Hurricane Harvey, Climate Change, and a Post-Truth World

Is climate change real? There is a lot of confusion about climate change. Some question whether it is even real, while others deny that it is caused by humans. Many people feel disconnected from what the effects of climate change would be. Unfortunately, Hurricane Harvey has hit Texas and Louisiana with what CNN meteorologist Dave Hennen labeled a “one-in-1,000-years type of event.”[1]

Did climate change play a part in this heart wrenching disaster? Washington Post reporter Ishaan Tharoor explains, “Climate change may not have ’caused’ Hurricane Harvey, but it seems likely that warming temperatures — the consequence of man-made greenhouse gases trapping heat in the atmosphere — exacerbated the storm conditions.”[2] We have never seen a storm in the United States like Hurricane Harvey. Eric Holthaus from POLITICO Magazine is blunt, “Harvey is what climate change looks like. More specifically, Harvey is what climate change looks like in a world that has decided, over and over, that it doesn’t want to take climate change seriously.”[3] Michael E Mann, professor of meteorology and director of the Earth System Science Centre at Pennsylvania State University, states, “while we cannot say climate change “caused” Hurricane Harvey (that is an ill-posed question), we can say is that it exacerbated several characteristics of the storm in a way that greatly increased the risk of damage and loss of life. Climate change worsened the impact of Hurricane Harvey.”[4]

So why is there still doubt about climate change? Eric Mack from Forbes warns, “Climate change arguments are among the least productive because typically I’ve found each side is working from their own set of facts or worldviews that are incompatible with each other and make it impossible to find any common ground.”[5] This is strange, isn’t it. They are working from “their own set of facts.”

There can be no doubt that worldviews not only determine what you see, they determine how you see. But facts, these should be true no matter what your worldview. Not seeing the facts because of one’s worldview happens. But are we really to believe that truth no longer matters? That all we care about is our comfort, our convenience, our self-interest?

A Post-Truth World

“Post-Truth” is the Oxford Dictionaries’ word of the year for 2016. It defines post-truth as, “Relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”[6] It seems that truth, the correspondence between thought and reality, is no longer that important.

We all need to learn how to think critically. It is a skill that we will need to maneuver through this post-truth world. A statement that says something is so, is called a claim. All claims are either true or false. Based on the evidence, we can do one of three things with a claim: accept it, reject it, or suspend judgment about it. Each choice should be based on evidence. If the evidence shows it is probably true, we should accept the claim. If the evidence is divided and could be either true or false, we should suspend judgment. If there is little or no evidence for the claim, we should reject it.

Is Climate Change Real?

So what is the evidence for climate change? The Union of Concerned Scientists says that the planet’s temperature is rising, carbon dioxide levels are increasing in the atmosphere, and we know that increased CO2 is the primary driver of global warming.[7] The National Aeronautics and Space Administration states that “The evidence for rapid climate change is compelling.”[8] They then provide several lines of evidence:

(1) Sea level rise: Global sea level rose about 17 centimeters (6.7 inches) in the last century.
(2) Global temperature rise: All three major global surface temperature reconstructions show that Earth has warmed since 1880. Most of this warming has occurred since the 1970s, with the 20 warmest years having occurred since 1981 and with all 10 of the warmest years occurring in the past 12 years.
(3) Warming oceans: The oceans have absorbed much of this increased heat, with the top 700 meters (about 2,300 feet) of ocean showing warming of 0.302 degrees Fahrenheit since 1969.
(4) Shrinking ice sheets: The Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets have decreased in mass. Data from NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment show Greenland lost 150 to 250 cubic kilometers (36 to 60 cubic miles) of ice per year between 2002 and 2006, while Antarctica lost about 152 cubic kilometers (36 cubic miles) of ice between 2002 and 2005.
(5) Declining Arctic sea ice: Both the extent and thickness of Arctic sea ice has declined rapidly over the last several decades.
(6) Glacial retreat: Glaciers are retreating almost everywhere around the world – including in the Alps, Himalayas, Andes, Rockies, Alaska and Africa.
(7) Extreme events: The number of record high temperature events in the United States has been increasing, while the number of record low temperature events has been decreasing, since 1950. The U.S. has also witnessed increasing numbers of intense rainfall events.
(8) Ocean acidification: Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, the acidity of surface ocean waters has increased by about 30 percent. This increase is the result of humans emitting more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and hence more being absorbed into the oceans. The amount of carbon dioxide absorbed by the upper layer of the oceans is increasing by about 2 billion tons per year.
(9) Decreased snow cover: Satellite observations reveal that the amount of spring snow cover in the Northern Hemisphere has decreased over the past five decades and that the snow is melting earlier.[9]

In a joint publication of The US National Academy of Sciences and the Royal Society, declared, “Climate change is one of the defining issues of our time. It is now more certain than ever, based on many lines of evidence, that humans are changing Earth’s climate. The atmosphere and oceans have warmed, accompanied by sea-level rise, a strong decline in Arctic sea ice, and other climate-related changes. The evidence is clear.”[10]

Notice the last sentence, “The evidence is clear.” The US National Academy of Sciences and the Royal Society is the largest body of scientists, and they have collectively said that “humans are changing Earth’s climate.” Why doesn’t the American public know this? Why is there still doubt? It seem to be so clear.

