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Holiday Party Global Warming FAQ

Dan Lashof

Posted December 21, 2010

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Before heading off for the holidays it’s always a good idea to prepare a strategy to keep the conversation lively at family gatherings and holiday parties. Andrew Freedman at the Capital Weather Gang got me started with his lament that climate change can be a conversation killer. That’s true, but that can also be a valid strategy if your goal is to get to the eggnog. On the other hand, if you are tired of discussing your travel snafus and your Aunt Edna’s medical conditions a more serious conversation about global warming might be just what the doctor ordered. So here I offer my top ten list of questions about global warming with two alternative responses: An eggnog answer for when you want to move on to other topics as quickly as possible, and a longer answer for when the eggnog runs out.

1.       Do you believe in global warming?

Eggnog Answer: Do you believe in gravity?

Longer Answer: Global warming is a fact, not a question of belief. Carbon dioxide traps heat in the atmosphere. That’s physics, not ideology. The decade 2000-2009 was the hottest on record, surpassing the 1990s, which itself surpassed the 1980s. This year will end up being the hottest, or among the two or three hottest years on record. These are observations, not speculation. Beliefs about the role of government legitimately influence people’s views about the right policy response to these facts. As the Republican former Chairman of the House Science Committee said in a recent Washington Post op-ed

The National Academy reports concluded that “scientific evidence that the Earth is warming is now overwhelming.” Party affiliation does not change that fact.

2.       It’s really cold outside. What happened to global warming?

Eggnog Answer: Winter.

Longer Answer: As I noted last winter, global warming does not abolish the seasons. Global warming and climate change do, however, change weather patterns and increase the amount of moisture the air can hold, leading to more severe storms. The specific reason for the recent cold weather in Eastern North America and Europe (a very small fraction of the Earth’s surface) is that cold air is spilling out of the arctic, cooling these areas but making the arctic significantly warmer than normal, as Jeff Masters explains in his excellent Wunder Blog.

3.       Should it be called global warming or climate change?

Eggnog Answer: Call it whatever you want, but please pass the eggnog.

Longer Answer: The best term is probably “climate disruption,” which John Holdren, who is now the president’s science advisor, has been using for many years. In reality, all three terms are accurate. The globe is warming; the climate is changing; and our economic, social, and natural systems that are dependent on a stable climate are being disrupted. There is no magic term that will solve the problem if we repeat it often enough. So in this case, the eggnog answer is all you really need.

4.       What about those emails?

Eggnog Answer: Can I post all of your private emails on the internet?

Longer Answer: Last year there was a huge hubbub in the press as a result of a handful emails selected from thousands that were stolen from a climate research center in England and posted on the internet. At the time I pointed out that these emails didn’t change the facts about global warming. Unfortunately, the press thrives on controversy, real or contrived, so the email story got far more press than the consensus findings of the National Academy of Sciences. Subsequently multiple independent investigations exonerated the scientists who had been attacked based on the stolen emails and reaffirmed their scientific findings.

5.       Don’t scientists disagree?

Eggnog Answer: Of course they do. They’re scientists.

Longer Answer: The scientific method is fundamentally based on developing hypotheses to explain observations and then trying to disprove them. Scientists are trained to try to shoot down other scientists’ theories. There are also legitimate uncertainties—and disagreement—about many details of climate change. Active scientists focus their research on these areas, so you will inevitably continue to hear climate scientists disagreeing with each other about something. But after decades of intensive effort, the basic hypothesis that the Earth is warming as a result of heat-trapping pollution has not been disproved and there is no alternative hypothesis that comes even close to explaining the observations. This led the National Academy of Sciences to conclude earlier this year that this basic “theory” is as settled as gravity:

Some scientific conclusions or theories have been so thoroughly examined and tested, and supported by so many independent observations and results, that their likelihood of subsequently being found to be wrong is vanishingly small. Such conclusions and theories are then regarded as settled facts. This is the case for the conclusions that the Earth system is warming and that much of this warming is very likely due to human activities.

6.       What’s your best argument to make climate change deniers shut up?

Eggnog Answer: Please pass the eggnog.

