Over the past few months, I have been writing about how pretty much all scientists are in agreement that climate change is happening now and we are causing it. Though 97% of scientists agree on climate change, a lot of non-scientists do not agree about it, at least not as much as scientists do. According to the most recent poll I could find, about 68% of Americans think climate change is being caused by people while 32% of them (about 1 in 3 adults) think it’s not being caused by people. Some of the 32% don’t even think climate change is currently happening.
You can take your own poll about climate change, and possibly ruin Thanksgiving in the process, at this year’s Thanksgiving dinner. As soon as the cranberry sauce slides out of the can, ask everybody at the table what they think about climate change. Chances are at least someone in your family, probably your Uncle Steve, doesn’t think the scientists know what they’re talking about when it comes to climate change. Someone else will offer a counterpoint to Uncle Steve and you can then eat your stuffing while watching adults yell at each other like you and your older brother do every time you both want to use the iPad at the same time.
If I were at your Thanksgiving dinner when you asked a question about climate change, who would I agree with: 97% of scientists or your Uncle Steve?
As you probably have already guessed if you have read any of my other blog posts, I trust the scientists and feel pretty much 100% confident that climate change is happening now and people are the cause of it. This isn’t just blind faith. My opinion is based on my own personal experiences with scientists and with the weather.
I trust scientists because I know from personal experience that scientific research can be so thorough as to be mind-numbingly tedious.
I used to think science was a process where really smart people suddenly have amazing inspirations that explain something, and those inspirations then become facts that high school students have to memorize. I assumed this because of stories I had heard about scientific discovery, like:
Archimedes takes a bath and suddenly he understands how to measure volume through water displacement.
Isaac Newton gets hit with an apple and suddenly he understands gravity.
Einstein was bored for weeks in a patent office and suddenly he understands the universe.
Because of stories like these, which aren't always 100% true, I think a lot of people tend to think that scientific knowledge comes from geniuses having brilliant ideas during a brainstorm. It turns out that notion is not accurate. I realized science doesn't work that way about twenty years ago when I got hired to spend 37.5 hours a week staring at plankton under a microscope.
I got this job at a marine biology research lab. The plankton samples I was looking at were collected by scientists from estuaries at a variety of locations and depths, during a variety of times of day and tidal levels. The scientists preserved the samples they collected in carefully labeled jars and brought them to the lab. They then hired people like me to look at every tiny animal in every jar to see which samples had the most baby shrimp (baby shrimp start off life as microscopic plankton).
The reason the scientists were doing this research project is because baby shrimp turn into adult shrimp. If you want to catch and/or eat adult shrimp indefinitely, you need to know where the baby shrimp are likely to be so you can protect those places and the baby shrimp that live there.
I was not the only person whose job was to find and count baby shrimp. There were five other people with me in the plankton lab spending 7.5 hours a day looking at plankton under a microscope.
As you might imagine, spending 37.5 hours a week staring at plankton for months on end was tedious work. It was so tedious that every few weeks one of my coworkers would suddenly stand up and run out of the lab building yelling “I CAN”T TAKE IT ANYMORE!!!” and then there was a good chance we would never see them again. We called this “going plankton.” Someone else was then hired to take their place. Because almost everyone who worked there went plankton at some point (usually about three months in), a lot of people ended up sorting through those plankton samples over a couple of years.
This tedious work was important because if we plankton-pickers had just spent an hour sorting through one sample and then said “That’s good enough. Let’s play Angry Birds!” we would not have had enough information to figure out where baby shrimp are most likely to be in an estuary. We needed to look through hundreds of samples from different locations and times. This provided the scientists with enough data to find patterns and come to conclusions that would help anyone predict where baby shrimp are most likely to be in an estuary. (You can read the scientific paper for this research project with their results here.)
Eventually I went plankton and left that job, but since then I have seen this painstaking process occur with every other scientific research project I’ve been involved with.
