Sunday, December 13, 2009

Skeptics Spin Doubt, Scientists Study Data

My foot doctor suggested I participate in an experiment that might help relieve my heel pain. He thought my scientific background would lead me to appreciate the opportunity. What it caused me to do was get a second opinion, and politely decline. You see, experiments often do not turn out as hoped. From the scientific standpoint, unexpected, even undesired results increase our knowledge, always a good thing. But it was my foot and my mobility, and I was not interested in taking chances on losing many years of hiking through wonderful woods with my lovely wife.

We are conducting a giant experiment on this planet today. And undoubtedly we will learn much whichever way that experiment turns out. But Earth is, after all, our only home. No other planet helps us grow food, find clean water, or breathe oxygen. We may not be close to losing Earth's life-supporting environment, but the great climate change experiment might not turn out as anyone expects. That's the tricky thing about experiments.

While skeptics spin their tales of doubt, scientists continue to decipher the atmosphere's riddles. The scientists' goal is understanding. The skeptics' goal is uncertainty. Whom would you trust to advise you on the health of your planet?

Recent spins point to temperature data that, if you turn sideways and peer through one eye from an obtuse angle, could look like a global temperature decrease over the past several years. A temperature decrease does not fit with global warming does it? Trouble is, if you turn the other way, peer through the other eye, the decrease goes away (see S. Borenstein, News and Observer, 10/27).

While those profiting from our current energy dependence on fossil fuels would be happy to keep us confused just enough to maintain the status quo a while longer, there exists a host of data that clears away the confusion. This data focuses on the responses of plants and animals involved in this giant experiment.

Ecologists call these plants and animals bioindicators, species whose presence or absence indicates the quality of the environment. The valuable thing about bioindicators is that they give a much better reading of environmental quality than a hundred or a thousand or a million thermometers. Those thermometers can only tell us the temperature at specific locations and specific times. The plants and animals live across an entire range of the environment 24-7. If you want to know what's happening to climate, ask the plants and wildlife.

Scientists have been doing that for years. Skeptics have not thought of that yet. They are too busy talking to you and me and bunches of important folks in Congress.

Birds arrive at their usual time in the spring, but their food source has already come and gone. Trees drop leaves earlier than usual, or their flowers open up weeks earlier than before. Rosenzweig et al. (see Nature magazine, May 15, 2008, Vol.453, pages 353-358) reviewed changes in the observed timing of various life cycle stages over the past 34 years in species ranging from weeds to trees and from molluscs to mammals. They found that 90% of 28,800 measured shifts in timing matched what would be expected if the climate was warming. It appears that plants and animals have not been swayed by the skeptics, and have reached a broad consensus on climate change.

It is time to listen to these plants and animals and the scientists studying climate change instead of to self-appointed critics quick to highlight any detail that might support their case. Time to decide if using Earth in a big experiment is good for our long-term health.

It cannot happen soon enough. The world is meeting in Copenhagen to take the next critical steps tackling climate change. Without firm commitments from both the President and Congress of the United States to lead in solving a problem we did more than our fair share to create, the developing countries of the world can hardly be expected to do their crucial part.

If ever you wanted to help protect this one planet you call home, now is the time, and the U.S. Senate is the place. Sit back and watch the experiment unfold, or step up and do something for the future health of Earth, and everyone who lives on it or will. Contact your Senator, indeed every Senator not sure of the science and let them know that the plants and animals on the planet do not doubt the evidence of global warming. Giant unplanned experiments on the only planet we know of that supports life might not be a good idea.

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