Longer Answer: Ideologically-driven climate change deniers are impervious to facts and reason, so there is no argument that will convince them (see eggnog answer). For everyone else, I consider the increasing heat content of the ocean to be the single most compelling fact demonstrating that global warming is occurring due to heat-trapping pollution. Jim Hansen of NASA calls this the smoking gun. The total quantity of energy stored in the form of excess ocean heat is so vast that it can only be explained by a persistent imbalance between the energy the Earth receives from the sun and the energy the Earth returns to space. That imbalance is a direct result of the increasing concentration of heat-trapping pollution in the atmosphere.

7.       What are you going to do now that cap and trade is dead?

Eggnog Answer: Move to California.

Longer Answer: Comprehensive energy reform and climate protection legislation passed the U.S. House of representatives in 2009 but died in the Senate when the Majority Leader concluded that he couldn’t muster the 60 votes needed to break an inevitable filibuster. As a result of November’s election there will be more Senators and many more Representatives hostile to such legislation next year, so the prospects for passing a comprehensive cap on carbon pollution in the 112th Congress certainly don’t look very bright. These election results, however, were not driven by climate policy. In the one place climate policy was directly on the ballot—California—voters overwhelmingly rejected Proposition 23, which would have suspended California’s groundbreaking Global Warming Solutions Act. So California is moving forward and recently finalized its plans to establish a cap-and-trade system starting in 2012 to achieve about one-quarter of the pollution reductions mandated by its law. California would be the eight largest economy in the world if it were an independent country, and its cap-and-trade system will join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative system operating in the Northeast U.S. and the European Emission Trading System. So it turns out that cap-and-trade is not so dead after all. Meanwhile, here in Washington the Environmental Protection Agency is doing its job by beginning to limit carbon pollution as required by the Clean Air Act. While this is not as effective as comprehensive carbon pollution limits would be, it is a practical way to make progress nationally over the next few years and will not be the end of the world, as claimed by doom-saying lobbyists for the big polluters.

8.       If we reduce our carbon pollution, what about China and India?

Eggnog Answer: It turns out that they care about their children too.

Longer Answer: China is now the world’s largest carbon polluter and India is the world’s most populous country, so what they do about global warming pollution definitely matters. As it turns out, both countries well recognize that unbridled global warming is a serious threat to their development and have taken important steps to curb their emissions and develop their vast clean energy potential. So the biggest threat that the U.S. faces now is not that we will act alone, but that we will be alone in not acting. That would mean losing out on the trillion dollar clean energy market and ending up importing wind turbines and solar panels rather than exporting them.

9.       Isn’t it too late?

Eggnog Answer: Yes. Please pass the eggnog.

Longer Answer: The sad fact is that we are already suffering significant consequences due to climate disruption. This year offered plenty of examples of extreme events that have been made more likely by the heat-trapping pollution that has already built up in our atmosphere. We need to do what we can to be better prepared to manage the impacts that can no longer be avoided. At the same time we need to do everything we can to limit future damages by curbing emissions of heat-trapping pollution. In other words, we need to manage the unavoidable and avoid the unmanageable.

10.   OK, I’m convinced. What can I do to help?

Eggnog Answer: Donate to NRDC and please pass the eggnog.

Longer Answer: Seriously, a donation to NRDC is a great way to get into the holiday giving spirit. Beyond that, make a New Year’s resolution to practice the three P’s: Personal action, Policy advocacy, and Political engagement. None of these avenues will be sufficient on its own, but together their combined power is transformational. This is a New Year’s resolution we can’t afford not to keep. And please pass the eggnog.

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Meme MineDec 22 2010 05:14 AM

You remaining Climate Change believers are damaging the Planet Earth and it’s people by dividing environmentalism and dragging progressivism down with it.
-Meanwhile, the UN had allowed carbon trading to trump 3rd world fresh water relief, starvation rescue and 3rd world education for just over 25 years of climate control instead of population control.
The news editors are the real one’s responsible for the CO2 mistake.
The news editors told us to trust, obey and believe the saintly scientists? The same scientists who polluted the planet in the first place with chemical pesticides, nuclear waste, germ warfare, strip mining technology, deep sea drilling technology and now climate change. Arrest those who incited this public riot and false war and needless panic. Climate Changers were the real necons of fear mongering and lying and false wars. Remove the CO2 and start planetary stewardship anew. Let’s get this right.

