In a recent Quick Hit, TonyAngelo linked to a Science Friday interview with Rep. Bob Inglis, accused by other Republicans of crossing to “Satan’s side” for accepting global warming is real. I’m actually looking at the introduction to the interview, where host Ira Flatow talked about a survey on global warming where most respondents got the answers wrong, and read three questions.
I thought these questions were just a bit tricky, and actually I have an argument with one of them. Here they are so at a minimum, if those of you reading this ever get surveyed, you’ll look like the smart ones.
True or false: The Earth’s climate is warmer now than it’s ever been. Is it warmer now than it’s ever been? The majority of the 2,000 people surveyed said true, but that’s false.
My quibble here is you have to catch “ever”. It’s easy to fill in the phrase “warmest year ever” or “warmest decade ever” which we hear with some frequency, but that means on record, not going back to when Earth was molten, when it was a bit toastier than now. It was warmer when the dinosaurs were still around (and I don’t mean the defenders of DADT). So what? The climate is changing now, so fast that changes that usually take millennia are happening in decades. For species living in the climate as its been the last several hundred thousand years, the temperatures tolerated by triceratops just isn’t relevant. I guess in hindsight that’s more than a quibble. Best move on to number two.
Actually, I’ll move on to number three, since I have an argument with two and that will take a bit:
Number three. What’s contributed more to rising sea levels so far? Is it A) melting sea ice in the Arctic Ocean; or B) warmer ocean temperatures. Sea ice, melting sea ice, or warmer ocean temperatures.
When you hear “Arctic” and “melting sea ice”, did you think “polar”? Did you think only of the Arctic Ocean and not Greenland or Antarctica? Strictly speaking, sea ice doesn’t raise sea level for the same reason melting ice cubes don’t make your drink overflow the glass. Water does expand as it warms, so the warming ocean does raise sea level. It may not be an effect you can see in your bath tub or drinking glass (after the ice cubes melted) but given the volume of water in the ocean, sea level is rising from the increasing temperature.
However, anyone who hears “melting sea ice” and thinks “polar” has a point, because it’s not like sea ice is melting while Antarctica and Greenland stay frozen, and ice over land definitely adds to sea level as it reaches the ocean. Moreover, hearing that melting sea ice doesn’t raise sea level could lead to thinking melting sea ice isn’t a problem when it’s a big problem, and not just for Arctic wildlife. The ice reflects sunlight and helps lower global temperature, while the open ocean is darker and absorbs heat, creating one of the feedbacks that make it tough to predict just how fast changes will happen. So the question isn’t wrong, but it does go in the wrong direction.
Now the one I argue with:
Number two. True or false: Banning aerosol spray cans worldwide will help reduce global warming. Most people thought so, but the answer is no.
The answer is yes, but I get what they’re getting at. Ozone depletion and global warming are often conflated by the general public, but they’re two different problems, and they don’t affect each other. Mostly. The pollsters would have been a lot better off asking the straightforward question, “are global warming and ozone depletion the same thing?”
The main culprits in ozone depletion are chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) which used to be used in aerosol cans, and their use has been drastically reduced, which is why ozone depletion is no longer an urgent issue. However, CFCs are greenhouse gases too. They’re not major greenhouse gases, no, and without the carbon dioxide we keep pumping into the atmosphere, we wouldn’t care that CFCs are greenhouse gases. The ozone layer would be long gone before temperatures would start rising.
It goes the other way too, in that global warming worsens ozone depletion. The effect might be too small to worry about, but it’s there. Greenhouse gasses trap heat in the troposphere, so less heat gets up into the stratosphere, where the ozone layer is. Ozone becomes less stable at lower temperatures, so while carbon dioxide doesn’t destroy ozone, it does make the ozone layer more vulnerable.
My argument is that by this strict definition, the people who got it wrong actually got it right. It’s almost like the pollsters wanted to add confusion instead of clarification.
That might not matter if we were all rational people who enjoy science and just want facts, but deniers are looking for anything they can take out of context and mischaracterize. “See, they can’t even agree on whether these problems are connected or not.” We’re dealing with people who are looking for the thread of uncertainty that can be pulled to unravel all of climate science. We’re dealing with people so willing to use an over-generalization in the news media to make their point, that they still point to news magazine articles on global cooling from the 1970’s to prove scientists have no idea. These dodgy survey questions just play into their hands.