Inspiration does play a very important role in science, but the ideas would not be worth much without the long hours of observations, measurements, and calculations that provide evidence for the idea and make sure it matches reality.
What does all this have to do with climate change? Every climate scientist is following the same tedious process I did when I was staring at plankton all week. So, when scientists tell us anything about climate change, there are years of data collection and piles of evidence to back up their claims.
I also trust scientists because a big part of a scientist’s job is to tell other scientists they’re wrong.
I learned this because scientists would often give presentations about there research at the marine biology lab where I worked. At the end of the presentations, the scientists would always ask if anyone had any questions. At first, I assumed people in the audience would ask the presenter easy questions that would make everyone feel comfortable, like “Was it fun tagging diamondback terrapins?” or “What is your favorite kind of plankton?” but that never happened. Instead the scientists in the audience always asked really tough questions, like “What is the threshold concentration of calcium carbonate that is needed to induce the avoidance behavior in Litopenaeus setiferus? How did you determine that number?” (except the scientist would ask questions that weren’t essentially nonsense, like the one I just used as an example, because I couldn’t remember any of the real questions. That’s about what they sounded like, though).
As someone who used to avoid public speaking like it was a continental breakfast where everything was made out of liver, this kind of tough questioning was pretty much my worst nightmare. But the scientists on stage took it in stride, and I quickly realized the scientists in the audience were not asking tough questions because they are all really mean. Scientists question other scientists’ results to make sure the other scientists have their facts right, which helps Science (with a capital “S”) maintain its integrity and makes sure it continues to provide us with an accurate explanation and understanding of the world we live in.
Scientists don’t just questions results during public presentations. They also question results published by other scientists. They will read what the scientists did and provide criticism if they see a flaw in the research. Scientists may also conduct their own experiments to see if they get the same results. (For an example of this kind of scrutiny, read this article.)
So scientists don’t just automatically agree with another scientist just because she’s a scientist. They’re actually more likely to assume other scientists sharing a new explanation for something are wrong. Only after long periods of discussion, data analysis, experiments, discoveries, and research that all back up the new explanation will the other scientists start becoming convinced that the new explanation may actually be right.
For us non-scientists, a rule of thumb you can follow to figure out if a scientific explanation is valid is to see how long ago the explanation was first proposed and then figure out how many scientists currently agree that the explanation makes sense. The longer ago the explanation was first suggested without being shot down, and the more scientists who now agree with it, the more likely it is true. So, for example, if a scientific explanation, say human-caused climate change, was first proposed over 120 years ago and not only did the idea not disappear, but today 97% of scientists agree that the explanation accurately describes the world we live in, then that explanation is pretty much true.
I also trust scientists because I know a lot of scientists and they’re really nice.
I’m not a scientist. I wasn’t even a science major in college. I was an English major, so when other students were finding out about how cellular respiration converts nutrients into ATP, I was finding out whether or not the fictional character Elizabeth Bennett was going to marry Mr. Darcy.
Since college, I’ve gotten to meet, work with, and become friends with a lot of scientists, and the thing I’ve found regardless of what kind of scientist they are is that the vast majority of them are smart, creative, and nice people who genuinely want to help make the world a better place.
I've actually known one of the scientists who specifically does research on climate change since I was like three years old, and, though this person once slammed a car door on my eight-year-old ankle, I completely trust this person and know it would be deeply important to her to always tell the truth about her research.
Not every scientist is super-nice or even super-honest. They are human beings after all. But most of the ones I have met are very nice, and I’d be really surprised if any of them, much less all of them, would purposely want to mislead the public.
Sharing wrong information not only goes against the character of most of the scientists I know, it also goes against the job description of being a scientist. Their job is to help us accurately understand the world we live in. Misleading the public is so contrary to what a scientist is supposed to do that being told made-up information by a bunch of scientists is kind of like having your razor scooter stolen by a bunch of police officers.
I also think climate change is happening now because I have seen weather patterns change over my lifetime.