Nik From NYCDec 22 2010 09:50 AM

Why doesn't anybody on both sides ever debate actual thermometer records? They indicate that there is in fact no increase in warming beyond what has been the natural trend for hundreds of years. History is not a hockey stick.

I plotted these from peer reviewed raw data. Since there is a very long term warming trend then obviously each decade is likely to be the warmest ever. Duh! How does the fact of gravity reflect on this debate at all? Is pointing out that there is no change in trend visible at all in actual thermometer records the equivalent of denying the existence of gravity? That's the best you can offer as an argument to try to convince me? Ouch.

Tracey RothDec 22 2010 10:02 AM

Meme and Nik appear to be determined to get in the way of the eggnog. You're right. There are no facts these people's brains will ever accept. Their heads are too stuffed with dogma and they would stand in a sandstorm on the top of Mount Washington in wintertime naked before they would ever admit they are wrong, or incapable of comprehending science.

TonyDec 22 2010 01:14 PM

Nik why do so many of the urls on the temperature graphs not go anywhere? These are temperature graphs for individual cities. Where are the graphs for global temperatures?
What are you saying these temperature graphs indicate?

Mark KienzynskiDec 22 2010 01:31 PM

It saddens me to know that the dogma perpetuated by the deep pockets of (certain) industry and "say what gets me elected" politicians has poisoned the well. People don't want to give up their posh lifestyles in the name of climate disruption. I don't blame them.

However, the variables are many and the evidence is real. Looking at just one or two "I don't see a change" variables does not change the facts. I especially love the argument (insert sarcasm here) of "these are just natural cycles". This is true if you look on a VERY LARGE time scale. These cycles and greenhouse concentrations are happening over a minute time scale - just a few human lifespans! Again, the facts and the correlations are very convincing.

As much as we want, denying the truth will not change things. Only change will change things. I once heard it said that you are entitled to your own opinions, but not your own facts. Think about this and look at all the facts you can and not just the few sound bites given to the general public. This goes for the non-deniers as well. If everyone was well informed and not misinformed, we would all be in agreement.

As for me, a high school geology, physics and astronomy teacher and former adjunct professor of geology, I am very scared for the inhabitants of this world. Of course I would be, as I am a bit more educated on the topics than most. It is part of my job to remain current and look deeper than the casual sound bite or website. God save us all for screwing it all up.

Jarret AdamsDec 22 2010 02:29 PM

In this same spirit, here is a great document to help dispel some myths about nuclear energy, which is by far our nation's largest source of electricity without greenhouse gases.
Investments in clean energy such as nuclear and renewables is an excellent way to reduce our CO2 emissions and help fight climate change.

Ben RichDec 22 2010 02:53 PM

Another good site with research-based answers to common misconceptions about climate change is here:

JenniferDec 22 2010 10:52 PM

Forget about global warming I want to talk about the gulf loop collapse.

YouTube - Scientist Speaks out: 'Gulf Loop Current is broke' Mini Ice Age on the way Europe

John LiffeeDec 23 2010 09:34 AM


I enjoyed this post, and there's a lot of good and nimble thinking here about how to talk with people about climate. However:

Is it really wise to simply write off the "ideologically driven climate change deniers"? Maybe so. Almost certainly so, at a holiday event where one would like to have fun and avoid agita. But can we afford to let go completely of hope that such people can ever be persuaded? Can we win, in a culture where so many people feel completely comfortable just ... well, flatly rejecting the best advice that the institutions of human knowing can provide? Seems like Bill McKibben doesn't think so, if his response to the Senate's failure to act this past summer is any measure.

