It has been obvious to most scientists for decades that the human use of fossil fuels is affecting the Earth’s climate. Carl Sagan testified before Congress back in 1985 that if a nuclear war could cool the planet into a so-called “nuclear winter” from soot produced by the burning of targeted cities, the buildup of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would certainly warm it. Sagan was an expert in planetary atmospheres, having discovered the runaway greenhouse effect on Venus in 1962 where the thick carbon dioxide atmosphere resulted in surface temperatures of 800 degrees F. He feared Earth could suffer a similar fate. James Hansen at NASA and Michael Mann of Penn State also started raising alarms in the 1980s.
Some politicians were also concerned about the climate. Tennessee Governor Al Gore made climate change an issue in his first run for President in 1988, although as Gore himself has said, he was preaching to a choir that had not yet been assembled. He gained more influence as Vice President in the Clinton administration, where President Bill Clinton famously stated, “The science is clear and compelling: We humans are changing the global climate.” Gore has since become a significant climate spokesperson starting with his subsequent presidential run in 2000 and in the following two decades. Presidents Barack Obama and Joe Biden have also been strong proponents of the need to address human-induced or “anthropogenic” climate change, and even George W. Bush has acknowledged that it is a concern. The only one who has not is Donald Trump.
This leads us into the so-called “climate debate.” Politicians like Trump, many of his followers, and certain invested business people continue to claim that the notion of humans affecting climate is nothing but hyperbole. Trump called it a “Chinese hoax,” which feeds a conservative narrative that U.S. environmentalists have been duped by a Chinese diversionary tactic to convince the energy sector to cut back on coal and oil while capturing and sequestering carbon dioxide and constructing “zero carbon” wind turbines and solar farms. As a result, expensive U.S. electricity makes U.S. products more costly and less competitive. In the meantime, China supposedly laughs at us while they merrily burn coal to generate cheap electricity and blow us out of the water economically with their low-priced manufactured goods.
The numbers don’t actually support this myth. U.S. natural gas-fired electricity generated in combined cycle powerplants is 50% more efficient and as such significantly cheaper than electricity generated from coal. The development of U.S. shale resources by fracking in the first two decades of the 21st Century created abundant domestic supplies of natural gas. Because of these favorable economics, many U.S. utilities switched over from coal to natural gas for electric power generation, creating a boom for the shale gas producers and causing economic havoc in the coal industry. (All fossil fuel is bad for the environment, but natural gas is less bad than coal.) China generates most of their electricity from coal because they have relatively small reserves of natural gas. There are substantial shale gas resources in southern China but these have been challenging to develop. As an additional cost, China is forced to import a significant amount of coal to keep its economy running. The country also constantly fights electricity shortages, building new power plants at a frantic pace. On the whole, kilowatt for kilowatt, U.S. electricity is actually cheaper than Chinese electricity.
As for low-priced Chinese goods, according to the World Bank, the 2019 GDP in U.S. dollars for the three largest national economies shows that the #1 U.S. economy eclipses #2 China by more than the entire GDP of #3 Japan. China has more than four times the population of the U.S., so their lower GDP is divided among many more people, resulting in a per capita income quite a bit less than ours. The Chinese economic juggernaut is driven not by cheap fossil energy, as claimed by Trump, but by cheap labor.
Some of the “climate skeptics” (they dislike the term “climate deniers”) have attempted to take a scientific rather than an economic approach. They declare that any change in the climate is a natural event that has nothing to do with the combustion of fossil fuels and any carbon dioxide emissions that may be coming from humans are insignificant. There are scientific-sounding statements that the elevated levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are beneficial for increasing the yields of corn and other crops (which is not true; fertilizer works better, and even if it was true the crop losses from climate-related droughts and floods are far more substantial than any gains). Claims that greenhouse warming slows down and even stops at higher CO2 concentrations fly in the face of satellite data showing that it gets worse. Other debunked assertions state that the current warming trend is “good” for humans (when anthropological evidence suggests that it is not), and over timescales of tens of millions of years, the current high CO2 levels are not that unusual (true, although when compared to the last 400,000 years, including four major ice ages and associated interglacial periods they are off the charts).
Climate skeptics with scientific degrees provide a veneer of scientific legitimacy to the climate science denial arguments. The issue is often presented as being biased in favor of climate change activists, with a call for a more “balanced” approach to invoke a notion of fairness. The news media will often buy into this notion of allowing equal time for arguments on both sides, even though one side has considerably more evidence than the other. Climate skeptics will also promote a sense of uncertainty about the validity of the data and urge caution about not jumping to conclusions with so much that is unknown. Their arguments often finish off with a claim that “the science is not settled” in response to climate scientists supposedly saying that it is.
