Sunspots or Blindspots? Just Another Poor Excuse for Climate Denial

This blog was written by Jennifer Rennicks, former Senior Director of Policy & Communications at the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.

Guest Blog | June 27, 2011 | Climate Change

Just last week we blogged about the climate of denial – how the media, politicians and executives with a vested interest in our energy status-quo have effectively confused and even halted the debate on climate change, diverting our society and our economy from moving toward the solutions we need.

So perhaps it’s not that remarkable there are some who still question whether the Earth’s climate is changing. They might point to an extreme cold spell and scoff that “global warming” couldn’t be real when it’s that cold in the Southeast. Nevertheless, data from a range of sources, from government analysis to academic research, indicate a distinct warming trend, such as can be observed in this graph of four different data sets.  Just as alarming are recent satellite data (right) that show temperature anomalies (colder than normal, warmer than normal) likely due to a negative Arctic Oscillation causing cold air to shift from the Arctic allowing warmer air to move northwards.

Another issue some question is whether humans are burning enough carbon dioxide (CO2) releasing fossil fuels to actually ‘force’ (cause) this observed warming. This recent peer-reviewed study indicates that CO2 levels are higher than they’ve been for at least 15 million years, disrupting the flux of the Earth’s carbon release and sink mechanisms. A brand new study from Penn State offers evidence that high CO2 levels 55 million years ago – levels that were one-tenth the rate of fossil-fuel combustion occurring today – lead to a period of elevated global temperatures and widespread extinctions. These and other studies present solid evidence that human activities are impacting global temperatures beyond the range of normal climatic variability.

However, a recent article in the LA Times may start skeptics buzzing again as the lead declares we could be entering a “stretch of reduced solar activity… and a previous period coincided with the so-called Little Ice Age.” It’s not until the final paragraph  where you learn the researchers note there is not enough evidence to understand what, if any, effect fewer sunspots could have on our climate.

The previous ‘prolonged quiet period’ of sunspot activity, known as the Maunder Minimum after the astronomer who observed the trend, did in fact coincide with 75 years of lower-than-average temperatures in Europe and other parts of the globe. However, evidence that links fewer observed sunspots with those lower temperatures is limited.

Could a new period of decreased solar activity – specifically sunspots – result in lower Earth temperatures? Anything’s possible and future observations may provide conclusive answers. However, for 35 years the sun has shown a slight cooling trend even as global temperatures have steadily risen – graphically depicted by the red and blue lines moving away from each other. But more importantly, none of this new research or any of these proposed theories challenge or undermine the fact that we are still pumping millions of tons of heat-trapping emissions into our atmosphere each day. This pollution is beginning to impact the oceans and the land in exactly the ways that scientists have long-projected: warming temperatures, intense storms, severe flooding, pro-longed droughts and other climatic shifts.

Too many skeptics base their denial of climate change not on science, but on their fear that a paradigm shift of human behavior is necessary to slow the changing climate. A new report from the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication gives me real hope that (1) people believe change may not be as difficult as some suggest and (2) that the vast majority of the public are ready to address climate change. “Public Support for Climate & Energy Policies in May 2011” found that 71% of those surveyed believe that global warming should be a priority for our country and an overwhelming majority (91%) support a transition away from fossil fuels to the clean, renewable alternatives and efficiency measures we already have at our disposal. If the majority of the public agrees that we can make this change, and the majority of climate scientists agree that burning fossil fuels is contributing to a changing climate, then there are truly no more excuses for delay. Use SACE’s AdvoKit to speak out to the media, your neighbors and your elected leaders and show that you stand with the 91% polled who think its time for a change.

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