When I first started hearing about global warming in the 1980s and 1990s, I trusted that it was going to happen because I trusted scientists. Like many people under the age of 30 who have had relatively lucky lives, though, I thought that bad things only happened to other people. I assumed the negative impacts of climate change would happen someday, but not in my lifetime.
That assumption changed when I went to Glacier National Park in 2000. I arrived excited to see glaciers and then was quickly disappointed because the glaciers there were remarkably underwhelming. The glaciers were so not spectacular that this is the only photo I could find that I took during that trip that might have a glacier in it (and I took a lot of photos).
The visitor center there had photos of how spectacular the glaciers used to be one hundred years ago. I learned the glaciers in Glacier National Park have been melting away over the past century and likely would be completely gone by 2025.
That experience made me realize that the negative effects of climate change were not going to wait until 2071 to start (which is when I would be 100 years old). They were already happening now.
Since then, I have seen that weather patterns are changing pretty much everywhere. Over the last few years we seem to be having two or three “storms of the century” a year, when by definition we are supposed to have them once a century (just think about the last few months with Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria, as well as the huge forest fires in the Pacific Northwest and Northern California, which are also climate-related).
I’ve even seen changes in my local climate. In 2011, I moved back to upstate New York, where I had grown up, after being gone from that state for seventeen years. A lot of people thought I was nuts to move back here, mainly because the area is known for having very cold, very snowy winters (which was actually one of the reasons I moved away from New York in 1994, because at the time I didn’t want to have to deal anymore with snow on the ground and bleak cloudy days that lasted pretty much from Thanksgiving until St. Patrick’s Day or sometimes until Easter).
The winters in upstate New York are a lot different from what they used to be. Over the last five years, the pattern here has been a week of cold weather and snow, followed by a week of unusually warm weather when it is sunny and the snow pretty much melts away, followed by a week of cold weather and snow, followed by a week of warm weather, and back and forth for three or four months. Also, the snow has not really been starting until January. (The new wishy-washy winters of upstate New York are because the Jet Stream has been thrown out of whack by climate change. It would take another excessively long blog post to explain how that works, but you can learn how by watching this video.)
This is not like the winters when I was a kid, when we didn’t have temperatures like this on Christmas Eve:
Summers are different too. It’s way hotter than it used to be. As a kid, I remember we had a window air-conditioner in our kitchen to deal with the hot days. We basically turned it on for a sum total of about one week a year. That window unit was all we needed we cool down the entire house. Now in my upstate New York house, we need central air conditioning running pretty much continuously from the end of June through September to not sweat to death.
Fall is different as well.
I remember our garden in the 1980s dying around mid-September because that’s when the first frost would come and kill all the plants. Now in the 2010s, I can grow tomatoes and eggplants well into October (this year they made it into November), because the frosts sometimes don’t happen until almost Halloween.
Not just temperature has changed in upstate New York. The way it rains has changed too. I remember thirty years ago, the rain tended to be slow and steady.
Now, pretty much anytime it rains, particularly in the summer, it pours. Just about every storm now drops massive amounts of water for a couple hours and then goes away. So when I look at my weather app on a rainy day, it almost always looks like these (the reds are the heaviest rains, then the yellows. The greens are the lightest rains.).
In the 1980s, if we had weather apps, smartphones, and children's authors taking screenshots of them, I'm pretty sure you would have seen mainly green on these weather maps.
If I was telling you that climate change is happening just based on my own observations about weather, and nothing else, then I would say don't worry about it. I made these conclusions about climate change in my local area without having recorded weather data there for forty years. Instead, my conclusions were based on my possibly bad memory. Also, there is a good chance I am exhibiting what scientists call "confirmation bias." This is what they call it when someone has something to prove and they end up handpicking the data that makes it sound like their story is true and ignore all the data that shows it is false.
But I don't think I just did that, at least not completely. I think I gave at least an accurate caricature of how climate has changed in upstate New York in my lifetime.
The main point I want to make with my personal weather anecdotes is you do not need to be a scientist to tell the climate is changing. You just need to be paying attention (though it helps if you have more years of life experience paying attention to the weather than the average kid.)