There was a really good piece in Alternet the other day on research into why humans delude themselves when confronted with facts that don't fit our belief systems — empirical evidence of the kind of thing George Lakoff has been talking about for years. The broad takeaway of such research is this: reality, or at least what a human being knows of it, is a social construct; facts are visible/meaningful to an individual only when they fit that individual's view.

I am frustrated beyond measure by climate deniers — as no doubt you are, likely by many degrees more than I. I wish I could ignore them, or wave a wand and make them disappear. (Or, alternately, that The Incredible Hulk would manifest as an avenging juggernaut and eviscerate them all.) But that doesn't seem to be working. I wonder if instead the environmental community might need to put massive effort into understanding how so many people are manufacturing this unhinged sense of reality. Go beyond public opinion research, messaging, framing, etc. Hire people who study the social production of identity and belief — sociologists and social psychologists descended from Erving Goffman, for example.

It's just that more and more I suspect that we'll only get so far relying on raciocination and traditional methods of persuasion. I can't say I have the answer; I don't know that looking deeply into the social production of identity, opinion, and belief systems will deliver pragmatic communications solutions. But I'm not feeling very hopeful that the tools we have in hand right now can eventually get the job done.

Toodling off in search of egg nog now.... but first, all this reminds me of a fave Talking Heads song:

The island of doubt

It's like the taste of medicine

Working by hindsight

Got the message from the oxygen

Making a list

Find the cost of opportunity

Doing it right

Facts are useless in emergencies

The feeling returns

Whenever we close our eyes

Lifting my head

Looking around inside.

Facts are simple and facts are straight

Facts are lazy and facts are late

Facts all come with points of view

Facts don't do what I want them to

Facts just twist the truth around

Facts are living turned inside out

Facts are getting the best of them

Facts are nothing on the face of things

Facts don't stain the furniture

Facts go out and slam the door

Facts are written all over your face

Facts continue to change their shape

I'm still waiting....

I'm still waiting....

I'm still waiting....

I'm still waiting....

4 RealDec 23 2010 11:10 AM

Meme Mine writes: "You remaining Climate Change believers are damaging the Planet Earth . . . the UN had allowed carbon trading to trump 3rd world fresh water relief, starvation rescue and 3rd world education for just over 25 years of climate control instead of population control."

Recognizing Climate change as a fact and adjusting policies and actions accordingly is, in fact, supportive of least developed and developing nation needs. Such populations are likely to experience the most signficant adverse impacts associated with climate-change induced changes to our social, economic, and environmental realities.

"3rd world", incidentally, is a really old term . . . sort of like "colored people."

4 RealDec 23 2010 11:15 AM

@Jarret Adams: Ahh, yes. Let's get the straight dope on nuclear power from the Nuclear Energy Institute. While we're at it, let's visit the Massey site for the truth about coal.

I think a pretty good impartial analysis of nuclear power is here:

BadgersouthDec 23 2010 12:08 PM

Memo to all the self-proclaimed science wonks posting on this thread:

The Skeptical Science website provides a comment thread after each of the articles posted on it, Unlike this comment thread, the Skeptical Science comment thread accommodates the posting of graphics.

If you take issue with anything in a Skeptical Science article, you are encouraged to post a comment on it. Be forewarned, however, that any Anti-AGW pseudo scince that is posted will be thoroughly debunked by very knowledgeable commentators.

To access the Skeptical Science website, go to:

FergalDec 23 2010 06:01 PM

Mr. Lashof,

Please. There is an egregious factual error in part 6.

You state:
"I consider the increasing heat content of the ocean to be the single most compelling fact demonstrating that global warming is occurring due to heat-trapping pollution. Jim Hansen of NASA calls this the smoking gun."

But this is untrue. Peer-reviewed empirical measurements of ocean heat content show no warming since the commissioning of the ARGO float system several years ago.

Please examine the graph at the URL below which compares James Hansen's NASA GISS projection with actual peer-reviewed observations.

James Hansen's "smoking gun" does not exist. Presumably the claim is many years old.

I know that you would not like to impugn Dr. Hansen's professionalism or encourage your readers to lie at this time of peace and reconciliation.

