Rick Santorum’s naïve climate change denial

The FactCheck Wire posted an article entitled “Santorum’s Science” on Mar. 14 in which the author challenges U.S. Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum’s statement that global warming is a “hoax.” In the same week news was also spread that HadCRUT, a record of global temperatures stretching back into the mid 19th century, has updated its warming data and now shows that 2010 has topped 1998 as the hottest year on Earth that we have measured.

As peer-reviewed climate science data continues to pour in, with an overwhelming consensus that humans have made a real impact on the global environment, mainstream media coverage and public consciousness has lagged behind in the U.S. particularly, as well as many other countries in the post-industrial world. According to a study done by the Pew Research Center, the percentage of Americans who believe there is “no solid evidence” of anthropogenic climate change has grown from 17 in 2006 to 28 in 2011.

Yet, Santorum’s remarks to questions about policy regarding increasing CO2 levels were, “Tell that to a plant, how dangerous carbon dioxide is.” Moving past the fact that human exposure to extremely high levels of CO2 can cause headaches, dizziness and even lead to convulsions or coma, a 2008 study conducted at the University of Illinois suggests that even plants do not like too much carbon dioxide.

The research showed that less organic matter was yielded in soil where plants were exposed to high CO2 levels and may also limit their capability to cool the air. This was supplemented with studies at the Carnegie Institution for Science on the pores that are used for photosynthesis, the stomata, which are also used in a process called evapotranspiration.

In the same way that perspiration cools our bodies, the stomata provide a natural air conditioner for a tree and can release gallons of water on a hot day. High carbon dioxide levels would effectively decrease the tree’s ability to cool the air because the pores would shrink.

But this is not the crux of the global warming problem. The issue concerns solar radiation, of which about two thirds is absorbed by the Earth with the rest being reflected into space by the atmosphere. The radiation that is absorbed is re-emitted from the surface, but with the sponge-like atmosphere saturated in carbon dioxide this radiation is trapped on Earth.

We must also remember that around 70 per cent of the planet is covered with oceans. Santorum, and people of similar doubts, may be finding the fuel for their skepticism by not acknowledging findings like the Fourth Assessment Report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 2007 which show that more than 80 per cent of the added heat to the world has been absorbed by its waters. Seawater expands as a result of ocean warming and this contributes to land-based ice sheets like Antarctica and Greenland melting and sea levels rising, like we saw them do between 1993 and 2003.

Still, there is a real issue when potential world leaders accuse climate science of being “bogus” and inconclusive on the matter of “man-made” effects. The hard reality is that 97 to 98 per cent of actively publishing climate researchers, based on a dataset of 1,372, agreed with the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report, according to the National Academy of Sciences in 2010.

Furthermore, the fourth IPCC report is the largest and most detailed climate inquiry ever produced, drawing from authors and editors from around the planet and citing thousands of peer-reviewed scientific studies. So, its conclusion that fossil fuel use is the primary source of increased carbon dioxide levels should not be taken lightly.

Essentially, we should now know that mid-20th century global average temperature increases were tied to observed concentrations of greenhouse gases, caused by humans.

Obviously we cannot completely abolish fossil fuel use because that would cripple our economy. But many believe that to avoid a tipping point in warming, whereby its effects on our climate is irreversible, we must stabilize carbon dioxide levels at 350 ppm. This fact must be more present on the political agenda and its suppression in debate thus far has allowed for the spread of cynicism and apathy.

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