Ky. Voices: Humans contribute to climate change; accept the science to find solutions

July 11, 2012 

A dead tree near the intersection of Shropshire Ave. and Goodloe St. in Lexington, Ky., Friday, July 2, 2012. Arborists say that the drought and heat are having a negative effect on Lexington's trees.


  • About the authors: This commentary was signed by the following University of Kentucky scientists: Paul Vincelli, Department of Plant Pathology; Mary A. Arthur and Thomas G. Barnes, Department of Foresty; Paul M. Bertsch, Tom Mueller and George J. Wagner, Department of Plant and Soil Sciences: Ricardo T. Bessin and Richardo T. Bessin, Department of Entomology: Jeffrey M. Bewley, Department of Animal Sciences; Dewayne L. Ingram, Department of Horticulture, A. Lee Meyer, Department of Agricultural Economics; Joseph L Taraba, Department of Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering: Alice Turkington, Department of Geography.

At issue | July 8 Herald-Leader info-graphic, "Weather going to extremes"

The July 8 issue of the Herald-Leader featured an article on weather extremes, posing the question, "Why is this happening?" Unfortunately, the paper missed a chance to bring clarity to a topic important to all Americans.

Scientific inquiry into human-induced climate change is not new: it actually began in the 19th century. All the questions Americans pose about climate change — for example, whether it is due to natural causes — are the very questions that scientists have studied in varied ways for many decades. The following fundamentals are widely recognized among scientists:

• Atmospheric CO2 and other "greenhouse gases" have increased steadily since the mid-nineteenth century.

• That increase is well-correlated with fossil fuel consumption and changes in land use.

• These trace gases trap increasingly more heat, so Earth's surface, oceans and lower atmosphere are warming.

How do scientists know this? Here is a summary:

• Most importantly, with rare exception, papers published in gold-standard, peer-reviewed journals by recognized experts worldwide consistently recognize and affirm the human role in climate change. What about the very rare papers that raise questions? Typically, they are quickly rebutted for scientific reasons in scientific venues, as is common on scientific topics that are strongly backed by evidence from many studies.

• Multiple surveys of credentialed climate scientists show at least 96-98 percent agreement with these fundamentals.

• The prestigious U.S. National Academy of Sciences has published a position statement affirming the fundamentals of human-induced climate change, as have over 100 other scientific societies, including the academies of all major democracies and the American Meteorological Society.

• NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and 11 other federal departments and agencies have been studying climate change for years, long preceding the current administration. This includes the departments of Defense and Energy.

• An international, interdisciplinary collection of thousands of expert scientists has summarized the evidence for the central role of human activities in causing climate change, in reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

As professors and publishing scientists, we are trained skeptics, and we look for credible evidence that refutes the fundamentals on climate change. However, it simply isn't there. What about all the skeptical "science" on the internet?

Our response is simple: If those authors have the evidence to support what they say, they should submit a manuscript to a credible scientific journal, or present their ideas at a major scientific conference.

Good ideas and data exposed to the "fire" of expert review will either influence practicing scientists or be debunked due to flaws in their arguments.

However, the scientific literature is not where you find these challenges. Instead, they are presented in the media and blogs, where there is no scientific peer review for quality control. Thus, those who question human-induced climate change can influence public opinion, without subjecting their ideas to customary practices of rigorous scientific peer review.

Nobody we know is happy about human-induced climate change. But the science is what it is. This is not to say that the scientific study of human-induced climate change is finished. For example, there is considerable uncertainty about the magnitude and extent of impacts expected from it, which are subjects of ongoing research.

What about this year's mild winter, and recent heat wave and drought? One of the projections of the theory of human-induced climate change is an increasing risk of weather extremes, including droughts, more intense precipitation, extremes of temperatures and even occasionally intense winters.

Certainly, Kentuckians have experienced various weather extremes in recent years. Do we wish to bequeath more such impacts — impacts that affect human health and well-being as well as our economy — to those we love, and to their children and grandchildren?

Unfortunately, our country is highly polarized over climate change. Those of us who accept the mainstream science on climate change share blame for this, as we sometimes talk about it in ways that discourage dialogue and imply disrespect for those with different perspectives.

We must creatively find solutions to this problem, because these impacts will only continue to grow in importance and intensity.

Among the values we Americans share is a desire to pass on a way of life at least as good as what we have enjoyed. We Americans have the ingenuity and determination to tackle tough problems like this. However, solving a problem of this magnitude requires that we acknowledge the problem, and that we respectfully engage in inclusive discussions that welcome all Americans in our search for solutions.

Lexington Herald-Leader is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

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