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Opinion

What the Devil won't tell you

UA's latest climate research breakthrough should scare us into action — but will it?

Scientists keep doing their jobs providing us information about the gravity of climate change. But society keeps falling down on the job, from Tucson to Glasgow.

And I'm not just talking about trolls on the Right. Lefties and moderates — ugh, moderates — can't seem to keep their eyes on the rising mercury either.

This much is true: the scientific method doesn't help much in communicating the urgency of, say, Bill Nye's hilarious exasperation on John Oliver's show. I wish scientists could raise the temperature of the discussion, but understand why they refrain. Scientific temperaments don't lend themselves to exasperated rage.

Some in the academy are great communicators. University of Arizona geologist Matt Osman is direct, lays out the evidence and does it with a conversational tone that's easy to understand.

So he makes it sound like a stroll in the desert (not aflame) as he lays out his latest multi-year research. It has yielded a global map that shows climate changes during the last 24,000 years. He and his team used ocean sediments to identify climatic events. Any gaps they might have found were then filled in using a model.

That combination of coring and modeling led to results that matched the best modern climate models. That’s like if you think you found a triangle, you would want it’s area to match one-half its base times the height.

“What we are presenting is a globally complete reconstruction of climate change going back to the last ice age,” Osman said.

This is the first time anyone has been able to capture that kind of worldwide picture going back so far. People can check out this GIF here. and play with the climate. Osman was joined on the project by six other investigators, including the UA Geosciences Prof. Jessica Tierney and researcher Jonathan King. 

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The team deserve medals and Gucci handbags and a private table at Per Se in New York. Issue them concubines and beefcake.

Whatever we do to exult actors, rappers and supermodels we should do for the people who are giving us a proper warning about a shared doom.

Guess what? The climate during the past 24,000 years – since the last ice age – has been steadily warming. There's been debate about that. Now it's settled.

Once people started burning fossil fuel, the rate and magnitude of the warming increased.

And of course – because it’s 2021 and we stopped getting good news a long time ago – the warming during the past decade is unprecedented compared to the any other time in the scope of the study.

Scientists agree on a fact: we face a climate crisis.

However, geologists' “Eurekas” can only do so much. They present the public with information and it’s up to us to act. It’s not their job to tell us to run for your bloody lives or that gas prices are too low (yes, low). It’s their job to explain what’s coming at us. We have to do something about it. We are sucking at it.

The Glasgow Summit (a.k.a., COP 26) largely kicked the can to next year's Egyptian Summit, so maybe COP 27 will do what the previous 26 have not. There's never a COP around when you need one, huh? 

I keep hearing the American people are convinced about climate change. No they're not. If they were convinced, action would have been taken by now. Bill Clinton's BTU tax got gutted in 1993. Cap and trade was a no-go in 2010. Build Back Better hangs from a thread as I write. Republicans' only climate action has been to roll back climate action.

Part of the problem is that we ask more of science than it is capable of, which is another way of saying we are the problem.

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So allow me to do what Osman's team at the UA and three other institutions should not. Give the reader passages to assault and humiliate doubters with. The time for being nice has passed.

One dollar only

Nearly half of Americans don’t think people cause climate change. They think something else is to blame. Osman's team showed the spike in temperature coincides with increased industrialization, which kicks out the green house gas carbon dioxide. 

I’ve heard a lot of JFK conspiracy theories. I’ve never heard one that says “It wasn’t the bullet that killed him. It was probably a heart attack that just so happened to strike at Dealey Plaza.”

But that’s where we remain with the climate crisis.

This is about the Left, too. Don’t just be eye-rolling at the trolls on the Right.

The Associated Press does an annual poll where they ask Americans if climate change is a problem. Yeah, 59 percent say climate change is "very" or "extremely important." Then they are asked, would you be willing to spend a dollar a month to fight it? The number drops to 52 percent.

A buck a month paid by everyone in the U.S., would amount to roughly $4 billion a year.

A bare majority is willing to spend a little less to fight climate change than we spend, as a nation, on whisky.

Americans spend $11 billion on breakfast cereal. Sure climate change is important but brand-name toasted oats are an "I-don't-want-to-hear-about-it" necessity.

Then the poll asks the first money question: Are you willing to spend $10 a month? Aw hellz no! The number swan dives to 35 percent. Biden won with 51 percent. So a good chunk of Biden voters aren’t willing to dish out $10 per month.

Let’s go crazy and tempt the political fates by spending that $10. That $40 billion a year is what Americans spent on video games in 2020 and a little more than half of what we spent on sneakers. Don't get me started on the quarter-trillion the country drops on fizzy drinks.

See, we have a problem there, kiddos. We’re already on the hook for $40 billion a year to fight climate change.

In 1980, the U.S. spent less than a billion dollars on disaster relief and yes, that’s inflation adjusted. Today, it’s $48 billion and that’s just the federal government. State and local governments spend another chunk and the individuals are left with the rest.

