesson from elementary school. The Earth’s atmosphere is comprised of many, many layers. The layer in which we live and breathe is called the troposphere. Coincidentally, this is where we find that greenhouse gases build up and trap the heat that pours in from the sun and also that radiates back from the Earth. Above the troposphere, we find the stratosphere. The stratosphere is warmed both by the sun, and residual heat radiating back up from the Earth and through the troposphere. If an increased temperature of the sun was actually causing the warming of the Earth, climate scientists would find that the layers of the atmosphere are warming from the outside in — from the stratosphere and inward to the troposphere. Instead, climate scientists find that the stratosphere is actually cooling because more and more heat is being trapped in the troposphere by the building up of greenhouse gases, never making it back up through the stratosphere.
The categorical distrust of science that Mr. Trump has is a blatant refusal to live in reality. Skepticism is a rare and meritorious quality. However, when the evidence is literally everywhere you look, seemingly enlightened skepticism quickly becomes prideful insanity.
Unfortunately, denial of evidence has been in Mr. Trumps wheelhouse ever since he led the crusade of the “birther movement” simply because he couldn’t stand to have President Obama occupying the White House.
It is a truly scary time when we have lawmakers making decisions that affect the future of society operating with misinformation and waging an outright war against science. Science has put men and women in orbit around the Earth, put men on the moon (no women yet…), satellites deep into space, and a rover on Mars. Yet, when science butts heads with business, science is labelled a conspiracy and a thing to be shunned and distrusted. When science threatens ideology, idealogues insert their reality of choice. To quote an obviously sardonic Adam Savage, “I reject your reality, and substitute my own!”
Disclaimer: I am not a climate scientist. I am not a scientist. I am not an auto mechanic or an eye-doctor. I do not get paid by “Big Science”. I read. A lot. And I want to know the truth. Don’t take what I say for granted. Read. Do research. Learn. Be skeptical, but follow the evidence even if it leads to an inconvenient truth. Share truth with others and encourage inquiry.
The Denial of Climate Change and The Rejection of Reality. was originally published in Just Think… on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.