Thank you for your attention.

Des CarneDec 23 2010 08:30 PM

@meme and co:-alarm is what a nervous system is for - to alert the troupe of approaching danger - that's how we survived to become human. Just because we conquered the earth doesn't mean we can do without a nervous system. Once alarmed and apprised of the danger it is time to formulate rational personal and political responses to the danger, rather than imagining it will just go away by wishing it so. The Roman empire came to an end - based on solar energy/biomass/human muscle, it took 300 years. Our tightly coupled system totally dependent on cheap fossil fuels will fold like a house of cards in comparison. Welcome back Malthus - we may have been smart enough to outwit Malthusian determinism for a century or 2, but now our day of reckoning is coming - ever heard of ground-rush? Of course we need to be alarmed - we don't have a parachute - at least not for everyone, in fact not for very many at all.

Harald WinklerDec 24 2010 02:21 AM

"... India is the world’s most populous country ..." really? I thought that was still China's 1.3 billion vs India's 1 billion or so?

Dan LashofDec 24 2010 03:34 PM

Thanks Harald--You are right. India is projected to become the most populous country in around 2030.

Dan LashofDec 24 2010 03:45 PM

The problem with your graph is that you selected only the data since 2003. You can only reach valid conclusions by examining the full dataset.
Please pass the eggnog.

Patricia WarwickDec 25 2010 11:21 AM

Don't worry about being "alone in not acting". As long as the present Canadian government is in power you will have friends up here "not acting."

Not only is Canada "not acting" but our government is actively working to stop other countries from acting.

BadgersouthDec 25 2010 02:27 PM

Speaking of the heat content of the oceans…

“Early estimates of ocean heat from the Argo showed a cooling bias due to pressure sensor issues. Recent estimates of ocean heat that take this bias into account show continued warming of the upper ocean. This is confirmed by independent estimates of ocean heat as well as more comprehensive measurements of ocean heat down to 2000 metres deep.”

Source: “Does ocean cooling prove global warming has ended?, by John Cook, Skeptical Science, Sep. 3, 2010

Oak MoonDec 25 2010 05:09 PM

It seems to me, being really new to this entire debate, that those who officially deny that climate change is occuring and/or caused by human activities are often funded by those who also stand to lose substantial income. Their well-financed disinformation injects enough doubt for certain media outlets and politicians to create the impression that there is a legitimate debate. It reminds me of the tobacco health debates of the 1960's. Human intellect and technology has accomplished great things. Human "wisdom", unfortunately, has not kept pace.

FergalDec 26 2010 03:22 PM

Mr. Lashof, you replied
The problem with your graph is that you selected only the data since 2003. You can only reach valid conclusions by examining the full dataset.
Please pass the eggnog."

The older data is from different instrumentation so there is no basis for comparison. Maybe you should lay off of the eggnog.

Victoria MasonDec 27 2010 09:35 PM

I would like to make mention of a very bizarre phenomenen occurring in the waters that surround the Japanese islands.

For several years now, a particular species of jellyfish has gone crazy reproducing itself to the point that Japanese fishing is threatened. The waters around Japan have been invaded by opaque yellow, monster jellyfish weighing forty pounds or more. The species is thought to be native to waters in the South China Sea.

The invasion is so massive that fishermen cannot pull in their nets without bringing in hundreds and hundreds of these jellies. They cannot be killed; if you cut them to pieces, each piece becomes a brand new jellyfish.

Bad enough alone, but it is their natural means of reproduction that are out of control.

I am not a scientist by trade, only by interest, so I can't give you a scientifically accurate accounting of their actual means of reproduction, except to say that it is a very simple process involving making copies of itself, producing hundreds of new jellies every day. It is staggeringly robust.

Early research has shown that this species of jelly begins reproducing uncontrollably when the water they live in gets warmer than normal. Tests conducted in Japan have shown that Japanese waters are much warmer (understanding that an increase of only one or two degrees equals much warmer) than usual.

I think that this is an interesting (and very freaky) occurrence that points to global warming, as does the melting of all the glaciers in Glacier National Park.

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