Editor's note: This story is part of PolicyMic's Millennials Take On Climate Change series this week.
Stop! Before you go any further (specifically to the comments section), give this article a few moments.
Climate change is a highly polarized issue in American politics, but it wasn't always this bad. (Action on climate change used to be part of the Republican national platform.) Following the 2009 “Climategate” incident, and substantial political pressure in the form of vast sums of money, writing on this issue has become a very quick way to start a flame war.
I have long held the view that science-influenced policy is an ethical imperative of the highest order. With that in mind, clearing up these basic misconceptions on the issue is important. Here's everything you should know about how the science actually works.
1. How does science happen?
Unfortunately, how knowledge generation in science (and indeed much of academia) works is not as well known as it should be. Most of us grow up being taught the scientific method (hypothesis, tests with a control and an experimental group, analysis, results), but what is done with those results is not often discussed.
In terms of climate change, most of the research is performed by academics and government institutions. For research in academia to be considered legitimate, it has to be published in a scientific journal with as much transparency as possible so that it is available for criticism. The methodology is explained in detail, including how the data was obtained and then analyzed. This is the same across the board for science.
For research to even be published, however, it has to go through a process known as peer review. Peer review occurs when a manuscript is submitted to a scientific journal. The article is reviewed by a set of individuals with related expertise, who usually hold doctorates in the field. They critically analyze the paper and look for holes in the reasoning or methodology, even considering grammar and writing style. The manuscript then has three paths: publication, being sent back for revisions, or rejected all together. (Science is very big on creating paper trails.) If you have questions on the science, a simple review of the literature is all that’s needed.
A special note on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and their reports: It is too often forgotten that major oil-producing countries such as Saudi Arabia have a say in what goes into those reports. For more information on the IPCC, be sure to read straight from the horse's mouth. For those of you interested in the debate surrounding Michael Mann and Climategate, please check out two recent articles written by myself and Phil Plait.
2. What is the science?
Without going too in-depth, the essential run down is there are gases in the atmosphere capable of trapping heat from the sun, acting like a temperature dial for the planet. This keeps the planet warm enough for life, but too much of these greenhouse gases and things can get a little too hot.
Greenhouse gases include water vapor, nitrous oxide, and (most notably) CO2. CO2 is the most infamous as it is directly released by combustion and thus the use of fossil fuels. (For all of you out there just starting organic chemistry this fall, alkanes and oxygen gets you water and CO2). Bill Nye does a great job summarizing the heat trapping effect of greenhouse gases.
An increase in heat trapped from other greenhouse gases results in a larger amount of water vapor in the air due to greater evaporation. This rather scary feedback loop is one of the reasons why sea level rise is distressing on multiple levels. The impacts of climate change are being felt now, and impact our future planning with agriculture and conservation.
3. Who did the science?
To go back on the earlier point about how academic science works, many organizations have been involved in shaping what we know about climate change. In the United States this includes the National Science Foundation, the North Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and many universities. (It should of course be noted that research on climate change is performed by scientists from many different countries.)
If you are really hardcore on the question of who does this research, you can always refer to the IPCC reports themselves (largely regarded as the gold standard on the topic for policymakers). Be sure to look at the references section. There are scientists across the political spectrum, both liberal and conservative, who are engaged in this work, which should be strongly considered before asserting any conspiracy theories or the idea that this is something ginned up by liberals. The overwhelming scientific consensus is that climate change is happening and humans are impacting it.
4. Why hasn’t there been any action?
Some action has indeed taken place. Renewable energy (solar, wind, etc) production has been on the rise in the United States and Europe. The U.S. military has classified climate change as a major national security risk. The simplest way to answer why there hasn’t been a broad international agreement is there are difficulties in asking developing countries to avoid fossil fuel use, as well as attempts to curb western countries consumption.
In the U.S., industry pressures have prevented action. Much of this pressure has been through attempting to confuse the public on whether or not there is a controversy within the scientific community, an infamous and well-known tactic to those who follow science literacy. (It was used against the idea tobacco caused cancer, evolution, and acid rain, and its use has been extensively covered by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway in their excellent book Merchants of Doubt.)
All is not lost however, as massive grassroots pressure has been building across the nation. If Obama's most recent speech is any indication, we may finally be moving in the right direction on this important issue.
Engaging in conversation about climate change will no doubt bring out passionate debate, as any political issue will. It is important to first understand much of where these ideas are coming from, as well as places to find answers to the most common questions. It is important for everyone to be on the same page so that we can have thoughtful debates on the subject. I am certainly aware there are those who will continue to be skeptical, but I’ll take thoughtful debate over the screaming match that dominates much of politics any day.