Tag Archives: global warming

Science in a Postmodern Age

by Matt McKinnon


I am not a scientist.

Just like many prominent, mostly Republican, politicians responding to the issue of climate change—trying their best to refrain from losing votes from their conservative constituencies while not coming across as being completely out of touch with the modern world—I am not a scientist.

Of course, if you ask most people who are in fact scientists, then somewhere around 87% of them agree that climate change is real and that it is mostly due to human activity (or at least if you ask those scientists who are members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, as reported by the Pew Research Center).


Then again, if you ask average Americans (the ones who are not scientists), then only about 50% think that human activity is the largest cause of climate change.

That’s quite a disparity (37 points), especially since getting 87% of scientists to agree on anything is not all that easy and arguably represents what we could call a scientific consensus.

This, of course, provides much fodder for comedians like Bill Maher and Jon Stewart as well as many liberals and progressives, who have come to see the problem of science and a skeptical public as a characteristic of contemporary American conservatism.


And this characterization is buttressed by the even more overwhelming discrepancy between the public and scientists on the question of evolution. A 2009 study by Pew found that only 54% of the public believe in evolution (22% of whom believe that it was guided by a supreme being) versus 95% of scientists (where only 8% believe it to be guided by a supernatural power). And that more recent 2014 Pew study bumped the public percentage up to 65% and the scientific consensus up to 98%.

That’s a gap of 33 points, a bit less than the 37 points on the issue of climate change. Sure there’s something to be said for the idea that contemporary conservatism is at odds with science on some fundamental issues.

But not so fast.

For while there is a large discrepancy between scientists and the American public on these core conservative questions, there is also a large and seemingly growing discrepancy between the public and science on issues that cross political lines, or that could even be considered liberal issues.


Take the recent controversy about immunizations.

Just as with climate change and evolution, a large majority of scientists not only think that they are safe and effective, but also think that certain immunizations should be mandatory for participation in the wider society. That same 2014 Pew study found that 86% of scientists think immunizations should be mandatory, compared to 68% of the public.

And the very liberal left is often just as vocal as the conservative right on this issue, with folks like Jenny McCarthy who has claimed that her son’s autism was the result of immunizations despite clear scientific evidence that has debunked any link. At least one study by Yale law professor Dan Kahan shows that those who fear childhood immunizations are pretty much split between liberals and conservatives.


Still, with an 18-point gap between scientists and the public on this issue, that leaves a lot of progressives seemingly in the same position as those conservatives denying the role of human activity in climate change.

Just as interesting, however, is the discrepancy between scientists and the public on building more nuclear power plants—a gap that is greater (20 points) though scientific opinion is less certain. Pew found that 45% of the public favors more nuclear power compared to 65% of scientists.

But what is even more intriguing is that all of these gaps between scientific consensus and public opinion are far less than the discrepancy that exists on the issue of biomedical science, from the use of pesticides to animal testing and the most controversial: genetically modified organisms (GMOs).


That same Pew study found that a whopping 88% of scientists believe that it is safe to eat genetically modified foods, a larger consensus than agree on human activity and climate change, compared to public opinion, which languishes very far back at 37% (a disparity of 51%!).

And 68% of those scientists agree that it is safe to eat foods grown with pesticides, compared to 28% of the public (a gap of 40 points).

But you won’t find many liberal politicians wading publicly into this issue, championing the views of science over a skeptical public. Nor will you find much sympathy from those comedians either.


It seems that when the proverbial shoe is on the other foot, then it is either not problematic that so many plain old folks diverge from scientific opinion, or there is in fact good reason for their skepticism.

Which brings me to my point about science in a postmodern age. For while it is true that there are good reasons to be skeptical of the science on the use of pesticides and GMOs, as well as some of these other issues, the problem is: who decides when to be skeptical and how skeptical we should be?


That is the problem of postmodernism, which strives for a leveling of discourse and has more than a bit of anti-clerical skepticism about it. For if postmodernism teaches us anything it’s that the certitude of reason in the modern age is anything but certain. And while this makes for fun philosophical frolicking by folks like Heidegger, Foucoult, and Habbermas, it is problematic for science, which relies completely on the intuition that reason and observation are the only certain means of discovery we have.

But in a postmodern age, nothing is certain, and nothing is beyond reproach—not the government, or business, or think tanks, or even institutions of higher learning. Not scientific studies or scientists or even science itself. Indeed, not even reason for that matter.