This is by no means a typical scientific debate. For starters, no legitimate scientist would ever claim the science is “settled” because it never is. There is always an opportunity for new data to come in that upsets the apple cart. The only actual rule in science is “honor the data.” Scientists tend to be a disagreeable bunch, playing devil’s advocate with each other and trying to find the holes and flaws in someone’s well-crafted hypothesis. This is exactly how the scientific method is supposed to work. Humans are remarkably good at convincing themselves of things. The role of the scientific community is to review those claims, test them out experimentally, see if the results are repeatable and then, just maybe the original interpretation could be considered to be correct. Until someone else comes along with new data that change everything.
Some readers might remember the hoopla a few years back over an engineering process called “cold fusion” that was supposed to produce nuclear energy by tightly binding hydrogen atoms chemically inside a metal matrix until they fused. Many scientists were skeptical when the scientific article was first published, because at the time the only way humans knew how to make hydrogen fusion was with the intense heat and pressure of an atomic explosion. However, the authors were given the benefit of the doubt because they were established researchers working at a major university, and the article had been peer-reviewed prior to publication. A number of research labs set out to duplicate the experimental design described in the paper with the intent of reproducing the results. There was a great deal of excitement because actual cold fusion would definitely be a breakthrough energy technology. Unfortunately, no one else could get it to work. It turned out that the original research contained some serious measurement errors and flawed experiments. The paper had created a great deal of interest when initially released, and the authors became world-famous, which seemed to be their motivation. However, once the facts caught up to them, they were forced to withdraw the paper from publication under the firestorm of recriminations that followed. The authors were accused of rushing the article into print to try cashing in on the technology and they suffered significant professional disgrace within the scientific community as a result.
It is important to understand that the evidence supporting human-induced climate change is strong, and the evidence against it is weak. Scientific skeptics have reviewed the data, repeated the observations, and re-run the models, only to end up reaching similar conclusions. The experiments were rigorous, careful, and robust. The results were obvious, clear, internally consistent, and reproducible. Those are all the hallmarks of good science. New evidence that continues to come in supports the reality of anthropogenic climate change. The science is not “settled” by any means but as Clinton said, it is “clear and compelling.” The strongest scientific theories are the ones that have been tested and re-tested and found to hold up over time. Things like Relativity, the Laws of Motion, Thermodynamics, and Evolution all became established after decades of tests. Climate change has also been through this testing. If it were indeed a hoax, a cold fusion-level of ruckus would have been raised by the scientific community over such false information. Those who insist that they are skeptical about climate science have ulterior motives. It is not the science, because the science was done right.
If the “scientific” climate skeptics produced solid scientific evidence showing that links between fossil energy, greenhouse gas, and the climate crisis do not exist, climate scientists would readily change their minds because the scientific method always honors the data. So far, however, no convincing data have been forthcoming. The skeptics, most of whom have either direct or indirect ties to the fossil fuel industry, whine that the arguments they do try to present are dismissed or covered up by mainstream science. The claim of a cover-up is a standard tactic for conspiracy theories and a poor excuse. It is far more likely that their arguments were dismissed because of weak evidence, questionable methods, and unsupported conclusions. Cover-ups are usually attempts to hold onto money or power and climate had neither of these when the problem was first publicized. All the money and power back then was with the fossil fuel industry. So which side has an incentive here to cover up something?
Pseudo-technical babble from climate skeptics and the notion of “equal time for both sides” pursued relentlessly by the media only serve to confuse the public. The ordinary person on the street wonders if climate change actually poses a problem or not. If so, are humans causing it? Should we do something about it? The confusion produces uncertainty, with some people supporting it and some opposed. It gets tribal, with folks choosing sides and falling into different camps. These divisions cause politicians to dither over climate policy decisions that might alienate groups of voters. The decision ends up being “not to decide” and the issue is put off for a future date. Thus, the status quo is preserved, and the fossil fuel industry continues to sell their products at a profit. This is the root cause of the “climate debate.” Ask yourself why there have been 27 United Nations COP climate summits at last count. Why was this all not resolved at COP #1? Instead there have been 26 more years of dependence on fossil fuel.
An organized effort by the fossil fuel industry and certain conservative groups is attempting to discredit climate science using $64 million in annual funds received from 140 different conservative foundations, who generally conceal donations through the use of donor-directed philanthropies. The money goes to think tanks and institutes that use tactics developed for the tobacco industry (by some of them, as a matter of fact) to convince the American public that climate change is neither real nor serious. Like the fossil fuel industry, the tobacco industry was fully aware of the hazards of their products but created enough uncertainty and doubt to maintain robust cigarette sales until governments finally addressed secondhand smoke and banned indoor smoking, prompting many people to quit. Thus, anyone who believes that “climate change is a hoax” should also remember that “4 out of 5 doctors smoke [insert brand name here] cigarettes.”
