I can't make up my mind about climate change. Will we adjust our behavior in time, or does the human species lack the intelligence to survive? I hope the answer is yes and no, I worry the answer is no and yes. It seems to come down to how you define “intelligence”, by the smartest of us or the most obstinate? There are over 7 billion human brains working at this moment, and too many it seems are convinced meteorologists can't accurately predict if it will rain tomorrow, so of course scientists can't predict the average temperature a hundred years from now. But the first is almost impossible to predict, while the second is just extremely difficult.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration says “The difference between weather and climate is a measure of time”, while the Climate Impacts Group offers a more pragmatic definition; "You pick your vacation destination based on the climate but you pack your suitcase based on the weather." And it all started with a Swedish triple threat – he was an arrogant, racist atheist. But he was a very smart chemist. In fact Svante Arrhenius was so far ahead of his instructors that they gave his PhD dissertation a “C”, and in 1903 that same work won him the Noble Prize in Chemistry.
Growing up with those long cold Swedish winter nights made Svante (above) curious as to why we weren't still having ice ages. Being a chemist he naturally thought chemistry might provide an answer. His knew that the sun heated the ground during the day, and reflected some of it back into the air as infrared radiation, otherwise known as heat. He suspected that the more carbon dioxide and water vapor there was in the air, the less of that reflected infrared radiation could escape into space. What he came up with in 1896 was his greenhouse law; “If the quantity of (carbon dioxide) increases in geometric progression, the augmentation of the temperature will increase nearly in arithmetic progression.” He ran the numbers, and found, as he wrote a decade later, “...any doubling of the percentage of carbon dioxide in the air would raise the temperature of the earth's surface by 4 degrees Celsius; and if the carbon dioxide were increased fourfold, the temperature would rise by 8 degrees C.” Svante had predicted global warming and climate change.
Poor old Svante. He had to do his calculations the old fashioned way – using unpaid graduate students who labored for hours with pencils and papers and slide rules. And he made a couple of bad assumptions. He figured clouds were pretty much a wash, since they both reflected sunlight from their tops, and trapped heat under their shadows. He was right about that, but he missed how sensitive the climate was to carbon dioxide by half. In other words he saw that burning coal and oil and wood released carbon into the air, but he didn't realize how really bad that was. In fact, being Swedish, he was looking forward to more beach weather.
It was the geologists who provided what I think is the most convincing piece of the puzzle, they just did not know it for a long time. You see, they were looking for gold and diamonds and copper and coal and oil and even water, which they did by first drilling a lot of holes all over the place. Now, each hole was an experiment, and these rock farmers recorded everything about the holes as they drilled them, including the temperature at various depths. Eventually the more social geologists were able to collect a record of what they called the geothermal gradient world wide. They found that as a general rule at anything less than 200 feet the temperature was about 11 degrees Celsius – or 55 degrees Fahrenheit. Below that you have to figure in ground water, rock type, how close you are to a volcano - but as a general rule the temperature goes up about 1 degree Celsius for every additional 1,000 feet down the hole you go. And it wasn't until much later that other graduate students noticed that as a general rule, up close the general rules did not add up.
Plotting out the temperatures in great detail and very exactly, and allowing for volcanoes and such, still produced a steady rising curving as you went down. But on the other end, at the top of the holes, things were a little odd. The line there seemed to be steeper than it ought to - not enough that it kept the rock hounds up at night, but it did nag at them. And then somebody compared the carbon 14 dating of the rocks through which these holes had been bored, at the top. And suddenly the ages and the temperatures of the upper rocks in the odd zone made sense. The closer you got to the surface, and the younger the rocks got, the higher the temperatures were above that general rule, beginning about 500 years ago, about the start of the industrial revolution, when a growing number of smoke stacks started spewing out all that carbon that Svante had measured .And in 1998 three scientists, Henry Pollock, Shapeeng Huang and Po-Yu Shen provided confirmation of global warming. “The subsurface temperatures ...indicate that Earth's mean surface temperature has increased by about 1.0° (C) over the past five centuries.”
So two independent fields of science, chemistry and geology, had each independently produced a picture of a warming planet for the previous 500 years, and predicted it would continue to warm. Together they produced a coherent, unified story with an explanation. Glaciologist, the only scientists whose field of study melts if they don't work fast enough, had independently stumbled on a third proof. Snow falling on glaciers today has more carbon in it than water melted out glacier ice formed five hundred years ago, and far more than the snow that fell a thousand years ago. And the amount of carbon in the snow is increasing. And it wasn't until very recently that meteorologists got into this discussion, which was to be expected, since, their field of study is what every other scientist calls “background noise”.
Let me give you an example of that noise; from December 1st , 1801 to January 31st , 1802, only about an inch of snow fell in Albany, New York, a spot which on average gets closer to 32 inches during those two months. The temperature ranged between 4 and 10 degrees Celsius (40 and 50 degrees Fahrenheit), when it is normally around minus 3 Celsius (mid 20's Fahrenheit ). Along the Ohio River, in eastern Ohio, 3 inches of snow fell on November first in 1801, but after that they suffered not even another hard frosts for the rest of the entire winter. In January of 1802 tulips and violets bloomed in New Haven, Connecticut, and on the 28th of that month Salem, Massachusetts saw the thermometer hit 15.5 degrees Celsius (60 Fahrenheit). No less a numbers freak than Thomas Jefferson became convinced that “The change which has taken place in our climate is one of those facts which all men...are sensible of...” And this was before the industrial revolution!
Less than 20 years later came the other extreme, the summer of 1816. On June 6th, snow fell in Albany, New York. Ice was observed on rivers and lakes in July and August as far south as Pennsylvania. Farmers in Massachusetts got a crop in that summer, but so little that oats were selling for 10 times what they had sold for the previous year. World wide probably 40,000 people died of starvation. It was referred to as “Eighteen Hundred and Froze to Death”, or “The Year Without a Summer”, and it was probably caused by the April 10th , 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia, the largest volcanic eruption in the last ten thousand years. To my mind, that is the real difference between weather and climate – weather is a record of extremes, and climate is a record of the average between them.
Yes, the 700 volcanoes that erupt every year throw about half a million tons of carbon dioxide and sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere, and a super volcano like Tambora may doubled that amount once or twice a century. But ever day humans spew 88 million tons of carbon into the atmosphere. Can there really be any doubt about why old extremes are becoming our new normal, or what is responsible for it?
Every scientific method we use to look at the past 500 years, every experiment we come up with to test what has happened over the last five centuries, tells us that the new normal is climate change, and that our industrial revolution is the one new factor over the last five hundred years that is driving our new normal to new climate extremes. From this point forward there really is only one question more we have to ask. Does the human species lack the intelligence to survive? And the answer is up to you.