The moorings of the modern era in reason have become unmoored to some extent in our postmodern culture. And this, more than anything else, explains the large gaps on many issues between scientific opinion and that of the public.

And in the interest of full disclosure: I believe human activity is causing climate change and that immunizations are safe and should be required but I am very skeptical of the use of pesticides and eating GMOs.

But what do I know? I’m not a scientist.

Eastern US Bitten by its own Global Warming Tail

by Joel Gunn

Digging out of the snow in Boston.

Digging out of the snow in Boston.

I have sympathy for the high profile scientists who are struggling with the politics of global warming: Did this or that weather event occur because of global warming? See for example this New York Times post (and the several updates) in which climate scientists address the effects of global warming on the winter Olympics.  However, if you believe in thermodynamics and the interlinking of the atmosphere-ocean circulation and life processes, and that the world is warming, there is only one conclusion you can come to. Everything that is happening is to a greater or lesser degree a product of global warming. There is a legitimate question as to what degree the causes of individual events are apportioned to that trend and what part is attributable to chaotic forces. The tendency is, perhaps wisely, for scientists to hide behind chaotic forces when the politics gets too hot. However, the only real question is how the events and trend fit together, and that is admittedly complicated. But, since we have not lived with this particular change before, observation and model building have to take the lead. You can see the scientists struggling with these questions in the later parts of the blog, and we as citizens of the globe should also participate in thinking this through.

Jet stream and polar vortex.

Jet stream and polar vortex.

A good example is our current discussion of the wandering fragments of polar vortex and the effects they have had on our weather. When I first started seeing weather reports about the polar vortex I said, how can this be? Probably the first really interesting article I read on the behavior of the atmosphere was in the ’70s by Angell and Korshover, people with a government agency who were measuring the atmosphere in many very interesting ways. Their article was about the behavior of the polar vortex. In fact, they were discussing the reason for the cold weather in the mid ’70s. Who recalls that in the winter of ’76-’77 it was so cold the Ohio River froze over? I was sure that the Ice Ages were coming back.

Chicago over frozen Lake Michigan.

Chicago seen over frozen Lake Michigan.

Our present day relationship to the polar vortex has crept out less directly but more interestingly. After the initial reports appeared, the pieces of the global weather puzzle began to leak out. Someone came on television and claimed that it was because the weakening of the circumpolar jet that ordinarily pins in the polar vortex. That helped some. Then a friend sent me a newsletter about a warm pool of water in the Gulf of Alaska. This was also something I recall reading about in the 70s. From that I was familiar with how that pool turns the jet stream up into Canada at which point it zooms down on eastern United States bringing chilly air with it. I have no problem seeing that an arm of the tropical jet thundering around the warm pool and into Canada in the winter would throw the Arctic jet into disarray and freeing the polar vortex to wreak havoc.

NASA image of the first polar vortex event.

NASA image of this winter’s first polar vortex event.

The real question is why that pool is so persistent? Usually it goes away in the fall and the jet stream and the airmass that goes with it assume a cozier route across the US. A possibility is the current solar maximum, weak though it be, but what is the mechanism to warm that pool? The Gulf of Alaska is a long way north for it to be warmed much directly by the sun this time of the year.

Then came another startling observation my friend noticed. Scientists were finding that strong westward passage of air along the equator was sinking atmospheric heat into the Pacific along the equator +/-10 degrees latitude. This seems to be a new phenomenon and worries me. Does it mean that the atmosphere is so hot from global warming that processes are active to cool it by sinking the excess heat we caused into the ocean? Can salmon and other Pacific fish survive such a thing?

Extreme drought in the West (those are mature trees above the waterline).

Extreme drought in the West (those are mature trees above the waterline).

Since then I have been thinking that this could be the warming mechanism for the Gulf of Alaska pool. If the Pacific is being warmed by winds that are sinking atmospheric heat into both atmosphere and ocean, then the Japanese Current could be drawing that warm water around the Pacific with the resulting warm pool in the Gulf of Alaska. The next bit of news I will be watching for is for someone who studies Pacific temperatures to confirm that the latter link is in truth the case.

If all of that is true, then there is little mystery about why the winter is cold in eastern US. It also might suggest that the condition will persist until the thermodynamic balances between atmosphere and ocean, equator and pole, are redressed. How long could that take: ten years, a 1000 years? Perhaps a simulation might be able to work the 10/1000 years question out providing a bit of window on the future.

Seaside Heights, NJ after Sandy.

