Justin Higgins, English and History

In “Global Warming: The Falsehood Coming to a Campus Near You” (9/28/09), Alan Moore presents a number of points that, from his perspective, not only disprove anthropogenic global warming, but even fundamental issues like the role of CO2. It’s worth looking at these points he raises in greater depth. First, Mr. Moore discusses the issue of sea levels rising to unsustainable levels because “the polar ice caps will melt.” He says that “the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change states that the rising sea levels may in fact be cyclical and there is no evidence that man contributes to these rising sea levels.”
In fact, the most recent assessment report from 2007 concludes that anthropogenic warming and sea level rise will continue to rise even if we stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations now, and that the probability that this is the result of natural processes alone is less than 5 percent. All of this can be read at The Intergovernal Panel on Climate Change’s “Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis.” The IPCC report itself does not back up Mr. Moore’s claims about what they have stated.

Mr. Moore then continues by arguing that the melting of some glaciers is countered by the formation of glaciers elsewhere. I would direct him to the National Snow and Ice Data Centre at http://nsidc.org/ and their Glacial Balance page at http://nsidc.org/sotc/glacier_balance.html. Looking at the overall status of glaciers around the world does show an overall rate of glacier mass loss, meaning that there is not enough glacier formation elsewhere to counterbalance the glacier loss.

He then raises the point that “Greenland was once fertile for farming”, which seems like a distortion at best. Aside from some of the historical problems with this claim (i.e. Erik the Red naming the land Greenland to try and attract colonists), data shows that Greenland’s ice cap is hundreds of thousands of years old, and covers over 80 percent of the island. Most of the rest of Greenland is rock and permafrost.

Mr. Moore then brings up the fact that water is not created or destroyed. I’m not quite sure of the relevance of this point, as I’m not aware of a global warming supporters or skeptics arguing that water is “created or destroyed.” Either way, he uses this to segue into an experiment asking the reader to fill a cup with ice and then water and wait for it to melt, demonstrating that because of displacement, it won’t result in the water rising.

This is really only relevant to water under the surface. The issue at hand has to do with the ice caps above sea level, glaciers, etc. Land-based glaciers are some of the most concerning, which is why there is so much attention focused on the West Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets. The “ice melting in a glass of water” experiment is completely irrelevant to these cases. It’s also worth noting that the other concern about sea level rising has to do not so much with melting ice but expanding water (a significant majority of this is based on warming water). The IPCC 4th Assessment Report, WG1, Chapter 5 on Oceanic Climate Change and Sea Level addresses this in much more detail, and can be read on “Observations: Oceanic Climate Change and Sea Level”.

Another point to address is Mr. Moore’s argument that increased carbon dioxide levels are not serious because “CO2 is not a pollutant and is not harmful”, and that we “breathe out CO2 everyday and plants absorb it to create oxygen”. He even states that the more “CO2 in the atmosphere, the more plants and trees thrive and the more life-sustaining oxygen there is in the world.” He asks “What is wrong with that?”
First off, it’s worth pointing out that one of the main problems with the increased output of CO2 is that, right now, more CO2 is being produced than the world’s plants and oceans can absorb (which is why things like deforestation only exacerbate the issue). Simply put though, this seems to completely sidestep the issues at hand. The argument is not that CO2 is a pollutant. The argument is that CO2 is a greenhouse gas, one of the most significant contributors to the greenhouse effect on earth (accounting for about 20 percent of the effect).

The problem with CO2 is that even small increases can have a profound effect, as it persists in the atmosphere much longer than water vapor. Carbon dioxide and methane also trap much more heat per molecule than water vapor. Again, quoting from the IPCC summary cited above, “Carbon dioxide is the most important anthropogenic greenhouse gas. The global atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide has increased from a pre-industrial value of about 280 ppm to 379 ppm in 2005.

“The atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide in 2005 exceeds by far the natural range over the last 650,000 years (180 to 300 ppm) as determined from ice cores.” On the topic of anthropogenic global warming, they also conclude that the “primary source of the increased atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide since the pre-industrial period results from fossil fuel use, with land use providing another significant but smaller contribution.”

One last point I’d like to address is Mr. Moore’s suggestion that global warming and climate change is simply the latest in a long line of seemingly “made up” threats that were never really serious. He cites “global cooling” as one, although it’s worth noting that the scientific literature does not support the notion that scientists themselves believed this would be a major problem (the most commonly cited example of a global cooling panic comes from a Newsweek cover story from the time period, not a peer-reviewed scientific journal).

Even back in the 70’s, scientists noted that although we were in an in-between period that was leading to a new ice age, global warming could actually end up trumping the expected cooling periods. He cites acid rain as another, which is puzzling, since acid rain actually was a demonstrable scientific problem, one which also had a scientific solution. 5 percent of New England lakes were found to be acidic in 1991, incapable of supporting a variety of fish species including Brook Trout and minnow.

To address these problems, a cap and trade system was added to the Clean Air Act to control emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides.

It’s worth noting that, thanks to these measures, sulfur dioxide emissions have dropped 40 percent since the 1990s and acid rain levels have dropped 65 percent since 1976. So again, it is puzzling to cite acid rain as an example of a non-existent threat, when it was in fact real. Our reaction to acid rain and our ability to deal with it scientifically actually provides a great case study for what we can do if we actually try and study a problem and implement solutions, rather than deny the problem exists at all, or that there’s nothing we can do about it.