Today in science: Despite what Trump tweets, climate change is not a hoax

With more than 80 million people watching, Hillary Clinton accused Donald Trump of calling climate change a hoax during the candidates’ first presidential debate Monday evening.

Trump denied the claim, prompting fact checkers from all corners of the Internet to rehash tweets and statements in which the Republican candidate mocked global warming as a joke; sometimes implying a conspiracy.

In 2014 Trump tweeted, “This very expensive GLOBAL WARMING bullshit has got to stop. Our planet is freezing, record low temps,and our GW scientists are stuck in ice.” While Trump’s statement demonstrates a fundamental lack of understanding about the issue, he got one thing right: climate scientists do spend a lot of time around ice.

James White, the director of the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research, also known as INSTAAR, at the University of Colorado in Boulder, has studied ice cores in places like Greenland and Antarctica while researching the world’s changing climate. When he began his research in the 1970’s, he said, views on the environment weren’t necessarily split along political lines. Today, however, climate change is a defining red vs. blue issue.

According to a study published this year in the journal Nature Climate Change, political affiliation was the strongest demographic variable related to one’s belief in climate change — beating out factors like sex, age, income, education and race. In a 2016 environmental poll by Gallup, 40 percent of Republicans said they were worried about global warming, compared with 64 percent of Independent voters and 84 percent of Democratic voters.

A gap between Republican and Democratic views on the issue also exists among elected officials. Several Republican senators have gone on the record saying they don’t believe in climate change. To make such a statement, White said, is to turn a blind eye on basic physical laws.

“There is nothing in here that is even remotely opinionated or the subject of belief,” he said, “This is all physics.”

The physical laws that determine the Earth’s temperature can be distilled into three basic factors. The first factor is the amount of energy the Earth receives from the sun, the second is the amount of energy reflected back to space from things like aerosols and ice, and the third is the amount of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere.

Greenhouse gasses are a natural and important part of the Earth’s climate system, White said. They raise the temperature of our planet by about 33 degrees Celsius or about 60 degrees Fahrenheit, making it habitable for humans. However, burning fossil fuels like coal, gas and oil creates carbon dioxide emissions that add to greenhouse gasses, trapping addition heat from the sun in the Earth’s atmosphere and warming the planet.

This warming process is already causing ice sheets to melt, leading to sea level rise around the globe. According to NASA, over the last century global sea levels rose about 17 centimeters. The rate of sea rise from this past century nearly doubled in just the last decade.

In an article for Climate Central, White and his INSTAAR colleague, Rob Motta, discuss how sea rise will impact two of America’s most vulnerable cities, New York and Miami, and how policy makers in these cities plan to deal with the fallout.

In New York City, former mayor Michael Bloomberg (I) headed a task force on climate change in 2015, devoting sizable resources toward preparing the city for complications from flooding and storm surges. Meanwhile, in the Miami-Fort Lauderdale area of Florida, which White and Motta call “ground zero in the battle against rising seas” politicians have done little to address the issue. Florida’s governor Rick Scott (R) is rumored to have an unofficial policy banning the use of terms like “climate change” and “global warming” across multiple state agencies, The Miami Herald reported.

While understanding the basic science behind climate change can be fairly simple, the real challenge for future generations will be finding a way to reach voters and policy makers who remain unpersuaded by scientific facts.

Perhaps Trump would be more interested in the impact climate change could have on the real estate market. After all, White noted with a grin, sea level rise means the White House could one day be river front property.

Above: Climate scientist Jim White


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