The basic scientific concept behind global warming has been around for about 130 years. Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius predicted the potential for the emission of carbon dioxide to warm the earth in the 1890's. In the intervening years, scientists have come to understand that a complicated set of connected processes tie the atmosphere to changing conditions on the land and in the oceans. Over the past several decades, the global scientific community has been able to harness the incredible growth in the power of computers to gain a far better understanding of that complexity. One unwelcome conclusion is the certain recognition that the planet is warming due to increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere - primarily driven by human activity. This is how scientist James Hansen describes where we've been and where we're headed.
The main driver of global warming is burning fossil fuels for energy – in power plants, in heating systems, in cars, and everywhere else fuel is consumed. People have very effectively learned how to harness the energy held within fossil fuels, and society has put that knowledge to very good use. But, we now know that we consume fossil fuels at an unsustainable rate. While so far the developed countries have been the major source of greenhouse gases, many developing economies are on the precipice of unsustainable emissions. Right behind will be the more than 1 billion people who don't yet have access to reliable, cheap energy.
Bill McKibben has been writing powerful pieces on global warming and the environment for decades. If you haven't already read his thoughts on global warming's "new math", pour yourself a cup of coffee and find a quiet spot to read this July 2012 article. It's a sobering distillation of the science into a few powerful numbers. The math is simple and the message is clear.
If other voices are not enough to convince you, take a look at what the US Department of Defense has to say about global warming.
A central idea within the community of people who think the concerns about global warming are overblown is that there's some sort of orchestrated effort to push bad science for one reason or another. Recognizing that scientists are highly trained to be professional skeptics, and that the most successful and respected scientists are innately driven to poke and prod new data and new ideas relentlessly, the simpler (and far more likely) answer is that a scientific consensus has emerged because the core scientific arguments are very solid and very strong. It's not any more complicated than that. On-going analysis of the modeling only serves to validate that the main conclusions are right.
That same scientific process has driven the stunning acceleration of technology and medicine over the past 150 years – the engine of innovation that has created economic growth and solved problems that plagued humankind. It's the same reason why we can buy things like mobile phones (unheard of just 20 years ago), or why we act immediately if a doctor tells us we might have a life-threatening cancer. These things all have roots in robust and vigorous debates within the scientific community that occurred as the underlying science evolved – debates that ended when the majority of scientists who worked in those areas realized that the big questions were answered, and the core ideas were settled. At that point, a different group of people moved these new ideas forward. Engineers learned how to take theories about radio waves and electronics and turn that knowledge into the smartphones billions of people now carry in their pockets. Doctors and companies took the work of the early cancer pioneers and fine tuned that knowledge into highly effective cancer fighting therapies. If these people waited to have perfect certainty, nothing would have happened. We wouldn't have cell phones and the mortality rate of cancer patients would still be brutally high. We'd still be debating the science.
The global discussion about global warming is not the result of an impossibly complex global conspiracy – it stems from a data-driven, widely held, well-founded concern within the scientific community that humanity is very likely to be headed down an extremely dangerous path. The central driver of the problem is the rate at which we are consuming fossil fuels. The science is telling us that at least 80% of the fossil fuel reserves in the ground need to stay there. (To say nothing of the reserves that have been categorized by the fossil fuel companies as “unproven”, or the deposits that have yet to be discovered.)
A quote from David McCullough in his book “The Johnstown Flood” (about a different kind of environmental disaster in a different time) sums up our challenge:
“… if man, for any reason, drastically alters the natural order, setting in motion whole series of chain reactions, then he had better know what he is doing.”
The science is telling us that we are drastically altering the natural order of the climate. And, the global scientific community has come to the conclusion that in all likelihood a status quo approach to the energy economy is a global disaster. Again, it is not any more complicated than that.
So, what can a single individual do about such a gigantic problem? The answer is - quite a bit. Action at the individual level matters now more than ever.
In addition to changing how we each use energy and reducing our personal carbon footprints, we can withdraw our financial support of the traditional energy industry. By removing that support, we add our voices to the growing number of people who want to see dramatic changes to the global energy economy. We can move our investments into the new clean energy economy - supporting its growth while benefiting from the inextricable connection between energy and the advancement of society.