Some of the messages about carbon dioxide and climate change may have been a bit “cloudy” in the Presidential debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden. This article is intended to clear the air. After reading transcripts of some of the things said during the debate, I immediately recognized that a non-science attentive person may walk away confused or misled. Here is a post-debate related check on some of the climate topics discussed.
Before I go there, let’s step back for a quick “101” because you would be surprised at how many people don’t know why we are able to live comfortably, temperature-wise, on Earth. They see this big bright object in the sky and conclude it is as simple as that. It is also why you see incredibly inaccurate assumptions about solar activity and climate change. I have debunked the “It’s solar activity” myth in a previous Forbes article. Our Earth’s atmosphere exhibits a Greenhouse Effect. While the most abundant gases (oxygen and nitrogen) have no warming effect, a relatively tiny amount of gases that make up around 0.43% of the atmospheric constituency enables our existence on Earth by absorbing and emission of infrared energy (not the visible or shortwave energy that comes from the sun). The greenhouse gases (GHGs) include: water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and sulfur hexaflouride.
(By the way, do not be fooled by naysayers that try to argue that water vapor is just as important as carbon dioxide. It’s not and my debunk of that myth is also available.)
While methane and carbon dioxide are strongly related to burning of fossil fuels and other anthropogenic activity, carbon dioxide is more abundant. Methane is more effective as a Greenhouse gas, but carbon dioxide receives much of the focus because of its relative abundance. The Paris Agreement, which the U.S. announced that it was leaving, seeks to limit global temperature rise below 1.5-2.0 degrees Celsius, in part through GHG emissions reductions. Unfortunately, a recent World Meteorological Organization report suggests that we are within 5 to 10 years of possibly experiencing 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees F) of warming. While that may not sound like a lot, imagine a 2.7 degrees F increase in your body temperature. Your body responds to that magnitude in several ways and so does the Earth system.
Now, let’s circle back to the Presidential debate and clear the air on some of the climate-related topics that emerged.
- Globally, carbon dioxide levels continue to climb dramatically (see 1st graphic in the article). Global values are over 400 parts per million (ppm) now. By contrast, the graphic below shows global values over the past 400,000 years and before human activity. The post-industrial revolution spike dominates the natural cycle. By the way, past data is acquired using ice core samples.
- There has been an increase in carbon dioxide since 2016 in the U.S., but levels did decline from a significant spike in 2018, according to Politifact.com. The Center for Climate and Energy Solutions reveals that U.S. carbon emissions increased by 1.3 percent from 1990 to 2017, but started decline after 2007. Their website attributes the decline to “a range of market- and policy-related factors” prior to 2016.
- Global carbon dioxide emissions temporarily declined globally due to COVID-19 pandemic restrictions. However, they are creeping back up as activities normalize around the world. While the brief decline from the pandemic will not influence the broader climate crisis, it does provide a clear signal to climate contrarians that human activity affects carbon dioxide in our atmosphere.
- By metrics used by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. air is likely the cleanest on record. This is mostly due to the long-standing Clean Air Acts that have been on the books since the 1970s and amended in the 1990s. Clean air is not something that appears (”poof”) out of thin air. These Acts along with environmental regulations have been a long-haul boon for our clean air. It is worth noting that dangerous small particulates show very little decline since 2016, and recent wildfire activity has further degraded air quality.
- Speaking of wildfires, the idea that land or forest management alone is the only problem in the West is misleading. While it is accurate to say that it is a part of the challenge for sure, climate related factors are present and must not be lost in the “smoke and mirrors” of politics.
- The Green New Deal is a dramatic proposal to move the U.S. towards a renewable energy economy while also considering social and economic disparities. It has its “pros” and “cons” but is a part of the policy discussion, like it or not.
The only way we get out of the climate crisis is compromise and action. Digging in on denial or inaction is to our own detriment. I am, however, pleased that climate was actually mentioned in a Presidential debate. That, in itself, is progress.