So, based on my own experiences, and the scientific evidence I wrote about in my other blog posts, I think it is indisputable that climate change is happening now.
Yet climate deniers like Uncle Steve continue to dispute it. Why? Here are some of the reasons they give (and also why I think these reasons are wrong).
Climate Denier Reason #1: Climate change is a hoax.
Some climate deniers think that scientists are just pretending that climate change is happening. I’ve heard a few different versions of this hoax story. The first story is that the scientists started the climate change hoax because they needed something to do to make money. The second is that China started the climate change hoax to cause the United States economy to go down the toilet. The third story is that certain political groups in the U.S. started the hoax because they want to be able to tell other people what to do.
Here’s why those stories aren’t exactly based on facts.
Scientists don’t need to make stuff up to have something to do. There’s a lot we still don’t know about ourselves and our universe (which is one of the reasons I like to talk to scientists and hear what they are investigating; it makes me even more aware of how much of our world is still a mystery and unexplored). We’ve basically just recently developed the technology to explore and understand the universe and our planet and even our own bodies, so there’s no shortage of questions that haven’t been answered. For example:
- How many species are alive on Earth today?
- How does gravity work?
- How does our brain store memories?
- What is happening inside the Earth that is causing “hot spot” volcanoes like the one that formed the Hawaiian Islands?
- What is the invisible “dark matter” that we can't see, but we know makes up a substantial part of the mass of our universe?
- What are all the microbe species in our bodies and how do they help us?
- What causes ice ages?
If scientists are looking for a problem specifically to make a lot of money, there are a lot of opportunities for that too. For example, if a scientist could find a cure for cancer or male pattern baldness, they would become very, very rich.
The thing is, most scientists aren’t in it for the money. Out of the couple hundred or so scientists I have met, only one of them has ever talked to me about becoming a scientist to make money (his plan was to get some research experience and then try to get a job as a scientist working for the fossil fuel industry). Like teachers and children’s authors, the majority of scientists choose their job because they want to do what they love and that’s more important to them than making enough money to buy a Tesla.
You can see this is true by looking at the typical salaries of scientists. Most scientists doing climate change research are working at colleges and universities. University scientists make somewhere between $46,000 and $118,000 a year, with an average salary of about $88,000.
This is a decent salary range, but not enough to make them a millionaire.
Those same scientists could get a job with the fossil fuel industry and get a job that pays an average salary of $139,000, which is over $50,000 more than the average salary of a university scientist (so, ironically, scientists could make more money helping to cause climate change than they could by trying to understand it).
To get a scientist job at a university, or the $139,000+ a year scientist job with the fossil fuel industry, scientists need to get a Ph.D. To do that, scientists need to go to school for at least 23 years of their life, including ten years in college (at least four years as an undergraduate student and at least six years as a graduate student). Ten years of college is not cheap. A graduate student can’t have a job that makes much money while working on their degree. Many of them have to take out loans that could put them hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt by the time they get their Ph.D. Then even after a scientist gets their Ph.D. they may not be making a lot of money for a while because many of them first have to work as underpaid postdocs. So scientists may be in their 30’s before they land a job that allows them to make a decent salary. Then they get to start paying off their student debt.
If money was the motivation, these scientists could become a pharmacist. They would only need to go to college for four years to get a pharmacy degree, they would accumulate a lot less debt, join the workforce and start making money much sooner, and then make a salary between $73,000 to $133,00 a year, which is about the same they would make as the best paid research scientists.
Or, since you have to be really smart to get a Ph.D. in science, anyone who can get into a Ph.D. program could easily get a job with high tech industries or other big businesses and potentially make millions of dollars.
Not only is it unlikely that money would motivate every scientist on Earth to become a liar, but scientists are also trained and expected to be as accurate as possible. So spreading misinformation is a quick way to get fired.
