Beneath the fads, the fashion, the loud headlines, media threats and intimidating claims lies a totally rational story; the bare science of a shifting environment that, once explained, is simply irrefutable. You can be skeptical about going on a blind date or about eating Indian food before said blind date, but you can’t be skeptical about the fact that humankind has and is having a definite and permanent effect on the climate of our planet. That’s naivety at its worst.
In this blog post and the next, we’ll be taking a journey through the fancy terms thrown around by the media and redefine them to yield a totally new and more scientifically accurate understanding. We’ll come to appreciate what’s normal (historically speaking) and what definitely isn’t in terms of climate variability. We’ll also take a closer look at Earth’s atmosphere in order to get a better perspective on how our relentless and ruthless industrial activities are able to cause such significant global-scale changes in weather patterns and climate.
And so, let’s begin…
Weather and Climate: The Difference Between Them And So Help Me If You Don’t Remember This!
You know what sand is, you know what clouds are and you definitely know a week old breakfast burrito when you smell one. We know all of this because we are exposed to it just about every day (maybe not the burrito, but point made). And yet, in spite of the fact that we are directly exposed to weather and climate all the time, very few people actually know the difference between them.
That ignorance ends today!
Weather is the day-to-day expression of the atmosphere as it is experienced on the ground. It’s the warm sun beating down upon the beach, it’s the rain on your parade, it’s the tornado relocating your house and it’s the humidity causing you to sweat like George Bush Junior’s publicity team during a press conference. The weather encompasses a great variety of atmospheric parameters and they include things such as wind speed, wind direction, temperature, humidity and precipitation. All of these come together to either put a skip in your step or to totally ruin your day.
Climate, on the other hand, describes the average weather characteristics of a region over a minimum period of 30 years. Texas is hot and prone to severe thunderstorms in summer; New York is balmy and mostly clear in autumn, Cape Town is pissy and freezing cold in winter and Seattle is just pissy and freezing cold all year round. THAT’S what the climate is.
It makes my eye twitch when I hear people saying: “The climate is great today!”
Imma stab a bitch!
Climate Change Lost In Translation
“Climate Change™” has become celebrity verbiage to such an extent that I felt the need to add capitalize the first letter of each word even though it’s grammatically incorrect to do so. Al Gore has used climate change so much in his political campaigning in the past that he really should have trademarked it. And so, climate change has become so easily tossed about by the media that few people truly understand what it is anymore. It’s almost as though it has become totally divorced from its original and true meaning. The consequence of this and of the sensationalism with which the media presents its information on the science of climate is that the lay man and woman will look outside their window, see an unseasonably cold, wet, hot or windy day, blame it on climate change and become convinced that the end is nigh. You can catch these people on National Geographic Channel’s “Doomsday Preppers.”
Climate change is a complex concept because it pertains to the long-term characteristics of Earth’s atmosphere and the atmosphere is incredibly complex. It consists of several sort-of distinct layers, a multitude of parameters, countless variables and infinite outcomes based upon the precise interaction and behavior of these variables. This is why the weatherman doesn’t always get the forecast spot on: not because he or she is an idiot, but because true accuracy in that job is about as impossible as an adrenalin spike at a dentures convention.
And so, climate change is something that should be treated with great humility and reverence. Even I am reluctant to make any broad or sweeping statements with regards to climate change and I have a Masters Degree in Atmospheric Science.
Now that we know the difference between weather and climate and can appreciate that one day of unseasonable weather doesn’t mean the apocalypse is upon us, we can FINALLY get around to discussing exactly what climate change is. We can also meet its celebrity cousin, global warming, because believe it or not these two are NOT the same thing.
What IS Climate Change?
Climate change is a lasting shift in average global weather patterns and characteristics. This shift is also significant enough for us, our fancy equipment and, of course, Mother Nature to notice it and it usually takes place over a time period of decades to millions of years. What causes the climate of Earth to change?
All sorts of things actually!
Climate change has, historically, been caused by factors that range from variations in solar energy and plate tectonic activity to volcanic eruptions and meteorite strikes. Any one of these can cause local climate to change over varying periods of time. For example, a particularly violent and belchy volcanic eruption can release enough gas, dust and ash into the atmosphere to create gorgeous sunsets halfway around the world and deflect sufficient sunlight to cause very slight global cooling. It might not be much and the degree of cooling may be more isolated to the regions surrounding the eruption, but it is by definition climate change.
Changes in land surface type – what covers the crusty portions of our globe – can also lead to climate change. Dark verdant forests soak up sunshine like the delinquents from Mötley Crüe soaked up Jack Daniels, whereas concrete jungles, with all their reflective shiny surfaces sends sunshine right back where it came from. This changes the heat characteristics of the land, which, in the long term, has an impact on climate. So, climate change, in the traditional sense of the word, refers to any shift in local or global climate and it is caused by a myriad of factors. Climate Change™ on the other hand is believed to be the cause of the anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases.
Wait!! Come back!! I swear I can explain! It’s not as difficult as it sounds!
Greenhouse Gases: Baking the Lower Atmosphere Since, Like, Ever
The word “anthropogenic” quite simply means of human origin or to be generated by human beings. So, anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases would be those generated by human-related activities such as those clearly shown in the above picture.
Now what the hell are greenhouse gases?
Our atmosphere is composed predominantly of nitrogen (78,09%), oxygen (20,95%) and argon (0,93%). The remaining fraction consists of a soup of other trace gases, many of which are “greenhouse gases.” Carbon dioxide and water vapor are two super important ones; methane, sulfur dioxide, ozone and nitrous oxide are others. Molecules of these gases absorb the thermal energy emitted by the sun and they then re-radiate this energy as heat in all directions, including down upon our little heads. The effect this has upon the lower atmosphere is to warm it. This is why it’s referred to as the “greenhouse effect,” since green houses, which aren’t actually green at all, are purposefully built to achieve this same effect and in doing so provide a warmer growing environment for plants and flowers that would otherwise die from the cold.
In the absence of greenhouse gases, sunshine would pass through our atmosphere as per usual, except it would hardly be absorbed by the air at all and as a result, tits would be frozen off around the world. In fact, the greenhouse effect is a vital atmospheric process for life on Earth because without it, the average surface temperature of our planet would plummet by an approximate 30°C or 60°F. So, whatever average temperatures you’re used to in winter, knock off another 30°C or 60°F. You may as well live in Antarctica. Even midday at mid-summer in the tropics would warrant a warm sweater and a scarf. So, greenhouse gases are good! But, too much of a good thing is definitely bad, as tequila repeatedly demonstrates to me every Saturday night.
Thank God for amnesia or else I’d remember not to drink tequila every Saturday night.
Anthropogenic climate change is the change in global weather patterns and characteristics that have arisen as a direct result of human activity: our factories, our refineries, our agriculture, our motor vehicles and more.
Stay Tuned for Part 2
We’re getting there! Now that we understand the terminology and the concepts behind weather, climate, climate change and the greenhouse effect, we’re finally ready to discuss anthropogenic climate change and just why the skeptics out there – the people who tell you it’s all a hoax – are full of the proverbial.