Climate Change Demystified

Abstract: National Geographic's September issue shines light on a topic of daunting complexity

Article: Capping a four-year effort, one of America's most recognized magazines has declared global warming real. In its September issue, National Geographic says that there is now no question that warming climate change is real and humans are contributing to the problem.

Editor-in-Chief Bill Allen said in an introduction that he expects the 74 pages of articles and examples to anger some readers who do not believe global climate change is taking place. But it is too important not to present. It reveals a "global warming trend that is altering habitats with devastating ecological and economic effect."

The report drew immediate criticism in the form of an op-ed piece in the Washington Times by Patrick Michaels, a senior fellow in environmental studies at the Cato Institute.

Michaels disputes some of the early facts in the National Geographic articles and argues point by point with others. He accuses National Geographic of becoming just another "slick lobbying mag, pushing today's popular issues."

National Geographic's presentation, however, is studiously neutral. It is also remarkable. The 74-page report exemplifies and summarizes the enormous amount of climate data and documented changes that exist all over the world. Then it makes it understandable to the lay reader (although not entirely without a little hard work). This in itself needs to be seen as a near miraculous accomplishment. The entire subject of climate and climate change and the worldwide nature of changes over time are simply so technical, broad and diffuse as to be opaque to the nonspecialist and to the public in general. Though even 74 pages may put off some readers, the topic is now accessible, and that is a major step forward in dealing with climate change. It can put the public in the game with Congress and the special interests in the future.

Documented Changes
Before the National Geographic team set out to talk with workers in the field, it put in three years of research on the topic of climate change. In the field the team reviewed evidence and talked with experts. Its conclusion: evidence clearly points to the release of carbon dioxide gases mainly from cars and power plants as the prime cause of warming. Some warming is caused also by chlorofluorocarbons and other industrial gases that we are releasing. But, predominantly, carbon dioxide causes warming.

Other interviews with specialists documented changes from melting ice caps and thawing permafrost to warming seas and changing seasonal patterns of plant growth. Sections of the report specifically address changes in ice and water, and animals and plants. A third section covers probable temperature changes and examples of research being done to assess the wide possible range of effects in the future.

The article shows how scientists are now comparing historical temperature changes with models on massive supercomputers. The results confirm human activity as a cause of warming.

Natural factors can change temperature and climate, but actual changes in climate over time do not match predictions based on natural factors alone. Likewise, factors resulting from human activity can also change climate, but actual changes do not match changes predicted by models of human activity alone. But combine the two: natural- and human- caused climate changes and the models match observed climate change exactly. These predictions are far from rosy. Scientists expect a two to five degree Celsius warming up to year 2080, with highest temperatures over land, but warming oceans also. Melting ice caps and light or nonexistent snow packs may threaten drinking water supplies while increased runoffs could change the direction of ocean currents.

But the primary finding was that damage is being caused to the environment all over the world by climate change due to these emissions. In individual instances, warming may not appear to be present, as with the unusually pleasant summers this year in Washington, DC, and Houston, Texas. There are many such anecdotes, but when evaluations are made worldwide they make up a very small fraction of the examples showing warming change.

Just the Facts, Ma'am
Appearing on C-span's "Washington Journal", on September 8, Allen pointed out that U.S. Senators McCain and Lieberman have decided to distribute the National Geographic report as a bipartisan report to the members of the Senate on the nature of climate change.

He also noted that some corporations – such as BP and Shell – have undertaken emission reduction programs. BP, in fact, has reported it saved $600 million over 3 years that way.

When a C-span caller reminded Allen that the U.S., with 3% of the world's population, consumes 25% of the worlds energy, then asked why is it that the government has not aggressively pursued alternative energy, he repeated the assertion saying that question needed to be directed to Capitol Hill or Pennsylvania Avenue. National Geographic's role is to provide, "in the words of Joe Friday in the old Dragnet series 'just the facts, ma'am.'"

Some climate change is now inevitable because of the greenhouse gases already in the air, according to the report. What other effects will accompany the two to five Celsius temperature rise is the subject of intense research worldwide. National Geographic's September issue will tell you about those efforts. The public – and especially everybody in the energy industry – should consider it required reading.