Climate change science more certain than ever

By Anthony L. Westerling
Assistant Professor, UC Merced
POSTED  April 9, 2010 11:39 p.m. in the Turlock Journal
Reprinted with permission of the author


skeptic

Photo by Flickr user Billie Hara

Numerous polls have shown a decline in U.S. public concern about climate change over the last two years. For example, a Gallup poll released last month found that a large and increasing number of Americans believe that the seriousness of climate change has been exaggerated, that it will not pose a serious threat within their lifetimes, and that it is not caused by humans.

Ironically, this shift in public perceptions comes during a time when the science of climate change is becoming more certain — and its implications more serious — than ever. A recent report, “The Copenhagen Diagnosis: Updating the World on the Latest Climate Science,” documents how, over the past two years, many uncertainties regarding climate change have been resolved, observed trends in climate have continued unabated, and the basis for attributing them to human causes has only strengthened.

Indeed, according to the Copenhagen Diagnosis, a general pattern has emerged since the last Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report was released in 2007: “Uncertainties … once resolved, point to a more rapidly changing and sensitive climate than we previously believed.”
Some of the findings of the Copenhagen Diagnosis:

  • Greenhouse gas emissions have been increasing at rates at or above the worst-case scenarios policy makers use as guides.
  • Global temperatures continue to rise unabated. The rate of increase has accelerated in recent decades, and temperatures over the most recent 10 years on record exceed the preceding 10 years.
  • Ice sheets, glaciers and ice caps are melting at an accelerating rate.
  • Arctic summer sea-ice cover is declining far more rapidly than anticipated.
  • Sea levels are increasing much faster — about 80 percent above previous predictions. Projections for future sea level rise have doubled.
  • Natural factors, such as variations in energy from the sun, would have produced a decrease in temperatures, were it not for the warming caused by human actions. The conclusion that the observed warming can only be explained by human causes has only strengthened with time.

What accounts for the dramatic disparity between perceptions by the public and the scientific community? The UC Merced chapter of the Sigma Xi Research Society is sponsoring a public symposium Thursday, April 15, to address that very question.

Three distinguished climatologists will speak about the science and perceptions of climate change.
Distinguished Professor Emeritus Richard Somerville, from UC San Diego — a coauthor of the Copenhagen Diagnosis — will give an overview of the latest climate change science and the role it played in recent negotiations on climate change in Copenhagen.

Professor Catherine Gautier-Downes, of UC Santa Barbara, will describe strategies for overcoming common misconceptions about science that hinder an understanding of climate change.
And Professor Stephen Schneider, of Stanford University — also a coauthor of the Copenhagen Diagnosis — will address how special interests and the media have contributed to public confusion about climate change science.

The symposium — part of UC Merced’s Research week, which begins Monday — will run from 1:30 p.m. to 5 p.m. in the university’s Lakireddy Auditorium. It is open to the public, and admission is free of charge. There will also be a brief question-and-answer segment following each lecture.

Climate change poses one of the greatest challenges our civilization has ever faced. The longer we postpone action, the harder it will be for us to avoid the worst effects of a changing climate.
But we cannot begin to address it without a public discourse informed by the science. This symposium is an opportunity for area residents to participate.

— Anthony L. Westerling is an associate professor of environmental engineering and geography at the University of California, Merced, and organizer of the Sigma Xi Spring Symposium. He can be reached at awesterling@ucmerced.edu.

NOTE: The author has agreed to send me the link to the symposium footage when it goes up on YouTube. Stay tuned!

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