Will Climate Change Ever Change the Political Climate?

Dr. Jeffrey W. Mirick

Part 1:  The Data


There are many issues that divide the Republicans from the Democrats, but there is only one issue that has planetary consequences and that is global warming, or by another politically correct term, climate change.  A recent report [1] “Existential climate-related security risk” says that climate change now represents a near- to mid-term existential threat to human civilization.  President Trump and many in his administration have denied the science of global warming, called it a hoax, and taken actions to rollback any regulations that are designed to protect the air we breathe and the environment we live in.  Is global warming an existential threat, an inconvenience, or something else?


I received an email from a tennis friend that was also sent to several other people – most are Trump supporters. The sender made two mistakes: calling global warming a “hoax” and sending the email to me.  Occasionally I receive these types of email.  There are still many people who believe that global warming brought on by human activity is not a settled issue and is open for debate.  My Reply:  I’m here to tell you that the debate was OVER 10 to 20 years ago – you missed the boat!  There is overwhelming evidence supporting the position that there is global warming and much of it is caused by the burning of fossil fuels, coal, deforestation, and even the production of cement.  Just like smoking is bad for your health, the burning of fossil fuels is bad for the planet! This is a slow burning Climate Crisis.  As Bill Nye so succinctly put it: “The Planet is on fire!” 


Scientists as early as the 19th century had already been studying the effects of greenhouse gases on the Earth’s climate.  As spectroscopic methods improved in the 20th century so did the capability to make better measurements.  In the late 20th century scientists were concerned that the burning of fossil fuels may be changing the Earth’s climate.  A report published by the U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Science Advisory Committee in 1965 stated (2):


The part that remains in the atmosphere may have a significant effect on climate; carbon dioxide is nearly transparent to visible light, but it is a strong absorber and back radiator of infrared radiation, particularly in the wave lengths from 12 to 18 microns; consequently, an increase of atmospheric carbon dioxide could act, much like the glass in a greenhouse, to raise the temperature of the lower air.


In 1972 John Sawyer published a study Man-made Carbon Dioxide and the “Greenhouse” Effect [3] which accurately predicted the effects of man-made carbon dioxide emissions from 1972 to 2000.  He stated in his publication: “The increase of 25% CO2 expected by the end of the century therefore corresponds to an increase of 0.6 °C (1.1 °F) in the world temperature – an amount somewhat greater than the climatic variation of recent centuries.”  And in 1975 geo chemist Wallace Broeecker of Columbia University first coined the phrase” global warming” in his science publication entitled Climatic Change: Are We on the Brink of a Pronounced Global Warming? [4]   In 1975 there was approximately 335 ppm (parts per million) of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.  Today the concentrations have reached numbers greater than 415 ppm.  The last time carbon dioxide concentrations were this high was approximately 3 million years ago.  Last year, 2018, was the fourth-hottest year ever recorded - the past five years have been the five warmest years in the modern record - Eighteen of the hottest 19 years have occurred since 2001 according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and NASA.  


But in spite of these numbers the political will has not been doing well for a course correction.  According to the ABC News/Stanford/Resources for the future poll: Public Attitudes on Global Warming taken July 16, 2018, more than 60% believe the government should be doing more to address global warming.  The Republican leadership believe that regulations will have a negative impact on businesses and economic growth and therefore prefer to ignore, or dismiss, the warnings and do nothing to combat global warming while the Democrats believe that regulations are required to get carbon emissions under control.  Pay now or pay a lot more later.  Solutions to cleaner energy in themselves will spur economic growth, but changes will be slow and will not come easily. 

The Earth’s climate is always changing.   The main driving force behind the changing climate is the Sun. 

The Earth’s surface absorbs and reflects solar radiation in the visible wavelengths.  The visible wavelengths are mostly transparent to carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.  The planet then emits infrared radiation which is then absorbed by the carbon dioxide molecules and other greenhouse gases that surrounds the planet, which keeps some of the heat from radiating into space.  If it wasn’t for carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the Earth’s surface would be much cooler, roughly -20oC (-4oF), and life on Earth would not be possible [5].




There are several naturally occurring events that may also contribute to a changing climate: volcanos, asteroid impact, Earth’s orbit, polar motion, the sun’s irradiance, etc.  Little is known about the climate more than 1 million years ago, but there are ways to learn about the climate hundreds of thousands of years ago.  


Deep beneath the ice fields of Antarctica - a large flat land mass at the south pole covered by ice over a mile thick - lies clues to our past.  The Earth’s climate is captured in the ice and the air bubbles frozen in time beneath the ice field.  By drilling deep into the ice field, scientists can extract the age of the sample, approximate temperature at the time the ice was frozen, and greenhouse gasses like carbon dioxide and methane present at that time.   The drilling in the Vostok (Antarctica) site can retrieve the climate information going back 400,000 years.  The above plot shows the temperature anomaly at the site in red (read on the left side of the plot) and the atmospheric carbon dioxide levels in blue (read on the right side).  The temperature anomaly is determined by subtracting the modern-day surface temperature of -55.5 oC (-67.9 oF) at Vostok from the temperature calculated from the ice core sample [6,7]. 


