Whether they call it global warming, climate change or even global cooling, more and more Americans are taking a stand on one side or the other of this hotly debated issue.
According to a survey published last year by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication, 66 percent of Americans believe that global warming is happening, with 42 percent concerned that it will harm people in the United States between now and the next 10 years. Forty-five percent of Americans believe the country will be harmed by global warming in the next 50 years, with only 16 percent saying that global warming will never harm the U.S.
The arguments on either side of the issue can be broken into three main categories. Those who do not believe in climate change, or at least in man-made climate change, are considered "climate skeptics." Groups concerned about climate change are primarily split between two camps; those who want to prevent further change and those who want to adapt to changes that do occur.
Those who seek to prevent further climate change, such as The Climate Group, an international non-profit, believe that slowing climate change will help the economy, workforces and improve overall qualities of life. Climate-conscious groups see climate change as a threat to global ways of life, with predictions that weather extremes will be more common, ecosystems will be challenged and ice melt will cause sea-level rise that will lead to flooding. Many of the issues that are cited as causes for global warming, such as an increase in greenhouse gases, also have adverse health effects on people living in polluted areas.
How do these groups see these issues being prevented?
“One of the best things we could do to help prevent climate change is simply to put all types of energy on a level playing field," said Amy Davidsen, The Climate Group’s Executive director in the United States. "Currently, fossil fuels have access to more financing and more government subsidies than cleaner forms of energy. So for starters, allowing clean energy access to the same financing options and eliminating unnecessary fossil fuel subsidies, would really help clean energy to compete and grow the way it needs it to in order to significantly reduce carbon emissions.”
Davidsen also suggest a measure that is often at the heart of climate controversy: taxation.
"We can put a price on carbon emissions, for example, through a carbon tax or carbon market. That would correct a failure in the market that we currently ignore, namely the harmful impact that carbon emissions have on people’s health and the climate. We all pay a real cost for this in the form of illness and extreme weather, and pricing carbon would simply make that cost more transparent, so that the market can make better decisions about the types of energy it wants to have going forward.”
Those in favor of climate adaptation paint a different picture. Michael Cote, a climate change consultant specializing in climate adaptation, environmental law and urban planning, focuses his work on creating real-time solutions to problems that he believes climate change causes. For example, he works on creating levees for areas that may be more susceptible to flooding and rising water levels.
Cote states that he does not think efforts to curb climate change will be effective in preventing it.
"There are billions of people on the planet, and the population is just going to increase," he said. "It will take hundreds of years to curb carbon emissions, and all reports say that [carbon levels] are just going up. It's not realistic to 'cure' it."
Instead, he feels that the best protection against the effects of climate change is to prepare for the way the changes will impact us.
Davidsen disagrees, stating that it would be more cost-effective to prevent climate change in the first place.
"Over the past two years alone, the U.S. government spent $136 billion responding to extreme weather disasters, which are expected to become worse and more frequent as the climate continues to change, " she said. "That’s much more than most people realize, and the truth is that, as a country, we don’t have a very good handle at all on what this is already costing us and is likely to cost us in the future. On the other hand, investing that same amount in clean energy would have almost tripled our total (public and private) clean energy investments over the same period, creating a lot of good new jobs in the process."
Cote believes the issue is more political than scientific, in large part due to some of these regulatory plans. Government intervention and raised taxes are highly contested issues for many people. When taxes are imposed to prevent climate change, it creates a situation that many people want to fight against. For some climate skeptics, that includes fighting against the actual concept and science of climate change to argue that the taxes and regulations aren't necessary. Cote himself states that he's "just not interested in tax raisers."
Another side of the issue Cote factors in is the way science and the way information is shared has changed.
"There has been a shift in science education over the past 20 or so years," he said. "Scientists, policy makers, the public and the media need to work together. Compare this to the popular image of the lone scientist in the lab - an image that still lingers in the public mind. Science has changed and is trying to be more responsive to the public. So, there is this transition from one model of 'serving science on a plate' to 'everyone come join us in the kitchen.' Fights are bound to burst when there is no agreement on how to proceed."
"For an actual conversation, we need to meet in the middle," he said. "People don't want the government to increase taxes, and that shifts the conversation. It gets derailed."
For many anti-climate change groups, the focus on limiting government intervention is a high priority. One such group is the Heartland Institute, an organization that The Economist called "the world's most prominent think tank promoting skepticism about man-made climate change." One of their biggest environmental focuses is a petition to reign in the Environmental Protection Agency, calling it a "rogue agency." They would like to see the EPA's budget cut by 80 percent or more and have many of their tasks relegated to local and state governments instead. They have a petition going to try to convince Congress to repeal the agency's authority to regulate carbon dioxide. On their website (The Heartland Institute did not respond to requests for further comments), they call carbon taxes "job killers."
