While most Americans acknowledge that climate change is happening, some are still unsure about the causes.
They are often labeled “climate skeptics,” but that label can cause confusion or even anger.
Isn’t the nature of science to be skeptical? Isn’t it good to question everything?
Yes, but —
Here’s what is getting lost in the conversation:
Scientists have been asking these questions for nearly 200 years. The scientific community has been studying these questions for so long that collectively they have amassed an overwhelming amount of evidence pointing to a clear conclusion.
A similar situation is smoking and cancer. Nowadays, no one questions the link between smoking and cancer, because the science was settled in the 1960s after more than 50 years of research. The questions have been asked and answered with indisputable evidence.
We can think of the state of human activities and climate change as no different than smoking and cancer. In fact, we are statistically more confident that humans cause climate change than that smoking causes cancer.
Our confidence comes from the culmination of over a century of research by tens of thousands of scientists at hundreds of institutions in more than a hundred nations.
So what is the evidence?
The research falls into nine independently-studied but physically-related lines of evidence, that build to the overall clear conclusion that humans are the main cause of climate change:
- Simple chemistry that when we burn carbon-based materials, carbon dioxide (CO2) is emitted (research beginning in 1900s)
- Basic accounting of what we burn, and therefore how much CO2 we emit (data collection beginning in 1970s)
- Measuring CO2 in the atmosphere and trapped in ice to find that it is indeed increasing and that the levels are higher than anything we've seen in hundreds of thousands of years (measurements beginning in 1950s)
- Chemical analysis of the atmospheric CO2 that reveals the increase is coming from burning fossil fuels (research beginning in 1950s)
- Basic physics that shows us that CO2 absorbs heat (research beginning in 1820s)
- Monitoring climate conditions to find that recent warming of the Earth is correlated to and follows rising CO2 emissions (research beginning in 1930s)
- Ruling out natural factors that can influence climate like the Sun and ocean cycles (research beginning in 1830s)
- Employing computer models to run experiments of natural vs. human-influenced “simulated Earths” (research beginning in 1960s)
- Consensus among scientists that consider all previous lines of evidence and make their own conclusions (polling beginning in 1990s)
(You can also see these nine lines of evidence illustrated in the graphic below)
Skeptics sometimes point to the last two supporting lines of evidence as weaknesses. They’re not. But even if you choose to doubt them, it is really the first seven that, combined, point to human activities as the only explanation of rising global temperatures since the Industrial Revolution, and the subsequent climate changes (such as ice melt and sea level rise) that have occurred due to this global warming.
The science is settled, and the sooner we accept this, the sooner we can work together towards addressing the problems caused by climate change – and towards a better future for us all.