One of the recipients of this anti-climate funding is the Heartland Institute, an Illinois-based think tank that has moved to the forefront of climate skepticism after downplaying the health hazards of tobacco in the 1990s. It views climate change as a conspiracy by world governments to control people’s lives. “The global climate agenda, as promoted by the United Nations, is to overhaul the entire global economy, usher in socialism, and forever transform society as one in which individual liberty and economic freedom are crushed,” reads an event description for a recent climate skeptics conference sponsored by the institute. Another conservative institute that is at the forefront of climate skepticism is the Washington, D.C.-based Heritage Foundation. Their approach is generally a bit softer, asserting that we don't really understand all the uncertainties of climate and have no hard data to show just how much warming the increase in greenhouse gas emissions will actually induce. According to Heritage, government policy is supposedly being based on "unrealistic" worst-case scenarios by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and climate skepticism serves as an "antibody to flawed assumptions and preconceptions."
By the way, one of these so-called “flawed assumptions and preconceptions” of the IPCC is that humanity is driving off a cliff and while there is still time to stop, we had better hit the brakes real soon. The IPCC recommends doing two things to stabilize the climate: 1) stop using fossil fuel by mid-century and 2) remove 730 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide from the air by 2100. These tasks are formidable, but not impossible.
In the early 1990s, an organization called the Global Climate Coalition (GCC), representing the oil and coal industries engaged a guy named E. Bruce Harrison to build a campaign sowing doubt about the science of climate change. Harrison's previous successes included discrediting research on the toxicity of pesticides for the chemical industry, discounting the hazards of smoking for the tobacco industry, and campaigning against tougher emissions standards for the auto industry. His public relations firm was considered one of the best. The tactics he developed for GCC included claims that the science was unsettled and that reducing fossil fuel use would negatively affect American jobs, trade and prices. This latter point has actually been adopted by economists who call it the “social cost of carbon” and they have been debating for years about how various national economies might be adversely affected by switching from fossil fuels to renewable energy. Harrison specifically sought to engage a wide range of experts in his campaign who were scientists, economists, and academics because of their higher credibility compared to industry representatives.
Has it worked? You be the judge: Forty years after scientists began raising the alarm about fossil fuel combustion leading to human-induced climate change, our energy economy is still 80% to 90% powered by fossil fuel. Most of the electricity (70%) in the United States is generated by natural gas or coal. In China, 80% of the electricity comes from coal. Only 2% of vehicles in the world are electric; the other 98% still burn petroleum. A large percentage of the world population uses natural gas for heating, cooking, and hot water. An even larger percentage, primarily in places like China and India burn coal directly for heating and cooking. The goal of the fossil fuel industry is to continue to profit from fossil fuel. Expecting the fossil fuel industry to stop selling gasoline is like expecting the dairy industry to ban ice cream.
Should we be concerned about all this fossil fuel combustion affecting climate? In a word, yes. The physics of climate change are simple and straightforward and have been understood for nearly two centuries. Anyone who has ever walked barefoot on the beach on a sunny summer afternoon knows that the sun heats the Earth’s surface. The process is called insolation and the amount of solar heating at mid-latitudes can be greater than 300 watts per square meter during summer daylight hours. French physicist Joseph Fourier discovered back in 1824 that short wavelengths of infrared radiation (IR) from the sun penetrate the atmosphere and heat the Earth. This heat energy from the warm Earth is then re-radiated back into space as longer IR wavelengths. Fourier found that carbon dioxide (CO2) was transparent to the shorter incoming wavelengths of IR but absorbs the longer outgoing IR wavelengths radiated back from the ground. Thus, the atmosphere is warmed from below by heat radiated from the Earth and not from above by the sun. This is why the temperature of the air decreases with altitude and high mountain peaks are perpetually snow covered. The atmospheric temperature gradient is also responsible for the condensation of clouds in the sky and rainfall from those clouds.
Fourier referred to the atmospheric warming process as the “hothouse” effect, an old term for the glass-covered buildings we now call greenhouses. He determined that CO2 acted to trap heat in a manner similar to the glass windows of a greenhouse. Thus, CO2 and other heat-trapping gases such as methane (CH4) and water vapor (H2O) are called greenhouse gases or GHG. Fourier understood that some level of GHG in the atmosphere was necessary to hold in heat at night and prevent temperatures on the Earth from plunging below freezing even in the tropics after sunset. His claims about the heat-trapping properties of carbon dioxide were verified experimentally by American physicist Eunice Foote in 1857 and confirmed for additional gases a few years later by John Tyndall in Ireland. This is not new science.
