A group of climate scientists who offered a series of talks throughout the Forgotten Coast last week did not cause a rise in sea levels, or in the temperature of the atmosphere.
Their detailed remarks, however, did lead to a welcome rise in people’s understanding of the often controversial subject matter.
After speaking Friday morning at the library in Port St. Joe and in the afternoon at the Eastpoint Beer Company, the four scientists continued their events in Tallahassee and Wakulla Springs Saturday, and then wrapped up with an appearance at a so-called Climate Fest, which drew more than 100 people to Scipio Creek Pavilion in Apalachicola Sunday afternoon.
With a smoothly run visual presentation handled by Emma Ignaszewski, daughter of Apalachicola artist Jenny Odom, the four scientists offered a clear, not hyper-political, session that made clear the difference between what is so-called “settled science,” meaning the consensus among experts is close to unanimous, and what is regarded as far more uncertain.
Presenters included research scientists Dr. Nadir Jeevanjee, who now works at NOAA’s Geophysical Fluid Dynamics lab at Princeton University; Dr. Jake Seeley, doing post-doctoral work at Harvard University; Dr. Aaron Match, doing post-doc work at New York University; and Nathan Tarshish, a doctoral student at University of California – Berkeley.
The “Climate Up Close” presentation grew out of initial ones conducted in Harrisburg and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
In his intro, Tarshish stressed that this “ragtag band of climate scientists who care passionately about communicating the climate science” had no political or governmental ties, nor any private sector funding.
“We felt the conversation was out of touch with the larger conversation on the airwaves and the kitchen table,” he said. “We wanted a face-to-face, two-way conversation.”
The presentation opened with quotations from Scott Pruitt, who served as director of the Environmental Protection Agency under Pres. Donald Trump; from left-wing politician Sen. Bernie Sanders; and from Jonathan Franzen, a prominent American novelist and essayist.
The scientists then proceeded to find fault with all three of their statements.
What the four men did agree was considered consensus science is that since the dawn of the industrial age, or about the last 150 to 200 years, global temperatures have risen about 2 degrees Fahrenheit, and that the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere steadily increased during that period.
Testing the hypothesis that man-made forces, such as the burning of fossil fuels, are responsible has “built a phenomenally strong consensus among scientists that carbon dioxide is doing the warming,” Tarshish said.
The question of sea level rise, which has risen about eight inches since 1900, has led to the conclusion that about five of those inches are due to the melting of land ice, and the rest from the thermal expansion of water due to greater heat.
But, Match noted, it is important to recognize it is the melting of land ice, and not sea ice in the Arctic, that is leading to this sea level rise.
This rise in global warming has meant more intense heat waves, by on average 2 degrees, and about 7 percent more water vapor in the atmosphere.
“It’s like turning the air into a bigger sponge, which means heavy rainfall has increased,” he said, as has the volume of storm surge, which can expose more properties to flooding.
But whether the number of hurricanes has increased is far less certain. “We can’t actually tell you that,” Match said. “We don’t know how climate change has affected the number of hurricanes.”
In addressing the boundary between that which is settled and that which is uncertain, Seeley said that if the entire planet stopped burning fossil fuels tomorrow, the temperatures would continue to be about 2 degrees higher.
What the Paris climate accords do is try to check that temperature rise at about 4 degrees by reducing unabated emissions.
In both their presentation and in the question-and-answer, the scientists avoided an overly alarmist perspective, stressing that it up to national and international policy-makers to strike a balance between civilization’s need for economic growth and the potential and likely catastrophes that could ensue by turning a blind eye to scientific data.
“It is “exceptionally unlikely that either Greenland or West Antarctic Ice sheets will suffer near-complete disintegration,” they noted. “We also have low confidence that it is possible that permafrost will become a net source of atmospheric greenhouse gasses.
“We’re still in the driver’s seat,” Seeley said. “We have a tremendous amount of power to determine the climate going forward.”
Jeevanjee closed by outlining what the future might hold. He said cumulative emissions are the key to moderating climate change, noting the “huge challenge” of controlling the gigatons of carbon byproducts that have built up over the years.
Fossil fuels amount to about 84 percent of these emissions of carbon dioxide, with land use and other factors accounting for the rest.
He detailed how electricity and heat account for about 41 percent of these emissions, cars and other transportation about 21 percent, manufacturing and construction about 17 percent, and buildings about 7 percent.
Jeevanjee noted there is usually a cost, both in dollars and in climate effects, to all remedies to the problem.
“Science can never tell you what you should do,” he said. “We can show some facts but we don’t have a privileged perspective on what society should do.”