Let’s say that all scientists are actually greedy and conniving and they did start this whole climate change thing as a hoax. That means the hoax then may have started in 1896 when Svante Arrhenius first proposed the hypothesis that burning fossil fuels could change the world’s climate. Or it could have started in 1938 when G.S. Callendar first found evidence that our climate was changing because of human activity. Or the hoax could have started in the 1970s when scientists like Carl Sagan started warning the public that human-caused climate change was happening and needed to be taken seriously.
Let’s be conservative and assume this hoax started in the 1970s. For this hoax to have worked since then, every scientist in every country around the world, both the old, experienced scientists and all the new ones who got their Ph.Ds in the last five decades at hundreds of universities around the world, would have had to agree to go along with this hoax and not tell anyone. If this is what happened, then apparently the scientists all did this because once they heard about the hoax, they thought, “This climate change hoax sounds great! I’d love to do this because going to school for 23 years of my life and accumulating tons of debt so I can get a job paying $88,000 dollars a year where I will be lying to the public my entire life sounds like a great way to make money!!!”
Also, if this hoax is real, then somehow over four decades not one scientist around the world has spilled the beans about it. If you think that is possible, try telling a couple people a secret about yourself, like what your embarrassing middle name is. Make them promise not to reveal your secret to anyone. Then see how long it takes before everyone in school knows that your middle name is “Wendell.”
The China version of the hoax story is also ridiculous for the reasons I just gave, but also, if China is paying scientists to get them to lie to everyone that climate change is happening so China can ruin the economies of other nations, then that means that every climate scientist in 195 nations around the world agreed to become a traitor to their own country to make a little extra cash. Not only that, but why would China want to ruin the U.S. economy? We are paying China to make the products we buy, so if they ruin our economy, we won’t be able to buy as many products from them, which will ruin their economy too.
The political group version of the hoax, that certain people in the U.S. started the climate change hoax because they have some desperate need to force other people not to drive Hummers or use incandescent light bulbs, is also ridiculous for the reasons above. Though if this version is true, then the political groups convinced all the scientists in every other country on Earth to fake climate change, and the scientists all went along because they thought it would to be fun to spend their entire lives inconveniencing everyone else in their country.
Climate Denier Reason #2: Sure climate change is happening now, but it’s also happened throughout Earth’s history, so what’s happening now is totally natural and not being caused by people.
Climate change has happened throughout Earth’s history. There were times when the climate was so cold it is likely the entire planet was covered by ice. There are also times it has been so much warmer than now that the North and South Poles may have been ice free.
We also know that over 10,000 years ago we were in a glacial period of an Ice Age, meaning the climate around the world has warmed up naturally quite a bit since then.
No one denies that climate change happens naturally. That’s just not what is happening this time. The temperature has risen unusually and alarmingly quickly in the last 150 years. The amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which causes climate change, has also risen unusually and alarmingly quickly during that time period.
We know extra carbon dioxide makes the world warmer. We know through observation that pretty much all of this extra carbon dioxide is coming from people burning fossil fuels and cutting down forests. Which means the climate change shoe fits and people are wearing it.
Even if the climate change happening now has some natural causes because, maybe, there is a volcano somewhere on Earth releasing a lot of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere that we somehow haven’t noticed yet, or the sun is somehow getting warmer in a way that we can’t measure, the fact is billions of people around the world are still burning fossil fuels and adding a lot of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. That is still going to affect our climate. If a volcano throws a blanket over you, the sun throws a blanket over you, and people burning fossil fuels throw a blanket over you, the blanket from the people burning fossil fuels is still a major reason you feel warmer.
Climate Denier Reason #3: How can there be climate change if it’s cold today?
This is something I’ve heard a lot of climate deniers say. The thing they’re not realizing is that “climate change” does not mean that every day from now on is going to be warmer than the day before. Climate change refers to changes in average temperatures over a long period of time, and not the temperature outside during any given second. The temperature is still going to rise and fall from day to day. The Earth is also still tilting on its axis, so we still will experience colder temperatures in the winter.
