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Rethinking the Impact of Global Climate Change: Challenge Your Assumptions

The release of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report on 9 August should cause many of us to rethink some of our key assumptions. Some common beliefs about climate change include: Our primary need is to reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions; ice and snow will cover the Arctic for decades; and the Gulf Stream will always warm the European continent. Each of these statements is based on a key assumption that could prove to be wrong—and probably sooner than you think. Below, I will show you how to use research to challenge your assumptions, using these climate change examples.

  1. Concern over CO2 may be eclipsed by concern over methane.

The climate report cited above calls for slashing CO2 emissions but notes that methane—another invisible, odorless gas—has 80 times more warming power over the near term than CO2. The concentration of methane in the atmosphere is higher than any time in the last 800,000 years. In an interview given to CNN, a lead author of the climate report, Charles Koven, said the fastest way to mitigate the impact of climate change is by reducing methane.

Most of the methane that is pumped into the atmosphere comes from landfills, livestock, and the oil and gas industry. In the United States, 28 percent of the emissions come from livestock and 41 percent from the oil and gas industry. According to the US Energy Information Administration, methane is leaking from millions of abandoned oil and gas wells, two million miles of gas pipelines, and thousands of active gas wells and refineries that process the gas. The International Energy Agency estimates that the oil and gas industry could reduce emissions by 75 percent using existing technology.

  1. Ice and snow are disappearing in the Arctic and Greenland at unforeseen, accelerating rates.

The Arctic is warming two to three times more quickly than the global average. In June 2020, the temperature in a Siberian town soared to 100oF, the hottest temperature recorded in the Arctic. Scientists project that the North Pole will see completely ice-free summers by 2030.

Source: National Snow and Ice Data Center 

Click here to watch a video from NASA: Annual Artic Sea Ice Minimum 1979-2020 with area graph

According to a recent British research report, Arctic ice is thinning 70 to 100 times faster than previously thought. As the ice thins, it reflects less sunlight, increasing the warming of the ice and water below it, generating a vicious feedback loop. From 1979 to 2021, the linear rate of decline for July sea ice extent is 7.5 percent per decade. The loss of sea ice since 1979 is equivalent to about ten times the size of the state of Arizona.

The Guardian has reported that the Greenland icecap is melting so rapidly that in just one day in early August temperatures rose to a record 68oF, flowing enough water into the Atlantic Ocean to cover the entirety of Florida in two inches of water. In 2019, ice loss was running at a rate of one million tons per minute, and melting is accelerating. Taking a long view, the Washington Post reports that Greenland could lose 35,900 billion tons of ice by 2100, raising sea levels three feet.

3.  A collapse of the Gulf Stream could put Europe in the icebox.

Most of us are familiar with the Gulf Stream (which is part of the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation-AMOC) that transports warm, salty water from the tropics to northern Europe and then sends colder water south along the ocean floor. As a result of this circulation, Europeans enjoy considerably warmer weather.

A mounting concern is that increasing sea temperatures combined with the onslaught of fresh water from Greenland could disrupt ocean temperatures and salinity gradients, causing the AMOC to shut down. Recent research shows that the feedback loops that keep the AMOC churning are in decline and eight indirect measures of the circulation’s strength have become increasingly unstable.

The circulation appears to be reaching a tipping point. If it crosses that line and the AMOC shuts down, much of Europe and parts of North America will experience extreme cold. This change and other likely disruptions will be irreversible.

Predictions about the future are usually derived from an analysis of historical data and patterns of behavior. But sudden dramatic change can also come unexpectedly—like the Arab Spring or the 6 January insurrection. The best way to avoid surprise is to document and challenge your key assumptions and then be honest with yourself when data mounts that is inconsistent with your assumptions.