Neiman: Science is clear and observable

Neiman: Science is clear and observable

It’s the end of 2016, and we still have climate skeptics arguing with the prophets of climate doom about whether the Earth is round. A cluster of articles in recent issues of the good old Red Deer Advocate serve as a timely reminder that we need to look at the larger picture.

Yes, the planet is warming, and yes, the existence of billions of humans has a big part to play in that. Why are we still arguing about the existence of the obvious and observable?

This fall, we were told that the Arctic Ocean was a full two degrees warmer than the long-term average for the date of testing, at the sites where all the tests were being done. At both poles, the ice caps are smaller and thinner than they have ever been since we started measuring them. Closer to the equator, I have been informed that warmer seas have expanded to rise to the point where the storm sewers in Miami may not drain in a heavy rainstorm, if seas rise only a few centimetres more.

Retired science teacher and occasional Advocate letter writer David Mathias claims we are not using the full evidence of science when we document global climate change. He may be right in a narrow sense, but not in the larger one: climate change is accelerating, and humanity has its foot on the pedal.

Advocate columnist Lorne Oja expended a significant amount of personal energy to calculate the amount of heat dumped globally into the atmosphere by one single human activity: driving gasoline-powered cars. He needn’t have bothered, because the science behind his calculations is incomplete.

I was raised as a writer among an extended family of engineers, energy industry technicians, computer geeks and teachers. A left-brain minority of one.

Here’s a bit of what I’ve learned from decades of being corrected at the dinner table by my relatives who knew better: all the energy we produce and consume — every joule, calorie and erg of it — eventually ends up as heat dumped into the atmosphere. All of it.

If our nice warm homes suddenly lose power, if our vehicles stop running during a cold snap, what happens? They freeze. Where does the heat go? Into the air.

We don’t need to calculate the efficiency of a gas-powered car. That’s because even the small portion of energy used to turn the wheels is returned to the universe as heat when the car slows down or stops.

The only heat loss from the energy contained in fuel would occur if every car on Earth were to be driven to the top of a mountain and abandoned. If thieves broke into them and drove them down again, the universe would regain that energy as heat.

The law of conservation of energy is taught by high school science teachers like Mr. Mathias all over the world. It’s why satellites burn up when they fall out of orbit. The universe wants its energy back. All of it.

So let’s get past the obvious, and accept that our planet is warming, and is warming an at ever-faster rate. The real discussion should be what do we do about it, before the fields and wells dry up, and superstorms blast us in ways we’ve never seen before. And before so many of the living things we share the planet with become extinct.

Letter writer Ilse Quick observes a decline in activity at her bird feeder, and wonders about the cause. So do a lot of people.

I’ve grilled every biologist I know (I do happen to know a few) about the effects of Red Deerians for example, setting out several train carloads a year of seeds and suet in bird feeders. How does that affect winter survival rates, and subsequent summer success at raising the next generation of local birds?

To my surprise, it appears nobody has ever studied that. But I would hazard a thesis that mass feeding of birds through the winter has a lower positive effect on populations than that of habitat loss resulting from just all of us being here.

I say we owe them a few meals.

And the science all around us suggests that if we are to avoid the mass extinctions accelerating around climate change, we owe it the world to stop arguing about the cause.

It just makes observable sense to drive as little as possible, light and heat our buildings as efficiently as possible, lower the thermostats and dress for the weather. And put more resources into ways to use fossil fuels more wisely.

Winter is ending.

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