Are attitudes shifting on global warming?

With the unfortunate damage caused by Hurricane Sandy, the issue of global warming is front and center again in the public discourse. And, after years where climate science deniers have tried to shift the public debate, the hurricane has provided a vivid example of the challenges we face as a result of global warming. Of course you can’t tie one storm to this phenomenon, but rising sea levels certainly added to the destruction as we saw massive flooding in New York and New Jersey. The general connection is logical, and the public is now paying attention again. As the Earth gets warmer, the polar ice caps are melting, and sea levels are rising. With that, the chance of flooding increases dramatically.

With the latest election, exit polls showed that 68% of Americans listed climate change as a serious problem. This represents a pretty big shift, though we’ll have to see if this holds as the storm is fresh in everyone’s mind right now. It will probably remain in the news, however, as rebuilding in New York and New Jersey will be a big story, along with the fight for Federal funds to pay for it.

Here are some more reactions.

An unscientific survey of the social networking literature on Sandy reveals an illuminating tweet (you read that correctly) from Jonathan Foley, director of the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota. On Oct. 29, Foley thumbed thusly: “Would this kind of storm happen without climate change? Yes. Fueled by many factors. Is storm stronger because of climate change? Yes.” Eric Pooley, senior vice president of the Environmental Defense Fund (and former deputy editor of Bloomberg Businessweek), offers a baseball analogy: “We can’t say that steroids caused any one home run by Barry Bonds, but steroids sure helped him hit more and hit them farther. Now we have weather on steroids.”

In an Oct. 30 blog post, Mark Fischetti of Scientific American took a spin through Ph.D.-land and found more and more credentialed experts willing to shrug off the climate caveats. The broadening consensus: “Climate change amps up other basic factors that contribute to big storms. For example, the oceans have warmed, providing more energy for storms. And the Earth’s atmosphere has warmed, so it retains more moisture, which is drawn into storms and is then dumped on us.” Even those of us who are science-phobic can get the gist of that.

This will have an impact on our politics.

Mitt Romney flip flops on global warming

Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney speaks at a town hall meeting campaign stop in Manchester, New Hampshire October 28, 2011. REUTERS/Brian Snyder (UNITED STATES – Tags: POLITICS ELECTIONS)

Mitt Romney is well-known as someone who will shamelessly change his position for political expediency, and now he’s applying his famous mental gymnastics to the issue of global warming.

The details are here, but basically he’s realizing that his rational statement on climate change in the past are not doing him any good in a GOP primary dominated by voters who hate science.

Blow to climate change deniers

This is pretty interesting, as all of the global warming skeptics will now have to face this study from a former skeptic.

Climate change deniers thought they had an ally in Richard Muller, a popular physics professor at UC Berkeley.

Muller didn’t reject climate science per se, but he was a skeptic, and a convenient one for big polluters and conservative anti-environmentalists — until Muller put their money where his mouth was, and launched the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature project, in part with a grant from the Charles G. Koch foundation.

After extensive study, he’s concluded that the existing science was right all along — that the earth’s surface is warming, at an accelerating rate. But instead of second-guessing themselves, his erstwhile allies of convenience are now abandoning him.

“When we began our study, we felt that skeptics had raised legitimate issues, and we didn’t know what we’d find,” Muller wrote in a Friday Wall Street Journal op-ed. “Our results turned out to be close to those published by prior groups. We think that means that those groups had truly been very careful in their work, despite their inability to convince some skeptics of that. They managed to avoid bias in their data selection, homogenization and other corrections. Global warming is real. Perhaps our results will help cool this portion of the climate debate.”

This does not speak to the issue of whether humans are causing the warming, but it’s another persuasive set of data on this issue of warming itself.

Fact check on global warming and scientific consensus

A number of politicians, particularly many Republicans, are questioning whether global warming is being caused by human activity. Some are now claiming that scientists are split on the issue. Politifact decided to check up on these ridiculous claims:

To begin with, a 2007 report from the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the world’s leading international scientific body on climate science, states: “Most of the observed increase in global average temperatures since the mid-20th century is very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic greenhouse gas concentrations. The observed widespread warming of the atmosphere and ocean, together with ice mass loss, support the conclusion that it is extremely unlikely that global climate change of the past 50 years can be explained without external forcing, and very likely that it is not due to known natural causes alone.” (External forcing refers to anything that changes the climate that is outside of the normal climate system.)

A 2009 report from the U.S. Global Change Research Programreached a similar conclusion: “Observations show that warming of the climate is unequivocal. The global warming observed over the past 50 years is due primarily to human-induced emissions of heat-trapping gases. These emissions come mainly from the burning of fossil fuels (coal, oil, and gas), with important contributions from the clearing of forests, agricultural practices, and other activities.”

Current climate change research was reviewed again this year by the National Research Council and the National Academy of Sciences. The committee it assembled concluded that global warming poses significant risksand is happening primarily because of greenhouse gas emissions from human activities. It rejected the idea that those findings are in any way questionable.

“Although the scientific process is always open to new ideas and results, the fundamental causes and consequences of climate change have been established by many years of scientific research, are supported by many different lines of evidence, and have stood firm in the face of careful examination, repeated testing, and the rigorous evaluation of alternative theories and explanations,” the committee’s report said.

The scientific consensus on global warming is clear.

Venture capital starting to look at sustainable agriculture

This is a very encouraging story. Serious early-stage investors are taking a close look at what many are calling Agriculture 2.0. Trends like urban farming have tremendous potential, and innovative trends like that can accelerate with the backing of Silicon Valley.

“Sustainable agriculture is a space that looks as big or bigger than clean tech,” said Paul Matteucci, a venture capitalist with U.S. Venture Partners in Menlo Park, Calif. “Historically, we have not seen a ton of entrepreneurial activity in agriculture, but we are beginning to see it now, and the opportunities are huge.”

A catch-all phrase for environmentally beneficial farming, sustainable agriculture has long been the province of organic enthusiasts. But venture capitalists say a growing awareness of conventional agriculture’s contribution to climate change and concerns over its consumption of water and energy are creating markets for technological innovation to minimize those effects.

The Johnny Appleseed of what is being called Agriculture 2.0 is a 33-year-old former Wall Street investment banker named Janine Yorio. Her New York firm, NewSeed Advisors, brings together sustainable agriculture entrepreneurs and investors.

At the Four Seasons hotel in East Palo Alto, Calif., last month, NewSeed Advisors attracted a crowd of well-dressed investors from some of Silicon Valley’s top venture capital firms. They packed a ballroom to hear entrepreneurs pitch start-ups developing everything from nontoxic pesticides and analytical tools for soil analysis to indoor urban farming systems.

I think the urban farming trend in particular has huge potential, particularly in Rust Belt cities like Detroit and Cleveland.

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