The Skeptical Teacher

Musings of a science teacher & skeptic in an age of woo.

“How to Save the Polar Bears” Global Warming Panel from SkepchickCon 2012

Posted by mattusmaximus on July 17, 2012

Now that I’m back from TAM 2012, I am finally catching up on some blogging.  In this post, I wanted to share a rough transcript I made of another panel I saw the weekend before TAM at Convergence/SkepchickCon 2012 titled “How to Save the Polar Bears” – as the name implies, the subject was on how to address questions of the effects of global warming as well as climate change denialism.  Read on…

How to Save the Polar Bears

with Greg Laden, Shawn Otto, Maggie Koerth-Baker, John Abraham, and Desiree Schell (moderator)


Desiree: Let’s all commit now that climate change is indeed a real thing that is occurring. Greg, can you start with telling us the effects of climate change?

Greg: I’ll first talk about the effects of all the CO2 being released. The first effect is that it is warmer. For example, we are now experiencing the warmest year on record (so far). There are also likely to be drastic shifts in the weather patterns due to the amount of heat the atmosphere can hold. It probably means in more areas more rain in short bursts – so more droughts interrupted by heavy rains.

Also, the oceans will become more acidic, so organisms which are affected by high acid water will be hurt.

Finally, see level rise… glaciers melt, water expands, so the ocean level goes up. It could be a big factor in the short term.

Desiree: there are other more tangible effects like on agriculture.

Greg: yes, for example, many trees are getting killed by parasites because those parasites valve moved into regions (due to climate change) they never were before. Also, plants are drying out due to drought and this is leading to a lot of nasty wildfires.

People think that climate change effects is a future thing, but since the 1970s we have seen agricultural failures and desertification which are likely already linked to climate change. It is currently occurring.

Desiree: one thing that might change is disease patterns.

Greg: yes, many disease patterns have changed. Most epidemic diseases we as humans experience are due to things we have changed about our environment.

We have become a bit complacent about diseases, because in the 1930s we developed antibiotics. The problem is with the changes we are making now due to climate change, these disease effects are not so easily fought.

Desiree: Maggie, can you speak to power usage?

Maggie: the biggest energy usage we have now is buildings, more than transportation, and we use most of that energy to perfect our indoor climate (AC) which affects the outdoor climate, and so on. This also affects our power grids, because there is an increase in demand for electricity due to the higher temperatures. And the grid is much more sensitive than people think, and in these extremes you can get blackouts.

Desiree: Shawn, what was the political response to these issues?

Shawn: Nothing. An attempt was made in 2010 to address these issues, but about 500 million dollars was poured into Congress by the energy lobbyists to defeat any kind of climate bill. And the Obama administration had to make a calculated decision to go with healthcare reform instead.

There have been many on the right who have attempted to downplay climate change mitigation. Many people are pushing a “teach the controversy” argument against the teaching of climate change science. They wish to replace political opinion with actual science. There have been political attempts to make sea level rise “illegal” – North Carolina almost passed a bill making it illegal for communities to consider the effect of sea level rise unless the legislation gives prior permission, and if they do the community cannot go with the science
(about 1 meter in a century) but instead about 8 inches.

Virginia recently followed suit, saying we cannot talk about “sea level rise” but “frequent flooding” instead. This kind of throwing up political smokescreens is what is going on now.

In a way, you cannot blame the (public) corporations for this so much because they are required by law to pursue profits for shareholders on quarterly basis. So money drives a lot of it.

Desiree: Maggie, have their been legislative attempts to deal with the energy question?

Maggie: there are ideas out there to charge (carbon tax, cap & trade) for the amount of energy used. I used to be against this idea, until I realized that not everyone has access to the infrastructure to utilize the energy in the manner necessary for your life. The only way I can see to change that infrastructure is to price fossil fuels in terms of how much they are useful to us.

For example, gasoline is so cheap that mother can get on her ATV to drive around to have a good time. But gasoline is expensive and limited in supply and has effects, which are also expensive. So when we pretend this fuel doesn’t have these costs, we treat it in an unrealistic way. So when we talk about a carbon tax and cap & trade it treats it in a realistic manner.

And whether or not you believe in climate change, there are good reasons which a lot of people can agree with regarding the issue of energy usage and efficiency. I don’t think we should stop talking about climate change, but we also have to start using these openings (energy usage issues) to get people who may disagree with climate change science to work on the problem.

Much of the opposition to climate change science is ideological, and the only thing I can come up with is that even for people who disagree they can see the changes that if you feel by saying “this might be climate change” perhaps you feel like you’re denying your nation, religion, whatever. We have to decouple that from the science.

