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A simple experiment for climate change skeptics- slightly geeky

Digby linked to a post about climate change skeptics on the Republican side of the fence.  It seems that many right wing politicians were onboard with the idea that human activity was contributing to climate change but now, er, they’re not:

In his first week of campaigning for president, Texas Gov. Rick Perry said that climate change was a theory that “still has not been proven” and was driven in part by a “substantial number of scientists who have manipulated data” to secure research grants. In his book Fed Up! he dismissed climate science as a “contrived phony mess that is falling apart.”

Mitt Romney, who as governor tasked the Massachusetts Environmental Protection Division with creating a policy to fight climate change, has now walked back his pronouncements that human activity causes global warming.

Newt Gingrich, who in 2009 recorded an ad with then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi calling on Congress to take action on climate change, recently called that ad “the dumbest single thing I’ve done in recent years.” Jon Huntsman, the one Republican presidential candidate who stands by views that climate change is real and caused by humans, is reaping support from about 1 percent of GOP primary voters.

Despite the rhetoric on the campaign trail, a quiet but significant number of prominent Republican politicians and strategists accept the science of climate change and fear that rejecting it could not only tar the party as “antiscience” but also drive away the independent voters who are key to winning general elections. “There’s a pretty good-sized chunk of the Republican caucus that believes that global warming is happening, and it’s caused at least in part by mankind,” said Mike McKenna, a strategist with close ties to the GOP’s leadership. “You can tell these guys are uncomfortable when you start to talk about science.”

As recently as the last presidential election, the debate in Republican circles was far different. John McCain’s 2008 campaign ads promised that as president, he would tackle climate change. Not only that, but McCain was a lead sponsor of the first major Senate cap-and-trade bill in 2003. In a 2008 interview with ABC’s Charles Gibson, Sarah Palin asserted that climate change was affecting Alaska, and in the vice presidential debate she said she would support a cap on carbon emissions. In January 2008, then-Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who was head of the National Governors Association, recorded a radio ad with Democrat Janet Napolitano, then Arizona governor, urging Congress to act. “Come on, Congress: Let’s get moving.… Cap greenhouse-gas pollution now,” Pawlenty urged.

Note that I said “contributing”.  The earth goes through periodic phases of heating and cooling which have nothing to do with human activity and any study of climate has to take this periodicity into account.  The last thing we want is a lot of breathlessly hysterical crunchy granola types shrieking about how evil humans are when the evidence shows that it’s just nature doing its thing again.  Come to think of it, don’t hysterical crunchy granola types shrieking about the end of the world caused by evil human activity sound a bit like flaky apocalyptic nutcase “christians” shrieking about how the liberated wimmin and The Gays are going to make this “system of things” so bad that Jesus will have to come back and smite us all?  Something to think about in your free time.

Anyway, the geeky side of me eschews (another word I’ve been dying to use), eschews both the deniers and the Gore disciples.  I want to know, excluding all other possible explanations for the melting of the ice caps, is it possible that the gradual heating up of the atmosphere through the burning of fossil fuel has the capacity to significantly impact the climate of the planet?  I am not a climate specialist but there are some things I would have to take into consideration: the change in temperature over time of ocean water, the change in concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere over time, the volume of ice formation in the arctic regions, the heat capacity of water, the change in amount of fuel consumed over time, etc. Then we have to ask if our sample size is big enough.  Have we collected enough data points over a sufficiently long period of time?  Since we weren’t around over the past couple thousand years of human civilization, what other means do we have to measure the temperature of the planet over that period of time?  Collect this data, make your correlations and see if it makes any sense.  Apparently, the verdict is in and human activity is having a significant impact on climate.

OK, but some people still don’t understand how significant and serious this is.  In fact, I’m not actually sure how serious it is yet either.  As a chemist, it would be like looking at a melting point.  How far along are we in the melting point stage?  Is the sample starting to sweat?  Is it starting to glisten and look more crystalline?  Are we starting to see real liquification?  Is it too late to turn off the heating apparatus to let things cool down?

Maybe this video will give a better idea of what might be happening.  It’s about how to take a melting point in organic chemistry lab.  Now, why should you care about this?  No reason in particular.  A melting point is a physical property of the compound being measured.  Everything melts at one particular temperature.  Here’s how we take a melting point: we tap a small amount of sample compound into a capillary tube.  We insert the tube into an apparatus that will gradually and linearly increase the temperature of compound in the tube.  We record when the compound starts and finishes melting.  You would think that melting would be as gradual and smooth as the increase in temperature.  But you would be wrong.  This video shows you what happens to just about every compound.

Ok, isn’t that cool?  Er, hot? Nothing happens for awhile.  It looks very gradual at first and then, VOOM!, everything turns liquid almost at once.  Note that when the compound first starts to sweat, the instruction is to back off on heating it so fast.  That is, you can reduce the rate of temperature increase but the sucker is still going to melt.  It’s just easier to get an accurate measurement.

We can observe localized melting points of water.  But what is that like on a global scale?  The temperature of the globe is not uniform everywhere.  But what if it were uniformly elevated everywhere gradually over time?  At what temperature do we pass the point of no return even if we back off on heating it so fast?  Something to think about.  If I were an observer from space watching this happen, I might be fascinated.  As a person trapped here on the sample for the rest of my life, I’m considerably less fascinated.

And then you have to wonder, the politicians who are flip-flopping on this issue, why are they doing it?  If global warming is real and there is a point of no return that we have not firmly established yet, who benefits from pretending that burning fossil fuel isn’t really harming anyone?

Just askin’.

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