I remember the days of my earth science class in middle school. I learned about geological formations, seismic activities, and meteorological and climatological studies. These subjects were presented to me as facts, with no political commentary to cloud my comprehension of the information. Yet in today’s society, science, particularly the science of our earth, is political and controversial. Over the past decade and a half, we have seen different actors (whether they be politicians or scientists) in the U.S. debate the validity and accuracy of the science behind climate change. The arguments on both sides of the debate have been divided along the usual ideological discourses of Survivalists and Prometheans. The Survivalists believe that ecological limits are a reality and must be dealt with before more ecological degradation continues. The Prometheans discount the notion of limits, believing that technology and human ingenuity are the saviors of our environment. Leaders who have aligned with this discourse include Republican lawmakers, including Congressman Paul Ryan (former vice presidential candidate on the Republican ticket in 2012), who espoused this position in a recent debate in his congressional race in Wisconsin. This is all well and good, but why does one side agree and the other disagree with the science of climate change as it is presented?
What does the science of climate change say at this point? At its core, the earth requires an energy balance to maintain a normal global temperature: the amount of energy that enters the planet’s atmosphere must be equal to the amount of energy that leaves the atmosphere. This seems simple enough and not controversial in any sense. But scientists have suggested that the earth is not in balance, where certain environmental tipping points are being met. One such tipping point is the carbon concentration in the earth’s atmosphere. The problem with carbon dioxide is this: if an excessive concentration of carbon exists in the atmosphere, it will act as a blocking mechanism for energy to escape from the earth’s surface, which will be reflected back onto the earth (better known as the greenhouse effect). According to CO2Now, the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide (as of September 2014) is 395.28 parts per million (PPM). Many experts suggest that this concentration is too high and that we must aim to get below 350 PPM of carbon dioxide. This would help to reduce the rise of our global temperature, which has seen approximately a .62 degree Celsius rise in long-term average temperature over the 20th Century. With the impacts of glacial melting, sea-level rise, droughts, and floods and fiercer storms, many worry that too much damage has been caused already from a less than one degree Celsius change in the earth’s average temperature, and action needs to be taken.
None of what I just explained and showed above should be controversial. Science has shown the connection between the global average temperature and carbon concentration in the atmosphere. So, where does the debate come into this area? Is it on the scientific facts itself, or on the root cause of climate change? Scientists have suggested that much of the extreme weather events of 2013 were connected to man-made activity. This idea alone is the central point of policy and political debates within the U.S. The activities of polluting energy industries and fossil fuel users are considered to be at the root cause of some of the climatic changes seen across the world. In the United States, a majority of our electricity is produced by coal-fired power plants, which emit carbon emissions each day. In tandem with this, people’s lifestyles have changed, but changed for the worse. For example, in the United States, the average home size has increased to nearly 2,600 square feet, over 800 square feet larger than the average sized home in 1983. The larger a building is, the more energy that is needed to operate it. Therefore, the method by which we produce energy and people seeking to achieve better lifestyles are partly the reasons why climate change is a man-made problem.
If this is the truth, then why is it being debated? Republican lawmakers have continued to stand in the way of environmental policies to counteract climate change. Even the U.S. military, whose sole mission is the protection of our national security, believes that climate change poses an imminent threat to our country. It is evident that Republican lawmakers are concerned about accepting the notion of climate change because of one fact: the fossil fuel industry is one of their major financial backers in elections. In particular, oil industry leaders, such as the Koch Brothers, have funded Republican campaigns and topical campaigns to deny the existence of climate change. These same lobbyists are calling on their allies in Congress to increase exportation of their commodity to the global market, which will continue emitting more carbon into the atmosphere. Unless these efforts are counteracted, the results of such actions could be disastrous for the U.S. and the entire world. But, as we have seen already, the developing world has seen and will continue to experience more consequences of climate change than the developed world. Therefore, the threat to the oil industry’s lifeblood is what is at stake, and any efforts to derail that sends this influential industry to K Street in Washington and on over to Capitol Hill to rally Republican lawmakers to deny climate change.
One question to ponder is this: is the science of climate change controversial, or is the controversy surrounding the root cause of climate change? In my opinion, the science appears irrefutable. The issue is who is assigned the burden of proof. The fact that Congressman Ryan acknowledged that climate change exists, but denies its root cause, appears to have shown a shift in the conversation. But finding a solution to getting Republicans to believe in the science of climate change is not simple. The fossil fuel industry’s denial of climate change’s existence is powerful and their backing of anti-climate campaigns makes matters more complex. I cannot pretend to know what the solution to this politicized problem is, but more work needs to be done in order to unleash the truth about planet Earth.