Monday, September 12, 2016

The Problem with Climate Change Debate

The most critical issue facing our world is the threat climate change.

Unfortunately, you can't point to a single event, or even series of events and say: "That is Climate Change".  It's far more generalized and gradual than a single event. There is no need for panic in the streets, not that you could run away from it really.

Usually when you talk about Climate Change, most people talk in terms of the misnomer: Global warming (see the excerpt from Futurama). The term Global Warming doesn't really describe the totality of the phenomena we are seeing today. Sure, the Earth is heating up at a much faster rate than we have seen in known history, but it's more than just added heat. The global scale of the environmental impact our society has is truly astounding. From deforestation around the globe to acidification which is destroying coral reefs at an alarming rate. Our planet is chemically, biologically, and physically sick.

Right now we see the symptoms of the illness: warmer weather, more severe storms, more frequent storms, widespread drought, depletion of aquifers, changing weather patterns, changing crop yields, receding glaciers, increased coastal erosion, and rising sea levels. The difficulty is altering the perception in skeptical minds. There are arguments on both sides leading to confrontations like this:

 No matter how correct Professor Cox may be, confrontation won't win a debate in the court of public opinion. I wasn't able to find the full debate, but from what the BBC posted both parties had equally valid points. Mr. Roberts' contention was that he believed the data was manipulated and faulty. Professor Cox's response was simply to chuck the data at him, not address the point of validity. If the scientific community really wishes to address the issue properly, they have to address the issue of credibility. That's a bit difficult when people point to problems with the system:

 Some of this has to do with the idea of mistaking correlation for causation, but a lot of it has to do with the funding the science receives. If the entity funding the research or the researcher has an agenda, then the data has a significant chance of being skewed in favor the the agenda. If any tampering exists, or is even perceived to exist, then it is nearly impossible to overcome the skepticism which should accompany any scientific research. This is where Professor Cox runs into problems. He believes the data is correct, but cannot provide sufficient proof to overcome the burden of proof required to sway others.
It is true that Mr. Roberts will probably never have sufficient evidence to convince him that Climate Change is real, but that stubbornness can't be debated away. He has to be receptive to the idea that his null hypothesis is wrong. Without an attitude change, there won't be any possibility of any meaningful action. 

This isn't an issue that is going away. This is something that will only get worse. While it slowly happens over the next few decades and centuries, it will cost staggering amounts of money and take a great toll on life. They won't be dollars spent on a single disaster or lives lost in a moment. It will be a slow and steady churn that will be ascribed to a storm like Katrina, or Winston. 

Of course, we could always have a bare-knuckles cage match between Mr. Roberts and Professor Cox. Somehow I don't think science would win with the skinny particle physicist taking on the lumbering conservative.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Why the Media Needs to STOP using "Earth Like".

If you keep up to date on science issues, you are no doubt aware of the latest exoplanet discovery. Proxima Centauri A has a Earth size planet orbiting it. It is at the right distance and right size to support liquid water. Unfortunately, the press uses the highly inaccurate term "Earth Like" to describe wolds like Proxima Centauri b. I'll explain why I feel this is a terrible term for these planets. Although it's exciting to have a nearby (40,000,000,000,000 km) That will still take a spacecraft like New Horizons 18,000 years to get there. Nearby is relative if you use ice ages as a measurement. I like the sound of 1 ice age instead of several times longer than humans have had civilization on the earth.

Credit: Jean-Luc Beuzit, et al. Grenoble Observatory, European Southern Observatory

 Exoplanets are planets that have been located outside our solar system. They are found using a number of techniques, but only a handful have been directly observed. Beta Pictoris b is a planet observed by the European Space Agency's telescopes in Chile using infrared telescopes. Beta Pictoris b is a small smudge on the photograph pictured above.  An annotated picture with the planet highlighted can be found here. That is about as close as we can get to seeing a small dot of light in another solar system. A pixel or two.

Most of the time planets are located using a method called Transit Photometry, which detects the planet by measuring how dim the star gets when it comes between us and its parent star. There are other ways of detecting exoplanets, and none of them are easy. Although we can learn a lot from the information we do gather, we aren't able to tell if a planet actually can support life, at least not yet.

With all we do know, there's a lot we don't. As I've discussed in other blogs, magnetic fields, atmosphere, and the type of star system have a lot to do with the viability of a planet supporting life. It's not enough to have the building blocks of life to have a habitable planet. What bothers me most is that people impart the qualities found on Earth to distant objects that we know very little about. Earth-size is more accurate in this case, but not Earth-like.

Earth is, as far as we KNOW, the only place where life is known to currently exist. It's thought that bacteria was once found on Mars, but we haven't found any evidence of it existing there now, or even in the distant past. Earth has life in abundance. Life has existed and survived several extinction events that have wiped out countless species over billions of years. Still this world persists in supporting life. I am certain that there are other worlds that ARE like Earth, and support bountiful life. However, people should avoid placing qualities on anything with no way of supporting that claim. To do so is sensational, inaccurate, misleading, and tabloid in nature.