We are on the eve of the potentially deadly Hurricane Florence hitting the Carolinas. In a few days, the government will once again, methodically assess its cost, in lives and property damage. The U.S. with its immense depth for undertaking huge scientific/technical projects might help to stave off these kinds of destructive storms, not today or tomorrow, but in time to reverse the rise in ocean tides, the melting of the poles, the burning of forests, the excessive temperatures experienced here and abroad, and yes, the save the planet for our grand-kids.
President Trump’s decision to abandon the Paris Agreement last year may prove unwise, but this should not have come as a surprise, since he’d showed his colors by appointing Scott Pruitt to run the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Pruitt was fired earlier this year for a host of unethical activities, but his successor, by all accounts, believes as he did, that global warming doesn’t involve human activity, such as coal burning, driving or deforestation. Should we admire these men for their skepticism? After all, for centuries scientists have proposed countless theories, widely accepted at the time, but later proven false. Perhaps they are privy to newly discovered facts or explanations that would lead to a plausible theory that humankind isn’t the driving force behind global warming.
In a nutshell, global warming theory begins with the observation that Earth has a natural supply of “greenhouse gases.” These capture heat, keeping the planet warm, while allowing sunlight (relative shortwave energy) to reach Earth unimpeded. But, heat from the planet also attempts to re-radiate back into space through multiple atmospheric layers. As radiation moves through the atmosphere on its journey into space, molecules in each layer absorb some portion. Thus, extra molecules of rising carbon dioxide (in our case caused by fossil fuels and deforestation), captivates a bit of radiated energy as it bounces around in one or more of the layers. The more molecules we add and overheat, the less heat that escapes into space, further warming the planet.
August and September 2017 produced storms that devastated large regions of the U.S. and the world generally. More than 1,200 people were feared to have died, and 47 million were estimated to having been affected by flooding in India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Nigeria, and the United States. At least 21 people died when a building collapsed in Mumbai, in the midst of the heaviest rainfall in over 15 years. In the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, more than 100 died, 3,097 villages were submerged, and almost 3 million villagers adversely affected by floods. In the port city of Karachi, Pakistan, where streets were inundated, at least 14 people died. Over 100,000 people fled their homes because of major flooding in the state of Benue in Nigeria. When Hurricane Harvey bore down on the Texas coast, more than forty people died, 40,000 people were displaced, and 100,000 homes were inundated, in what’s been described as a 1000 year flood.
After Hurricane Maria hit the island of Puerto Rico the U.S. government death toll was estimated at 64, but in September 2018, the governor of Puerto Rico revised the official toll to 2,975 following the release of a long-awaited study by the Milken Institute of Public Health at George Washington University on 28 August 2018. Trump tweeted that the deaths were not caused by Maria. For comparison’s sake, Hurricane Katrina caused 1,833 deaths.
Climatologists will have to evaluate these more recent weather patterns, to determine if they are a consequence of global warnings, but the increased number of serial forest fires, weeks and weeks of hundred-degree plus weather, and hurricanes, one after the other, may prove to be the tipping point when global warming embeds itself into the consciousness of the average American.
Nearly every scientific discipline has been viewed at one time or another with varying degrees of skepticism. And why not? Science isn’t infallible. Reservation, skepticism and conjecture constitute the heart of any system that advances knowledge. In science this plays out in self-critical assessments or peer reviewed claims, both essential in sustaining its credibility and value as an engine for progress. Yet, once reputable authorities establish a theory, the skeptic needs to offer up sound evidence to debunk it.
Mr. Trump’s EPA has recently claimed that President Obama’s Clean Power Plan would have the effect of shuttering coal-fired power plants, thereby increasing electricity costs, amounting to a cap-and-trade system for carbon emissions, which Congress already rejected. True enough. But supporting this stance on the grounds that the environment will be none-the-worse for it flies in the face of global warming science. Unfortunately the Trump EPA has reverted to the Pre-Obama regulations.
Fields such as philosophy, history, and, even law and political science often point to where scientific answers might be found. But unlike law, science adds the necessity for empirical evidence: multiple observations, testing, data, which draw conclusions subject to verification, and the ability to falsify the theory advocated. Unlike law, science discovers, and in so doing expands the body of universal, epistemic relationships—steering clear of emotion, ideology or politics. And, although science works to conserve established theories, it has a capacity to undergo revision when assumptions and data fail to account for what more cogent, deeper analysis or instrumentation reveals. That being said, not every skeptic has a vote.
Those who depend on experts for answers, including elected or appointed officials, should want to know how these specialists justify their claims. Under what conditions do they form hypotheses from small samples of facts to create more encompassing theories? When a scientist reports a year-over-year rise in the Earth’s temperature, what links this to the use of fossil fuels or simply some natural phenomenon? What links empirical evidence of one thing to the causation of another? If the Trump administration disagrees with the majority of experts on the cause of climate change, they should enlighten us about what explains the precipitous thawing of our permafrost, the lengthening of the growing season in middle and higher latitudes, the pole-ward and upward shift of plant and animal ranges, the decline of some plant and animal species, the earlier flowering of trees, emergence of insects, and egg-laying in birds.
I’m sure that the Trump EPA can invoke science-like reasons for rejecting conventional explanations about global warming. Indeed, we look to science itself to help separate true science from junk science. But, the administration cannot simply reject the current theory based on nothing more than that it may conflict with a constituency’s self-interest or one’s shear lack of understanding. On a more justified level, Pruitt may criticize the science because: (1) reasonably-based competing views or data point in another direction; (2) relevant empirical data cannot be explained by the theory; (3) a model of the phenomenon critical to the theory doesn’t account for an apparent feature or complexity; (4) samples may have been inappropriately drawn in support of a necessary hypothesis; (5) there exists a lack of experimental replication; (6) lack of peer review; or (7) the lack of an ability to falsify scientific claims. Skeptics, such as Mr. Pruitt, have many potential places upon which they might stake a reasonable case. It remains to be seen if by anyone of these theory-busters the Trump EPA can plausibly dispute what has caused an increase in global average surface temperature of about 1°F over the past century, or what accounts for a rise in global average sea level, the increase in ocean water temperatures, or the increase in the frequency of extreme precipitation events in some regions of the world.
The union of scientists, worldwide, looks to peer reviewers as an established criterion for judging the integrity of scientific claims. Over 13,000 peer-reviewed articles stand for and about 100 against the proposition that humans cause global warming. U.S. elected officials’ feigned or actual ignorance of the correlation between current extreme weather patterns coupled with a complete lack of any sense for how science, technology and policy work, blocks any conceivable mitigation of the increasing threat to life and limb related to climate change. It’s doubtful that anytime soon, at least as long as the current administration is in place that we will see a turn-about in U.S. climate policy.