The age of science denial

A commenter on the …andThenTheresPhysics blog has shared a terrific excerpt from a 100-year-old science book by Huxley and Gregory he found in his attic. It’s about the greenhouse effect and how we knew way back then that adding CO2 to the atmosphere would increase the surface temperature on earth.

The atmosphere surrounding the earth may be compared with the glass of a greenhouse, which permits the bright rays of the sun to pass through, but prevents the escape of the dull radiations from the heated surfaces below it. This action is due to the carbon dioxide and water vapour in the air; but as the proportion of the latter varies very considerably, while the quantity of the former is almost the same in the open air everywhere at all seasons, evidently the protective action of carbon dioxide gas is of prime importance. If the proportion of this gas in the atmosphere could be increased, the temperature of the ground and of the air surrounding us would be raised, and if it were to be diminished all parts of the earth would become cooler.

Read the full excerpt here – http://andthentheresphysics.wordpress.com/2015/05/26/guest-post-nothing-new-under-the-sun/

Why have humans wasted so much time over the last decade or two arguing, hoping, pretending it doesn’t exist? It makes me so cross to think we could be in a better place right now had we acted 20 or more years ago. Instead we let people who deny the science shape our world for the worse despite what the science community has known and been telling us for more than 100 years.

We don’t have the luxury of time with this problem. Every second we waste is more CO2 in our atmosphere, more melted ice, and most importantly, it means the reduction we have to make when we finally act will need to be that much greater. We are making the inevitable much harder for ourselves with every year we waste.

If we had started reducing our emissions in 2005, a reduction of 3.5% per year would have led us back to 350ppm of atmospheric CO2 by 2100. This went up to 6% per year in 2013. If we wait until 2020, it’ll be 15% per year. Just a few decades can make an enormous difference.

It is instructive to see how fast atmospheric CO2 declines if fossil fuel emissions are instantly terminated (Fig. 4B). Halting emissions in 2015 causes CO2 to decline to 350 ppm at century’s end (Fig. 4B). A 20 year delay in halting emissions has CO2 returning to 350 ppm at about 2300. With a 40 year delay, CO2 does not return to 350 ppm until after 3000. These results show how difficult it is to get back to 350 ppm if emissions continue to grow for even a few decades.

13 Comments

  1. I share your frustration, Rachel. One of the things that attracted me to that passage, in what is a basic text book, is the simplicity of the language and the elegant and clear description of the greenhouse effect, which even by 1900 was very well understood and not at all controversial. That 100 years later people now deny its effect, on the basis of absolutely no evidence, would have been a great shock to Huxley and Gregory.

    It’s a sad reflection on the human race and makes one question whether the evolutionary experiment with intelligence has been a success.

    1. It’s very well written, John. Often science text books, especially old ones, are boring and difficult to follow but this excerpt is very accessible and wonderfully written. Huxley and Gregory would be very shocked indeed. I’m shocked by the things I read from those who deny the science, so much so, that I’m lost for words. I’ve largely given up interacting with these people on the topic now. It seems fruitless and just upsets me.

  2. “Why have humans wasted so much time over the last decade or two arguing, hoping, pretending it doesn’t exist?”

    This is the critical question. Moreover, I would suggest that the time wasting has been going on for a lot longer than the “last decade or two”. (See http://dge.stanford.edu/labs/caldeiralab/Caldeira%20downloads/PSAC,%201965,%20Restoring%20the%20Quality%20of%20Our%20Environment.pdf for a Report on pollution to US President Lyndon Johnson in 1965)

    I am not sure where the answer to your question resides. It is pretty clear that it does not reside in any deficit of knowledge in the physical sciences. After all, we live on a finite planet yet act as if it is infinite.

    I am currently learning more about human evolution, anthropology, human psychology, sociology and economics.

    A couple of examples:

    http://questioneverything.typepad.com/question_everything/2012/02/what-is-a-smart-species-like-us-doing-in-a-predicament-like-this.html

    http://www.resilience.org/stories/2014-10-31/are-we-hard-wired-to-think-we-can-grow-forever

    1. That Lyndon Johnson link is really good. Thanks! Section 1 is titled: “Carbon dioxide from fossil fuels – the invisible pollutant”. And to think there have been so many objections in recent times about the use of the word pollutant yet here’s The White House using it back in 1965.

      I haven’t had a chance to look closely at the other links. I’ll have a look later.

    1. Exactly. Listening to non-scientists dispute the science without having any actual evidence would be amusing if the consequences were not as high as they are.

  3. Rachel – thanks for a link to the Hansen et al. paper Assessing “Dangerous Climate Change” (in your Fig 4B link above). I realise there are popular books like Six Degrees etc., but this is quite focused paper exploring the question of what 2C etc. means, and clearly, 2C is not a benign limit, hence the discussion on whether 1.5C should be the new target.

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