Conservation Minnesota

State of Climate

Dr. John Abraham is an Associate Professor at the University of St. Thomas and a co-founder of the Climate Science Rapid Response Team. Much of his teaching and research is in the area of thermal sciences and how energy affects our environment. He gives frequently public lectures on the science of climate change.

By John Abraham

An understanding of the causes and implications of climate change is important if we are going to make informed decisions about what, if anything, should be done. The best place to start is with a summary of what scientists know. All climate scientists know, without any doubt, four important facts: (1) carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas (we’ve known that for 150 years), (2) increasing carbon dioxide should cause the Earth to warm, (3) humans have caused a 40% increase in carbon dioxide, and (4) the Earth has warmed. The scientists who look at these facts, and a lot of other information, have concluded that if we continue on our current path, there will be consequences to our society and the Earth’s biology.

How do scientists know this? First, scientists look at what has happened in the past. We can tell by looking deep into past time that the Earth’s temperature and the amount of carbon dioxide in the air are closely linked. In the past, whenever global temperatures went up, so did carbon dioxide. Also, we have temperature measurements from around the world. These temperature stations are on land, in the oceans, and in the atmosphere. All the measurements are telling us that temperatures are increasing. Each of the past five decades has been warmer than the preceding decade and the 10 hottest years on record have all occurred within the past 13 years. While humans have, admittedly, only been measuring temperatures for the last century and a half, it is possible to record climate data for more than 800 millenia thanks to ice core samples.

For example, we know that life on this planet has thrived at 275 parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide (CO2). Now, however, our planet is registering 392 ppm and rising at about 2 ppm per year. Those figures suggest a climactic “tipping point” where living conditions on Earth could be forever altered. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released a new set of “climate normals” in June, 2011, to show that temperatures once considered “hot” are now verging closer to normal in different climates throughout the US.

It isn’t only rising temperatures that have scientists concerned. Other things are happening with our climate that scientists predicted decades ago. We are seeing more severe weather; more droughts, more heavy rainfall and more extreme weather events. Measurements are telling us that the ocean is becoming more acidic. Arctic ice is being lost at a very rapid rate. Climate zones are moving and weather patterns are shifting. All of this evidence has convinced 97% of the world’s best climate scientists that human-caused climate change is something we need to take very seriously.

So what can we do? It turns out the solution to climate change is not complicated. As a society, we need to make two critical decisions that will allow us to avoid the most severe climate problems. First, we need to make sure that any new coal power plants are able to store carbon dioxide. Second, we need to swear off extracting oil from hard-to-get regions, such as shale rock.

If we are smart, we can design solutions to this problem that will provide our future energy needs without furthering climate change. We can create the energy we need right now in the cities, towns, and farm fields of our own country. Our new technologies will bring sorely needed jobs to the United States. We will diversify our energy supply and improve our national security. If we act smartly, we will be cleaner, richer, and safer. Who can be against that?

Of course, there is cost of inaction. This year has brought flooding, incredible numbers of tornadoes, terrible droughts, and now hurricanes to the U.S. These cost us money. Just the drought in Texas alone has cost every working Texan $500. The Pentagon is spending billions preparing for climate-induced population shifts that would see thousands of vulnerable people move under the control of unstable governments, which would create more worldwide conflicts. It costs money to do nothing. It is cheaper, and fiscally conservative, to take action before it’s too late.

Why haven’t we taken action yet? Part of the reason is that the science is complicated. Another part of the reason is that there are many people who don’t want any action to be taken. There are thinktanks, lobbyists, and industrial groups that are telling us there is something wrong with the science (there isn’t) or that coal is clean (it isn’t). The problem with these groups is the data has been piling up year after year and it has become impossible to ignore.

When we look back, it will be painfully obvious that the scientists were right about the causes of our changing climate. Let’s hope they are also right in their belief that if we act together, we can do something about it.

John Abraham testified at the Minnesota legislature in 2011 in favor of continuing coal plant restrictions in the state.