Seaside Heights, NJ after Sandy.

I have always thought that it is one of the great ironies of the current age that people in eastern US, perhaps the greatest perpetrators of global warming in the world, are being cooled by global warming. This is something else that has been going on for a long time, maybe since the 80s. It interesting that the cooling process has turned mean this winter and bitten us with stinging cold. This is not the type of lesson in global warming we are used to getting from the weather.

Environmentalism and the Future

by Matt McKinnon

Let me begin by stating that I consider myself an environmentalist.  I recycle almost religiously.  I compost obsessively.  I keep the thermostat low in winter and high in summer.  I try to limit how much I drive, but as the chauffeur for my three school-age sons, this is quite difficult.  I support environmental causes and organizations when I can, having been a member of the Sierra Club and the Audubon Society.

1I find the arguments of the Climate Change deniers uninformed at best and disingenuous at worst.  Likewise, the idea of certain religious conservatives that it is hubris to believe that humans can have such a large effect on God’s creation strikes me as theologically silly and even dishonest.  And while I understand and even sympathize with the concerns of those folks whose businesses and livelihoods are tied to our current fossil-fuel addiction, I find their arguments that economic interests should override environmental concerns to be lacking in both ethics and basic forethought.

That being said, I have lately begun to ponder not just the ultimate intentions and goals of the environmental movement, but the very future of our planet.

Earth and atmospheric scientists tell us that the earth’s temperature is increasing, most probably as a result of human activity.  And that even if we severely limited that activity (which we are almost certainly not going to do anytime soon), the consequences are going to be dire: rising temperatures will lead to more severe storms, melting polar ice caps, melting permafrost (which in turn will lead to the release of even more carbon dioxide, increasing the warming), rising ocean levels, lowering of the oceans’ ph levels (resulting in the extinction of the coral reefs), devastating floods in some places along with crippling droughts in others.

2And according to a 2007 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, by 2100 (less than 100 years) 25% of all species of plants and land animals may be extinct.

Basically, our not-too-distant future may be an earth that cannot support human life.

Now, in my more misanthropic moments, I have allowed myself to indulge in the idea that this is exactly what the earth needs.  That this in fact should be the goal of any true environmental concern: the extinction of humanity.  For only then does the earth as a planet capable of supporting other life stand a chance.  (After all, the “environment” will survive without life, though it won’t be an especially nice place to visit, much less inhabit, especially for a human.)

3And a good case can be made that humans have been destroying the environment in asymmetrical and irrevocable ways since at least the Neolithic Age when we moved from hunter and gatherer culture to the domestication of plants and animals along with sustained agriculture.  Humans have been damaging the environment ever since.  (Unlike the beaver, as only one example of a “keystone species,” whose effect on the environment in dam building has an overwhelming positive and beneficial impact on countless other species as well as the environment itself.)

4So unless we’re seriously considering a conservation movement that takes us back to the Paleolithic Era instead of simply reducing our current use and misuse of the earth, then we’re really just putting off the inevitable.

But all that being said, whatever the state of our not-too-distant future, the inevitability of the “distant future” is undeniable—for humans, as well as beavers and all plants and animals, and ultimately the earth itself.  For the earth, like all of its living inhabitants, has a finite future.

Around 7.5 billion years or so is a reasonable estimate.  And then it will most probably be absorbed in the sun, which will have swollen into a red giant.

5(Unless, as some scientists predict, the Milky Way collides with the Andromeda galaxy, resulting in cataclysmic effects that cannot be predicted.)

At best, however, this future only includes the possibility of earth supporting life for another billion years or so.  For by then, the increase in the sun’s brightening will have evaporated all of the oceans.

6Of course, long before that, the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere (ironically enough) will have diminished well below the quantity needed to support plant life, destroying the food chain and causing the extinction of all animal species as well.

And while that’s not good news, the worse news is that humans will have been removed from the equation long before the last holdouts of carbon-based life-forms eventually capitulate.

(Ok, so some microbes may be able to withstand the dry inhospitable conditions of desert earth, but seriously, who cares about the survival of microbes?)

Now if we’re optimistic about all of this (irony intended), the best-case scenario is for an earth that is able to support life as we know it for at most another half billion more years.  (Though this may be a stretch.)  And while that seems like a really long time, we should consider that the earth has already been inhabited for just over 3 and a half billion years.

So having only a half billion years left is sort of like trying to enjoy the last afternoon of a four-day vacation.


Enjoy the rest of your day.