Thursday, December 12, 2013
There is so much information out there about the latest report from the United Nations IPCC panel on climate change that I don't want to just repeat what you can already find out there. What I am presenting is some insight into how I read the report and from where my own love of science originates.
My grandfather took courses at a local college well into his 70s, he had a passion for learning that was back then both admirable and somewhat rare for a man his age. He was open to new ideas, new ways of thinking and took an interest in the world around him. I like thinking some of his genes ended up a part of me.
I admired how he would ask me questions about college, my research, and just generally took an interest in what I was exploring in my life and others.
Teaching meteorology gives me opportunities to not only forward my own knowledge of weather to my students, but to learn from them as well. Some of what I learn helps me be a better educator. What is often clear in my mind can take a while to illuminate in the mind of a 20 year old. I am actually going to not teach my meteorology class at Colby this Jan Plan in order to continue to refine the course, keep it relevant and excellent. This will also translate to the same course at Framingham State. Introspection and self-criticism help us grow and improve. We shouldn't be afraid these things make us weak for they make us better.
Perception is also powerful, how a student sees me, is often not how I might see myself, this is why evaluations and feedback is so important in the world of higher education. For me to discount the information presented to me, in spite of what I might think or feel wouldn’t be prudent or frankly mature. The older I get, the more I see change and what maybe have been put forth as truth at one moment, changes in the next.
I try to teach my classes to keep an open mind, to question what they read, hear, and see. This is also how I approach much of what I read, hear and see. This isn’t to say that I distrust conventional wisdom for contrarian sake, rather I want to educate myself to be sure what information I consume is at the moment, the best information I can find.
Sometimes people believe experts like doctors, veterinarians, economists, educators, architects, etc. are “right” because they have degrees in their chosen field. While education and research certainly brings credibility to the table, it doesn’t mean these folks are infallible. It also doesn’t mean what conventional wisdom says in 2013 isn’t going to be very different in 10, 20 or 100 years.
Agreement also doesn’t mean truth. While a consensus around an idea could be right, consensus in itself isn’t validity
Recently, the IPCC released another report on the state of the climate and what scientists believe has happened with the climate in the past and where they see it going in the future. There is a high amount of agreement within the scientific community that humans are raising the temperature of the planet because we add so much carbon dioxide, (CO2) through burning fossil fuels.
We read numbers like 95% of scientists now agree nearly all the warming since 1950 is due to anthropogenic reasons. The IPCC also stated in its recent report in the Northern Hemisphere, “1983–2012 was likely the warmest 30-year period of the last 1400 years (medium confidence). “ We see predictive numbers on what the planet will do over the coming decades.
Those who disagree with the findings are labeled as skeptics, heretics, lunatics, and worse. There are numerous websites that take each point by someone who questions the findings or future predictions of climatologists.
Like most predictions humans make, climate predictions are not perfect. As a matter of fact, the models have failed to see the lack of warming over the past 15 years. Within the IPCC report, the authors point out 15 years is too short of a period to make any conclusions and the warmth is actually being stored in the oceans. Natural variability was cited as one of the reasons for warming being less pronounced in the last 15 years, and the role of the oceans in absorbing heat, which is still “poorly understood”. The image below shows a range of prediction for the future. The red zone represents these predicitons with man's CO2 contribution, the blue without.
The IPCC goes on further to state “There are not sufficient observations of the uptake of heat, particularly into the deep ocean, that will be one of the possible mechanisms that would explain this warming hiatus,"
What I like about this line of thinking is that it admits scientists don’t know all the mechanisms of the atmosphere and how each piece of the puzzle fits together.
One of the climatologists whose thinking I like to read is Dr. Roy Spenser. Dr. Spenser proposes many alternative possibilities for how the climate system works and that clouds could play an important role in keeping the planet cooler than some computer models might otherwise predict.
What am I trying to say here? I don’t consider myself a skeptic regarding the impacts of anthropogenic CO2 into the atmosphere. Yet, I do think those effects are often misrepresented, exaggerated or simply not as well understood as reported. I also believe any discourse questioning the majority thinking is discouraged and some of those working in the business of climate change have now morphed into another high pressure lobby.
Science is supposed to be about the pursuit of knowledge. We are fortunate to live in a time where exploring an idea or hypothesis is easier than at any other time in human history. I encourage you to at least read the summary of the latest IPCC report. (the entire report is quite long) I also encourage you to question everything about the report, not because it’s flawed, but because the pursuit of excellence demands questions.
Think about everything from the players involved to the psychology behind group-think mentalities. Consider what is true and what might not be. Think about timelines, ranges and unknowns. Know there is truth in the report and elements as yet unproven. Leave room for skepticism, but room for belief. In other words, don’t become dogmatic around the issue.
Living a modern life produces carbon dioxide. How the carbon dioxide humans put into the atmosphere will ultimately change the planet and subsequently the lives of future generations is open to discussion. What is true is the planet will be affected in some way, how could it not? Public policy can be made without 100% accuracy, but should also leave room for inevitable changes in understanding ahead.
The chart shows where the CO2 we produce originates
I’ve been a scientist my entire life. Whether I was experimenting with insects, plants, fish or frogs, my mind has wanted to learn more. I hope during the upcoming decades I am able to continue that pursuit of knowledge in the same way as my grandfather and to never be labeled anything but inquisitive for my passion.
Gardening this week
Deer are an issue for gardeners any time of the year, but as we approach winter, they can become a particular problem. If you are a hunter, I know how you will say we should take care of the deer, but short of that, there are ways to keep them out of your yard. Check out this week's gardening video below.
David Epstein has been a meteorologist for more than 25 years. He spent 16 years in Boston and currently freelances at WGME13 in Portland.
In 2006, David founded GrowingWisdom.com, a business producing educational and marketing videos for the green industry. He currently is a professor at Framingham State College, teaches Jan Plan at Colby College and owns Bloomscapes Inc., a landscape design business.
David authored "Gardens Of New England" and his work has been published in Grolier's Science Annual for 10 years. He lives in South Natick, Mass., and has a summer home in Harpswell.