In their efforts to curb government intervention in environmental issues, they criticize the science behind climate change. Among their claims, they state that Arctic sea ice is rebounding, Antarctic ice is expanding, polar bears are thriving and that sea levels are not rising.
Each side has scientists claiming contradictory evidence. Some polar bear experts claim numbers are safe, such as University of Iceland professor and geologist Dr. Olafur Ingolfsson. Ingolfsson believes that evidence of an ancient polar bear jaw proves polar bears have already survived an interglacial period. If that were the case, Ingolfsson suggests current warming may not need to be a worry for polar bear populations. Dr. Mitch Taylor, one of the most-quoted sources in the argument for steady polar bear populations, told the Frontier Centre for Public Policy that data he has seen does not appear to prove polar bears as a species are threatened or that their populations are in decline. He does, however, say that "some populations do seem to be experiencing deleterious effects from climate change."
Meanwhile, the Species Survival Commission of the International Union for Conservation of Nature released a study showing that in areas where sufficient data was present, one species/area has an increasing population, while eight have decreasing populations.
While the Heartland Institute claims Antarctic ice is increasing, the Copenhagen Diagnosis, a climate science report comprised of the works of several leading climate scientists, used several different measurement techniques to create this graph of their research results, showing a decline in Antarctic ice sheets.
John Cook, the Climate Communication Fellow for the Global Change Institute at the University of Queensland, explains that part of the discrepancies in the argument comes from where the focus of the claims is being placed. Satellite data shows Antarctica's land ice mass is decreasing at accelerated rates. Sea ice, however, is expanding. He also emphasizes the way this information is interpreted during climate debates. Climate skeptics, for example, argue that growing Antarctic ice is evidence of cooling waters. Yet studies have shown that the South Ocean is actually warming, more rapidly than all other oceans on Earth. Decreased ozone layers over Antarctica, causing stratospheric cooling that leads to ice-pushing winds, as well as changes in ocean circulation, which can move warmer, saltier water closer to the surface and increase melting, could count for the changes in ice levels.
Cook summarizes, "Antarctic sea ice is a complex and unique phenomenon. The simplistic interpretation that it must be cooling around Antarctica is decidedly not the case. Warming is happening - how it affects specific regions is complicated."
Cook himself is not a climate scientist but rather studies peer-reviewed scientific papers. Among these peer-reviewed papers on climate science, none disagreed with the consensus that human activities are modifying the atmosphere, and that greenhouse gases are likely the cause of observed warming over the past 50 years. Organizations including the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change, the American Meteorological Society and the American Geophysical Union have made similar claims, or at least support the evidence linking human activity to climate change.
However, climate skeptics continue to state that there is no scientific consensus that climate change is occurring, or that human activity is contributing to it, often citing a petition signed by over 31,000 American scientists urging that global warming does not exist. The argument is then made by the other side that many of these scientists are not climate experts or that climate change is not their field of study.
Economic forces also push opponents from both sides. Climate skeptics lament jobs lost when coal plants shut down, but the Natural Resources Defense Council touts the job-creating potential of cleaner wind energy.
Climate scientists argue that climate-skeptic science merely pulls examples from the "bigger picture" of a warming world to support claims that temperatures are not rising, or for those that admit the planet is indeed warming, that man cannot affect the climate one way or the other. All aspects of climate arguments essentially boil down to two groups viewing the same data and pulling different conclusions from it.
For example, it is widely agreed upon on both sides that climate change has been a natural part of Earth's history, even before humans existed. Climate skeptics use this as evidence that human activity is not affecting the current warming that is occurring. Arguments have also been made that the warming period we've had is just part of a natural Earth cycle and nothing we can do will make it warmer or cooler. Yet the data that shows past climate changes have shown that environmental factors have contributed to the change in the planet's temperatures. Ice cores show that ancient changes in carbon dioxide and methane related to melt levels. If that is the case, then humans would be able to impact the environment by increasing carbon levels in the atmosphere.
Climate change in America has become a highly politicized topic between liberals and conservatives. Like many issues the two groups face off over, a compromise may be hard to come by. However, as Canada, Japan, the European Union and other developed countries enforce climate adaptation into their policies, it may be harder and harder for the United States to stave off widespread changes.
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