There is a clear correlation between carbon dioxide levels and temperatures.  Glacial events are marked by cooler temperatures, smaller concentrations of atmospheric carbon dioxide, and glacial advances while the interglacial events are marked by higher temperatures, higher concentrations of carbon dioxide, and the receding of glaciers.  The most likely cause of the periodic oscillations are the changes in the insolation (radiation received from the sun); however, this is still open for debate.  The period between Glacier events are approximately 100,000 years.  During the glacial periods the average temperatures were approximately 8 oC (14.4 oF) cooler than today’s temperature.  The atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations have fluctuated between 180 ppm and 280 ppm during the past 400,000 years.  The last Glacier event ended 15,000 years ago.  During the glacier period parts of North America, Europe, and other northern regions were covered by massive ice sheet and the mean sea level was approximately 120 meters (393 feet) lower than the sea level today [8].   The planet is currently in an interglacial period where the ice fields have receded from the continents and mainland, and the sea levels are rising.  Today the carbon dioxide levels have exceeded 415 ppm, which is approximately 48% higher than the average of the last 400,000 years.



The above plot shows the Land-Ocean Temperature Anomaly [8,9,10] (solid red line read off the left axis) and the atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations (solid blue line read off the right axis) for the years 1880 to 2018.  The temperature anomaly is measured relative to the base values of 14oC (57.2oF), which is the average global temperature during the period from 1951 to 1980.  Seasonal variations in the atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations can be seen in the plot beginning in 1959 when monthly measurements were recorded.  The dotted red and dotted blue lines are the projections of the temperature anomaly and carbon dioxide concentrations to 2100, which gives a projected temperature of about 3oC (5.4oF) and a carbon dioxide concentration of 580 ppm.  This is a temperature increase of 3.6oC (6.48oF) since 1880 temperatures.  The actual values are expected to be higher due to population growth and increase in energy demands.  If carbon dioxide and other greenhouse emissions and deforestation continues at their current rate, scientist have predicted a global temperature rise of between 3.0°C to 5.0°C (5.4oF to 9oF) by the end of the century.  Small changes in temperature translates to large changes in the climate.  There are more fluctuations in temperature than carbon dioxide concentrations, but there is little doubt that the temperature is rising due to human activity. 


To achieve a goal of less than 2°C rise will require a substantial and rapid cut in global greenhouse gas emissions within the next 12 years taken by all countries, particularly the United States and China.  The clock is ticking - this is a slow-moving climate crisis!  The 3 to 5°C above 1880 levels may not sound like much, BUT, the last glacial ice age was around 15,000 years ago when the temperature was approximately 8°C cooler than it is today.  At that time much of the planet was covered with ice! [6]


President Obama entered into the Paris Climate Accords along with 173 other parties and the European Union in 2015 and domestically he also initiated the Clean Power Plan in 2015 that would limit carbon emissions from existing and new power plants.  President Trump has reversed many of Obama's regulations, pulled out of the Paris Climate Accords, appointed climate change deniers and skeptics to his administration and the EPA, and has suppressed research on the devastating effects that results from a warming climate.   The United States has effectively abandoned efforts to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions and has surrendered the lead on climate change to other countries.  Greenhouse gas emissions are on the rise and the temperature is, too as seen in the figures below.  The blue represents cooler temperatures and the red represents warmer temperatures.   The poles are warming faster than the rest of the planet.   An animation of the warming planet during the past century can be found at 





The climate crisis is an inconvenience today, but it will be an existential threat tomorrow.  The decisions we make today will have consequences for future generations.   

Next month’s newsletter will include the difference between weather and climate, EPA, methane, and an inventory of the countries having the highest carbon emissions.  


1.)     David Spratt & Ian Dunlop, Existential climate-related security risk: A scenario approach, 2019

2.)     "Restoring the Quality of Our Environment" (PDF). The White House. 1965.

3.)     1972 John Sawyer published a study Man-made Carbon Dioxide and the “Greenhouse” effect, Nature V239, 1972

4.)     Wallace Broecker, "Climatic Change: Are We on the Brink of a Pronounced Global Warming?" Science, vol. 189 (8 August 1975), 460-463.

5.)     http://old.grida.no//climate/vital/01.htm

6.)     Jouzel, J., C. Lorius, J.R. Petit, C. Genthon, N.I. Barkov, V.M. Kotlyakov, and V.M. Petrov. 1987.  Vostok ice core: a continuous isotope temperature record over the last climatic cycle (160,000 years). Nature 329:403-8. 

7.)     Jouzel, J., N.I. Barkov, J.M. Barnola, M. Bender, J. Chappellaz, C. Genthon, V.M. Kotlyakov, V. Lipenkov, C. Lorius, J.R. Petit, D. Raynaud, G. Raisbeck, C. Ritz, T. Sowers, M. Stievenard, F. Yiou,

and P. Yiou. 1993. Extending the Vostok ice-core record of palaeoclimate to the penultimate glacial period. Nature 364:407-12.                                            

8.)     https://www.giss.nasa.gov/research/briefs/gornitz_09/

9.)     GISTEMP Team, 2019: GISS Surface Temperature Analysis (GISTEMP). NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies. Dataset accessed 20YY-MM-DD at https://data.giss.nasa.gov/gistemp/.

10.)  Lenssen, N., G. Schmidt, J. Hansen, M. Menne, A. Persin, R. Ruedy, and D. Zyss, 2019: Improvements in the uncertainty model in the Goddard Institute for Space Studies Surface Temperature (GISTEMP) analysisJ. Geophys. Res. Atmos., in press, doi:10.1029/2018JD029522