Shawn: this all boils down to politics. For example, in AIT they made a strategic error by making Al Gore the spokesman. That associated climate change with a very prominent Democrat with it, and so it makes it very hard for many political conservatives to accept climate change. The problem is we have to de-politicize the issue.

We have made this problem because of the very success of our technology. We have a lifestyle that we cannot continue to support. How do we deal with that?

This gets us to the question of my individual actions versus society’s action… Ayn Rand versus socialism, if you will. This is very much a political question.

Desiree: So back to the question of solutions…

Greg: I got involved in a political campaign, and in that conversation, I was interested to see a conversation regarding energy usage and the grid. People were talking about energy but they were talking out of their nether regions, because they don’t know what they’re talking about.

This reminds me of the education debate, regarding evolution and creationism, and a lot of people talk about things that don’t have to do with the science.

… Part of the problem is that many climate change denialists have now become professional, and they aren’t represented by the crazies anymore. So it is problematic to address the politics.

What you need to do is know the facts. Read these guys books (Shawn and Maggie’s), go to the Skeptical Science website to address these questions.

The weird thing about it is that nothing has changed, for the most part, in our understanding of greenhouse physics. What you need to do as a citizen is to know the facts and resources better so that you can have evidence and science based conversations with people.

Maggie: there’s just so much that we don’t know. For example, a lot of people don’t know where our grid came from. It evolved, it wasn’t designed. The first electrical grid opened in New York City via Thomas Edison; shortly thereafter, a second grid was opened in Appleton, WI without consulting Edison. Instead of using Edison’s equipment, they used a guy who sat and watched a lightbulb; if the bulb was too bright or too dim they knew there was something wrong with the grid.

So our grid is a real kluge, put together in a haphazard way. When we talk about upgrading our grid to a smart grid, we have to look at it in this context. So bear this in mind when having those conversations with people skeptical of climate change.

Also read the Debunker’s Handbook, and know one good story.

Desiree: Shawn, what can be done politically?

Shawn: Science Debate 2012, where we try to get the candidates and key political players to get on the record so voters can make informed decisions. These candidates are answering questions on a number of topics, but not so much on science, which is driving much of our society’s progress. For example, we had a big impact on Obama’s campaign in 2008, helping to make science a central plank
for his campaign.

Two quick things: Science Debate 2012 and the Science Pledge.

I think with the crazy weather shifts, we’re seeing conversations even among the deniers on the issues, which is where it should be all along.


Q: I’m concerned the politicians will move too slowly…

Shawn: our system is designed to move slow, but what politicians will respond to is the squeaky wheel. If people send a hand-written note or a personal phone call, they will pay attention.

Greg: it depends in how you say it. It also really bothers me that people complain there is no choice, but if you aren’t active in politics, why are you complaining?

You have to act at the local level.

Shawn: it’s also a conservative economic issue. We really have to make that point from an economic sense. Every year there is the Natural Catastrophe Review, and over the last 30 years there has been a huge increase in insurance costs related to the weather. And now, insurance rates are skyrocketing because of these issues.

Q: in the skeptic community, there is a contingent of people who call themselves skeptics yet they deny climate change. How do we address that?

Greg: there are people who are confused, and they have some sense of false balance. They don’t know the science we’re talking about. I notice it has been decreasing over the last few years though.

Maggie: I think it’s still the tribal thing, because while those people are in the skeptical community, because they see it as going against their political and economic beliefs. So to address that, we need to do this reframing thing.

Shawn: plus there is a difference in being a skeptic and a contrarian.

Q: could you tell us about invasive species and also about meat, because agriculture contributes a lot to climate change.

Maggie: Meat is really inefficient as a food source. Each step in raising meat has added, inefficient energy costs, and results in a huge energy imbalance. For example, with cows for every 8 units of energy you put in you get out only 1 unit of energy. Fish and chicken are close to a one to one ratio. And bugs are good too!

Meat isn’t the only thing. It also is a question of how much of the food is actually used; the USA is good about this, contrasted with India where they only are able to consume about half of the food they make, due to transportation issue, for example.

Q: ??? [I didn’t hear the question]

Shawn: the crux of Science Debate is to come up with science related questions. Regarding climate change, we plan to ask the candidates how they plan to address the issue from an international aspect.

I don’t know the solution other than some kind of treaty system, and I don’t think we can do it through the UN. Part of this is a leadership question, because the USA has the power to ask other countries to get engaged in the issue.

Q: isn’t methane also a problem with cows?

Greg: methane is a very serious greenhouse gas, but the bigger problem is that for 125 million years, carbon has gone in and out of the atmosphere more or less on balance.

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