Because climate change is based on average temperatures, it doesn’t even matter if one or two entire months in a year are colder than you’re used to, if the other ten or eleven months of that year are warmer than you’re used to. In that scenario, the average temperature is still rising even if you’re freezing for a couple months.
It’s even possible to live in a place right now where the average temperature isn’t rising. That still doesn’t mean climate change isn’t happening, because pretty much everywhere else on Earth is experiencing higher temperatures. The planet’s average temperature is still rising even if your town’s average temperature is not.
As an example of this, a few years ago a bunch of my friends on the East Coast were complaining on social media about how cold the winter was that year. Some of them were convinced that the cold winter proved climate change wasn’t happening. At the same time they were posting this, I was living in Oregon on the West Coast where we were experiencing a much warmer winter than what was normal for there. I wanted to post back to my East Coast climate denier friends: “It’s called “Global Warming,” not “East Coast Warming.” You might want to check the temperatures in other places around the world before you decide climate change isn’t happening” (I didn’t actually do this though, because I try not to yell at people on social media. Instead, I waited eight years and then wrote a lengthy blog post about it).
We all need to consider temperatures around the world when trying to understand climate change and not just base our opinions on how cold it feels when we walk from our house to our car today.
Climate Denier Reason #4: Scientists don’t actually agree that climate change is happening; therefore it’s fake science.
97% of scientists agree that human-caused climate change is happening. That means 32 out of every 33 climate scientists agree that climate change is happening. Only 1 in 33 does not. Those are not evenly matched teams.
Unfortunately, when 24-hour news channels talk about climate change, they usually dig up one of the scientists from the 3% who think climate change isn’t happening so that person can come on TV and argue with one of the scientists from the much more abundant 97% of scientists who agree that climate change is happening. This makes the opposing viewpoints seem like they are evenly distributed among scientists when they are decidedly not. Pretty much all scientists agree climate change is happening with the exception of a few outliers.
Cable news channels do this because they are in competition with shows like Duck Dynasty and The Price is Right for viewers, so they need to make “news” as entertaining as possible to get people to watch their channel. Unfortunately, the easiest and cheapest way they have found to do be entertaining is to get two people who disagree with each other to come on the show and yell at each other, which may be fun to watch but it isn’t exactly the best way to actually learn something useful.
Saying that 3% of scientists is a significant enough percentage to doubt the truth of climate change is kind of like going to 33 doctors and having 32 of them tell you that you have cancer and one of them tells you that you don’t have cancer and then you decide you don’t have cancer because 1 doctor out of 33 says you don’t. It’s obvious why people would want to believe the one who is telling them that they don’t have cancer. That is what they want to hear. But, personally, I would rather get the bad news that I have cancer so I could start doing anything I could to prevent it from ruining my life. If I listen to the one doctor who tells me I don’t have cancer, who is most likely wrong since 32 other doctors say I do have cancer, then I won’t be treating the cancer and increasing my chances of dying quickly from it.
It’s the same thing with climate change. Personally, I’d much rather climate change was not happening and I was wrong about all of this. But the evidence is so massive and so many scientists are in agreement about it, that it is indisputable that climate change is happening now and we are causing it.
The good news is there is still time to do something about climate change and stop it from completely ruining our lives. I will tell you how we can do that in my next (and final) blog post in this series on climate change.
Online References and Resources:
Gallup News. "Global Warming Concern at Three-Decade High in U.S."
NASA. "Scientific consensus: Earth's climate is warming,"
The New York Times. "Where Are America’s Winters Warming the Most? In Cold Places."
PayScale. "Research Scientist Salary."
Science. "What Don't We Know?"
Slate. "Criticizing a Scientist’s Work Isn’t Bullying. It’s Science."
The Washington Post. "Much of Northeast notches warmest October in recorded history."
Photos and Images:
Click the photos and images used above to find their sources. If they don't click anywhere I, or someone I know, took them, possibly as a screenshot on my iPhone.