There is a certain genre of argument, common to creationists and climate science deniers: to address evolution or human-caused climate change as if they were just hypotheses or even conspiracies.
As proof they cite a famous scientist, who, having reached a certain age and level of notoriety, feels no compunction about stepping outside of his area of expertise and holding forth on the subject. Often it is a physicist or, sorry to say, an engineer. The “expert” often will isolate some minor puzzling observation and blow it up to the proportion of a game-changing criticism, or sometimes issue a wholesale denial of the consensus in the field.
There is nothing wrong with writing about stuff outside one’s field of expertise (this article is itself an example). The important thing is to offer a logical argument instead of merely appealing to authority or to the assumed virtue of iconoclasm.
In the Sept. 9 edition of the Times Union, James Shapiro, citing the physicist Freeman Dyson, took exception to the opinion of the editor, Rex Smith, that Galileo would have supported 95 percent of actively publishing climate scientists, who say that the Earth is getting warmer and that this is due to the burning of fossil fuel. To Shapiro this is a dogmatic and religious position, and Galileo would not support it. Instead he would insist on stringent tests.
It’s only fair to accept the notion that Galileo, if aware of the issue, would have an opinion. Attempting to channel Galileo, I conjured the following:
What nonsense. The climate scientists are on the money here. But in one respect, Shapiro does speak the truth, for I do insist on stringent testing and reasoning. When I was alive, of course, I had never heard of carbon dioxide, radioactive dating, greenhouse effects, and the like (nor did I know modern English, but I digress).
Back to climate change. Let’s take a look at the evidence and see how the theory of climate change holds up. What do the data show? As I found from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s report and research done by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, sea levels are rising, due to the melting of ice in Antarctica and the thermal expansion of the water; glaciers are melting all over the Earth; direct measurements of air and sea temperature have risen; the list could go on.
So there is no real doubt that the planet is getting warmer. Which is odd, because based on the glaciation cycle, the Earth should be cooling about now.
Since the late19th century we have known that carbon dioxide and some other gases retain radiative energy and release it as heat. Thanks to many independent researchers, we know that the concentration of carbon dioxide has risen from 180 ppm around 1900 to about 400 ppm today. Inventories of fuel combustion show that the amount of carbon dioxide produced by burning fossil fuel is sufficient to explain this rise in concentration. Independently of this, we know that the oil and coal we burn have very little carbon–14. Most carbon is carbon-12, which is stable, but carbon-14 is radioactive and present in trace amounts. This element is produced all the time in the upper atmosphere and there is — and always has been — a little of it in the carbon dioxide consumed by plants. So plants, and the animals that eat them, contain a small amount of this radioactive carbon-14. It is in the same proportion as in the atmosphere. When they die, they stop accumulating new carbon and the proportion of carbon-14 immediately starts to decline because of radioactive decay. Half of it decays to nitrogen-14 every 5,700 years or so.
That’s a long time, but way less than millions of years. The decay of carbon-14 is the basis of radioactive carbon dating, used in archaeology to date moderately old campsites, mummies and the like. The remains of plants and animals that died millions of years ago, which are now coal, oil and gas, no longer have a significant amount of carbon-14. If the coal, oil and gas we burn are responsible for the increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, then the relative proportion of carbon-14 in the atmosphere should be declining as this very old carbon-12 continues to build up. Climate scientists have documented this decline, in agreement with the prediction from inventories.
This is the essence of scientific thinking — the quantitative verification of a prediction by independent evidence.
So despite Shapiro, Dyson and other self-styled skeptics, the evidence is in. Climate change is real, and it is due to human burning of fossil fuel.
Personally, I don’t care, because I am already dead. Still, it would be a shame if the whole planet were taken over by insects.
This article appeared in the Albany Times Union, September 16, 2015