The concentrations of CO2 and other GHG in the atmosphere vary naturally over geologic time periods. Low levels of CO2 typically correlate with an ice age, whereas higher levels coincide with warmer, “interglacial” periods. Air bubbles trapped deep in the ice sheets of Antarctica have provided miniature samples of ancient atmospheres. An analysis of these bubbles in drill cores from the thickest ice near the Russian Vostok Base show that CO2 levels in the atmosphere ranged from about 200 to 300 parts per million (ppm) over the last 650,000 years as volcanoes erupted, rocks weathered, and forests bloomed.
At the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in the early 19th Century, CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere were around 280 ppm. As fossil fuel use increased, especially after the Second World War, GHG levels in the atmosphere increased with it. As of 2022, carbon dioxide concentrations had reached 420 ppm, a 50% increase above pre-industrial levels. Parts per million sounds like a small amount and it is. Climate skeptics claim that the concentrations are far too low to have any effect on climate, and indeed translating the historical carbon dioxide ranges into percentages shows that it only makes up 0.02% to 0.03% of the air. Even our current high stand of CO2 is only 0.042% of the atmosphere.
However, low concentrations of many substances can have outsize effects. For example, the lethal dose of the synthetic opioid fentanyl is only 0.003 grams (3 milligrams), equivalent to about a dozen grains of sand. The Antarctic ice core analyses showed that the climate bounced between warm periods and ice ages over geologic time with only about a 100 ppm variation in CO2 concentration. In just two centuries, we have added 140 ppm more above the historic levels. This is why scientists are so concerned.
The burning of fossil fuels emits combustion products into the atmosphere that trap heat and affect the climate of Planet Earth. The heat energy can manifest in a number of ways. One of the more common is longer and deeper droughts that lead to more wildfires because a warmer atmosphere can hold more water vapor. This can also result in killer heat waves if high temperatures are combined with high humidity. When the higher levels of water vapor do come out of the warm atmosphere, the result is larger and more violent storms, many of which occur in unusual locations. Other manifestations of an unstable climate include rising sea levels as ice sheets on land in Antarctica and Greenland melt, ecosystem disruptions caused by the migration of temperature and rainfall patterns, changes in ocean circulation patterns that affect storm tracks, and disruptions in the jet stream. These resulted in cold polar air moving south into places like Texas, where snow accumulated along the Rio Grande in 2021, and warm, tropical air moving north into places like Siberia, where summer temperatures in 2022 reached triple digits.
The Earth has natural feedback mechanisms that maintain the climate at a more or less steady equilibrium. For example, if a large volcano like Yellowstone erupts, it can add significant amounts of GHG to the atmosphere. Initially the ash, dust, and aerosols thrown high into the stratosphere will block sunlight and cool things down. After these particulates settle out, the climate will warm from the CO2 and SO2 emitted by the eruption. Over time, these will combine with rainwater and fall as weak carbonic and sulfuric acids. The acids react with the minerals making up basalt, a very common rock type, and release calcium and magnesium ions into seawater. These combine chemically and biologically with dissolved CO2 to form carbonate minerals like calcite or dolomite that lock down the carbon dioxide as a solid, removing it from the atmosphere. Calcium also reacts with SO2 to form calcium sulfate, CaSO4, another solid mineral better known as gypsum, the main ingredient in plaster and drywall. Enhanced plant growth will also help to draw down the elevated levels of CO2.
These natural processes gradually reduce the GHG concentrations and return the atmosphere to climate equilibrium over tens of thousands of years. However, humans have increased the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere by 50% in just 200 years. The Earth’s natural climate feedback mechanisms have not been able to cope with anything this fast. Left on its own, the climate will get back to equilibrium naturally in 100,000 years or so if you want to wait.
It is almost certain that a century from now humans will no longer be using fossil fuels. Whether that is because we have developed new, carbon-free energy sources or because we are living in caves and burning wood will depend solely upon the actions we take in the next decade or two. The climate debate is not real. Without question, humans are affecting the climate with consequences that will be felt by all life on Earth if we keep it up. The artificial “uncertainty” about climate change is being driven by the greed of those who want to continue to profit off fossil fuel. They intend to fill their coffers with revenue until there is either no fossil fuel left to extract or society collapses. What we are all supposed to do after that is never quite explained.
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Dan is a research geologist and principal at Soeder Geoscience LLC with 35 years of experience in oil and gas development, environmental studies, groundwater hydrology, subsurface carbon dioxide storage, and high-level radioactive waste isolation.