Letter to the Editor

Letter to the Editor in response to "The climate change debate: There's no need to panic"

| April 22, 2014

The following is a letter to the editor in response to “The climate change debate: There’s no need to panic,” published in print in the April 15 through 21 issue of the Niner Times, and online on April 15.

The letter to the editor was submitted by Brian Magi, assistant professor of Atmospheric Sciences in the Geography and Earth Sciences Department at UNC Charlotte.

I applaud the Niner Times publication of two opinion pieces about global warming on April 15, 2014, especially since April is Earth Month.  Discussion and debate are critical components of the scientific process, a university education, and a healthy society.  Edward Averette and I spoke in detail about the science, and he summarized the issues well [here].  Debate, however, is only productive if the opposing viewpoint actually addresses the argument at hand.  I am writing to address comments written by Louis Aiello [here].  I think Aiello has been swayed not to do anything in response to overwhelming evidence that global warming is a major problem by the very emotion he warned his readers about:  fear.  Let’s look at the problem of global warming – which intersects nearly all fields of science, engineering, and the humanities – and make our choices based on evidence and fact.

Global warming is real.  The increasing temperature of our planet is the most widely recognized part of the on-going climate change.  Because a warming planet has so many impacts on our world, scientists also talk about global environmental change.  There are many independent lines of scientific evidence supporting the claim that the Earth is warming in an unusual and concerning way.  These include measurable increases in air temperature, ocean temperature, satellite temperature and ocean acidity, as well as measurements of melting glaciers, sea ice decline and melting ice sheets.  Each of these can be verified from scholarly peer-reviewed articles available via Google Scholar searches on UNC Charlotte servers (sometimes the articles are behind a paywall).  This evidence of a warming Earth is why scientists around the world agree that the global warming since the 1950s is “unequivocal” (See the assessment [here], which was written by a panel of climate scientists organized by the United Nations).  

The reason the Earth is warming is mainly due to dramatic increases in the emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases since humans began burning coal and other fossil fuels for energy during mid-1800s.  These emissions go into our thin atmosphere – noting that more than half the mass of our atmosphere is within a layer only about 3 miles deep, which is less than the distance from UNC Charlotte to Charlotte Motor Speedway.  We have added 281 billion tons of carbon gas to our atmosphere since the mid-1800s.  There is no doubt about this number, which continues to be monitored [here].  Carbon emissions for every country are available [here] and other sources, and there is a fantastic visualization [here].  

Carbon dioxide is an especially important greenhouse gas because, once emitted, it remains a part of our atmosphere for 1000s to 100,000s of years.  The burning of fossil fuels have created and continue to create changes to the chemical composition of our atmosphere that are, on the time scale of human civilization, irreversible.  Carbon emissions must decrease soon (another United Nations panel assessment report) or the impacts of climate change suggest the very real possibility that the Earth will essentially become a different planet.  This is thousands of years into the future, so a lot can happen, but there are many impacts that a warming planet has already had, and will continue to have throughout our lifetimes.  

A warming planet will continue to affect human and environmental systems more adversely.  Munich Re, a company that insures insurers, publishes an annual technical report showing the number of weather-related insurance payments [here], and this is one of many datasets that shows how our global economy is increasingly stressed by the changing climate.  Remember, our societal infrastructure is built with the expectation that climate does not change beyond an expected range of temperature or precipitation amounts – these are what scientists call climate.  The climate is changing.  Scientists, businesses, militaries, and even the fossil fuel industry itself, know there are major vulnerabilities associated with climate change, as documented by 1000s of scientists in a recent report available [here].  This recognition of vulnerability is why so many people are studying sustainability.

Global warming is a very real problem.  We need everyone thinking about what will have to be a major revolution to the way humans live on this world.  As a US citizen, I hope our country plays a key role in this change.  Students and faculty at UNC Charlotte from every major and department can contribute to solution strategies at a municipal, state, national, or global level.  There is reason to be concerned, but to me, this is a good reason to get involved.  Aiello’s comments have all been addressed by scientists, and they are all easily dismissed.  If you have questions about individual points raised by Aiello or Averette, or about how the science intersects with every facet of our society, read the resources listed above, buy a good book written by a climate scientist (http://andrewdessler.com/), take my class (ESCI 3101), take an online class from a climate scientist (http://understandingtheforecast.org/), or just send me an email and we can meet and talk.    

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