Climate Discussion Should Occur on Editorial Page

Published February 8, 2015

I recently had the privilege of becoming acquainted with the writings of John Bates after a friend highly praised one of his articles. Bates’ vivid imagery and seemingly endless knowledge of all things having to do with birds – such as the snowy owl and the redpoll – reminded me of how my grandmother used to look out her windows at her bird feeders in my hometown of Waupaca, Wisconsin and teach us grandkids what kind of birds were perched at the feeder and what songs they would sing.

It was this long-forgotten memory that made Bates’ writings so endearing. His articles on the ecosystems of the Northwoods are wonderfully fact-based and well-researched, providing the reader with a glimpse into a natural world that not everyone has the opportunity to see.

However, when Bates addressed climate change in his Jan. 9 “Northwoods Almanac” update published in The Lakeland Times, he made some statements that ought to be printed in the editorial section, rather than as a column in the news section.

Peer-reviewed, scientific research indicates there has been a pause in global warming, or a global warming “hiatus,” for the past 18 years. Average global temperatures have not risen by a statistically significant amount during this time. This has important implications for the stability of Earth’s natural ecosystems, including those of the Northwoods. It also means 2015’s high school graduating class will have spent an entire lifetime learning about a phenomenon they have yet to experience.

News outlets have been trumpeting 2014 as the warmest year on record, with the implication warming has had and will have a devastating effect on the natural world. The way temperatures are reported by both media and government entities such as the National Aeronautical Space Administration (NASA) make it easy for those who are uninformed about climate and environmental science issues to get the wrong impression about the potential risks of a changing climate.

By “the warmest year ever,” they mean only the past 150 years or so – when global temperature records were first established. That period represents just a tiny slice of humanity’s time on Earth, much less the planet’s overall age. It would be ridiculous to draw any firm conclusions from that information alone.

After the expected flurry of headlines from news outlets around the country reporting NASA’s claim 2014 was the warmest year on record, NASA released further information stating there was only a 38 percent chance this was true. NASA doesn’t know whether 2014 was the warmest year on record, because the amount of warming it claims occurred—0.02 degrees C – is such a minuscule number it falls within the margin of error of 0.1 degrees C. This is important for everyone to understand because it shows 2014 was not provably warmer than 2005 or 2010, reemphasizing the fact climate science is constantly evolving and there is much we still do not fully understand.

Although the average global temperature has not increased in any meaningful way in nearly two decades, no sensible person denies the climate changes, even those derided as “climate change deniers.”

Natural climate variability has always been the driving force behind global temperature changes; Earth naturally transitioned between ice ages and warm periods throughout its history – well before mankind produced greenhouse gas emissions. Natural variability was on display in 2014 when government scientists confirmed the drought in California was a result of natural variability, not manmade climate change.

This is all good news. Science has revealed that Mother Nature, and the Northwoods in particular, are more resilient to carbon dioxide emissions and global temperature variations than many initially estimated. That means our local paradise is unlikely to be lost due to manmade climate change.

Mr. Bates is talented, and his writings have the uncanny ability to evoke the same bittersweet feelings of joy and sadness that I experience every time I see a bright red cardinal, my late grandmother’s favorite bird. As much as I admire and respect these talents, however, the discussion of climate change and its potential effects on the Northwoods must be driven by best-available science, not appeals to sentiment and feeling.

I look forward to The Lakeland Times continuing to publish Mr. Bates’ work on the snowy owl in its regular columns, but from now on, readers would be best served if his opinions on climate appeared in the editorial section.

[Originally published at the Lakeland Times]