What is the Consensus of Scientists?

If all this is so clear, why do we keep hearing on media that the scientists are in doubt? They are not. The vast majority of scientists believe that global warming is real and that humans are contributing to it. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration states that, “Ninety-seven percent of climate scientists agree that climate-warming trends over the past century are very likely due to human activities, and most of the leading scientific organizations worldwide have issued public statements endorsing this position.”[11]

Clearly the scientific consensus is that “global warming is real and that humans are contributing to it.” but, with few exceptions, this is not what you will hear in the media. And there still are millions of people who either deny climate change outright, or they are in doubt about it.

Why is there Still Doubt?

Money is why there are still doubts. Big oil is not going down without a fight. They know that they can’t fight the science, the evidence is there. So they have decided to cast doubt in the political and public arena. Nothing will get done as long as people doubt the science. That’s what they want. There is a great documentary called Merchants of Doubt, that explains this in detail. It traces the connection from tobacco industry tactics to the fossil fuel industry.

But for many Americans, the question is not about the facts. They see government intervention as a threat to freedom. They don’t want to change their lifestyle or way of living. They are not interested in looking too closely at the “boring” science. They prefer to listen to the “experts” of front groups that sound legitimate, such as the American Enterprise Institute, Americans for Prosperity, Heartland Institute, Heritage Foundation, and others. As the Union of Concerned Scientists explains, “These organizations play a key role in the fossil fuel industry’s “disinformation playbook,” a strategy designed to confuse the public about global warming and delay action on climate change. Why? Because the fossil fuel industry wants to sell more coal, oil, and gas — even though the science clearly shows that the resulting carbon emissions threaten our planet.”[12]

It is funny, isn’t it. All this talk that global warming is a conspiracy and a hoax, and it turns out the other way around. The real hoax is the lie that climate is not changing because of human activities. Without studying the facts, one can understand why the American public is confused. But if, as the US National Academy of Sciences and the Royal Society, has said, “Climate change is one of the defining issues of our time,” then we have an obligation to inform ourselves. You could start by watching Leonardo DiCaprio’s new documentary entitled, Before the Flood.

Conclusion

I am not a scientist, but I have studied Climate Change and Environmental Science at several schools, including Curtin University, Chalmers University of Technology, University of British Columbia, and Dartmouth College. So I write this as an informed citizen of planet Earth. I can assure you that climate change is real, and that we are to blame for it. Those interested in living an evidence based life have no choice but to accept the reality of climate change.

But after you realize the truth about climate change, a sense of helplessness may set in. Sure you can xeriscape your lawn, use high-efficiency appliances, recycle and use recyclable packaging, replace your light with LED or fluorescent bulbs, install a solar panel, walk or bike more, and even buy an electric or fuel-efficient car. But that may not be enough.

The most important thing we must do is to change the government. That will take the majority of Americans believing in global warming. There are many hurdles to this – religion, ideology, and conspiracy theory thinking. Once the majority of the American people believe, they need to vote for politicians who believe in climate change. But this means that they need to view climate change, not as a side issue, but as “one of the defining issues of our time.”

Endnotes

1. https://thinkprogress.org/pence-im-not-anti-science-but-i-don-t-believe-in-global-warming-stem-cell-research-or-evolution-f823856e5198#.aeic8vdbw
2. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2017/08/29/hurricane-harvey-and-the-inevitable-question-of-climate-change/
3. http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2017/08/28/climate-change-hurricane-harvey-215547
4. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/aug/28/climate-change-hurricane-harvey-more-deadly
5. http://www.forbes.com/sites/ericmack/2016/11/11/donald-trump-says-climate-change-is-a-hoax-lets-discuss/#5da176971d50
6. https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/word-of-the-year/word-of-the-year-2016
7. http://www.ucsusa.org/our-work/global-warming/science-and-impacts/global-warming-science#.WC5NaXUrJkU
8. http://climate.nasa.gov/evidence/
9. Ibid.
10. http://dels.nas.edu/resources/static-assets/exec-office-other/climate-change-full.pdf
11. http://climate.nasa.gov/evidence/
12. http://www.ucsusa.org/global_warming/solutions/fight-misinformation/global-warming-skeptic.html#.WC5ZLHUrJkU