Guess which way the arrow is trending? Up, up, up. So we’re going to soon spend $100 billion on disasters but refuse to invest $40 billion to prevent them.

Makes sense.

Gotta check with Barney

No, I'm done worrying about the 20 percent who are loud and proud that they know more than scientists like Osman. The adamantly ignorant are a lost cause.

I’m wondering about the 34 percent who told the AP that scientists only inform their opinions on climate change a little bit.“Yeah, I know what Prof. Osman says, but I have to check the cat memes and my neighbor Barney.”

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Seriously, what the hell are you 34 percent waiting for? Is there a number of studies that will do the trick?

I don’t think the uneducated are stupid and they can still have a world view filtered by their own moral guideposts. What I’m sick to death of is the uneducated believing their refusal to learn anything makes them smarter than the rest of us.

They should all be asked what specifically is wrong with the approach Osman’s team took. Here. He explained it in dumbed-down English:

In general, we used four different climate proxies of ocean surface temperature, each based on the preserved remains of ancient surface-dwelling phytoplankton. Two of the proxies focused on the stable isotopic and elemental chemical composition of calcite "tests" of phytoplankton buried and preserved in marine mud, each of which vary predictably with temperature. The other two proxies use "biomarkers", essentially long-lived phytoplankton "fats" known as lipids whose chemical compositions are also controlled by temperature.

Then they compared that with models generated by the Cheyenne Supercomputer in Wyoming. It fills a small warehouse and runs at 5.32 petaflops.  

What specifically are they skeptical about? Should there have been three proxies? Do they have a particular problem with phytoplankton? Or do they prefer the Roadrunner supercomputer at Los Alamos? That's just a little over one petaflop? Pollsters should ask them what a petaflop is.

I don't know either, but a Mac Book Pro has 102 gigaflops. A gig is a billion. A peta is a quadrillion.

Progressive to a point

And the progressives. Progressives, progressives, progressives. President Joe Bidens’ Build Back Better plan finally deals with the issue. One way it does this is by offering up to $12,500 in incentives to buy an electric car.

But in the version crafted by the U.S. House of Represenatives, the incentive only goes to cars built by organized labor.

We’re only going to save the planet if it’s done by union labor? What the effing, eff, eff, EFF!? Guys, can we have this conversation later? Society needs to get as many people into EV’s as possible and as quickly as possible. 

Get a move on!

And God bless Raul Grijalva for sticking up for indigenous rights and trying to have their voices heard in Glasgow. It would have been a great takedown for COP 11 or COP 20. We no longer have that kind of time. The dam is breaking and the lake behind it is spraying through the cracks. Get in the car and squeal the tires. 

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Got a problem with copper mining and sulfuric acid leaching, environmentalists? Tough. 

The AP poll found that 52 percent of respondents preferred to leave the fight to the free market. It's what we've been doing and it hasn't helped.

Method madness

One problem we are running into when trying to turn science into policy has to do with the method scientists use.

Scientists are investigators. They search for evidence and describe it and limit their conclusions strictly to what the data tells them. They are like cops on a witness stand and don’t do conjecture.

“We are trained to (hear) uncertainty in everything you say,” Osman said.

He’s right. The findings are the findings. Every step down Extrapolation Lane is a step away from the bedrock certainty of the data. They don’t set their hair on fire because they are too busy measuring their words to stick to the evidence. 

We saw it with the coronavirus pandemic.

At first, Dr. Anthony Fauci couldn't tell us to wear masks, if they were basing their advice on data — because the data didn't exist.

Headline writers then typed in: "Fauci: Don’t wear masks."

The evidence then came in showing masks slow the spread of the virus. Fauci could tell us to wear masks.

The headline writers went back to work: "Fauci reverses self on masks."

Then the Barneys of the world concluded nobody knows everything and they are right to be cynical of the entire scientific community, which has been known to change its mind.

When the T-Rex gets feathers, confidence in climate science wanes just a bit more. 

Scientists won't say they know anything until they see the data. That creates a disconnect with people impatient for full answers and resolutions by the "end of the episode."

When Osman researched 24 millennia of data to plot out the history of climate around the world, he should be able to tell us what will happen next, right? 

Osman's data doesn’t say what happens next. But sentient beings should be able to take that information and run with it.

We, as a species seem hell bent on finding excuse after excuse to do nothing until it’s time to move Florida, New York, New Orleans and L.A. inland to parts of the country not immediately burning.

Then we, as a species, can offer our favorite refrain when stuff goes wrong: “Wellll, wee didnnnn’t knowwwww …"

Who could have predicted?

Hey, Osman and company keep trying.

Blake Morlock is an award-winning columnist who worked in daily journalism for nearly 20 years, and a former communications director for the Pima County Democratic Party. Now he’s telling you things that the Devil won’t.


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Jessica Tierney/University of Arizona

UA researchers have produced a complete map showing 24,000 years of climate change. Now, if the people will just start taking it seriously.

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