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Observations on Climate Change

Posted: 1:45PM February 1st, 2012 | Comments

It was 6 degrees below the  record high of 56 degrees yesterday the last day of January.   The same day I learned about the new plant hardiness map.  For those of you who aren’t familiar with that map it is used by gardeners all over the country to identify what plants they can safely grow in their yard based on a plant’s tolerance for cold.  What this updated map shows is that warmers zones are shifting north.  

The current weather and the publication of this map led to a brief conversation in our office about climate change and science literacy in the United States.  We wondered whether people really understood the scientific method; the idea that we make observations about a phenomenon and from those observations make a hypothesis to explain what is happening.  With hypothesis in hand, or I guess I should say mind, we then engage in experimentation to test that hypothesis. The results of our experiments can support or oppose a theory. Science does not prove a theory, it gains evidence supporting or opposing it.

After years of increasing global temperatures and melting glaciers, ice caps and permafrost, scientists have been making additional observations, conducting experiments, and collecting data to test the hypothesis that climate change is happening and is human caused.  There is a great deal of evidene in support of this theory.  In fact the Union of Concerned Scientists state that there is now an overwhelming scientific consensus that global warming is happening and it is human caused.  Does this mean that we can say beyond a doubt that human caused climate change is happening?  No.  But can we say this hypothesis is false?  No.  We wondered how our National conversation about climate change would be different if American’s truly understood and respected scientific method.  

Would people stop writing off any odd occurrence in weather as "just the weather" and instead recognize it as another observation that contributes to the existing hypothesis that climate change is happening and is human caused?  Would spokesmen from the USDA place the warming trend now documented in the plant hardiness map in this context instead of saying that the map "is simply not a good instrument to demonstrate climate change because it is based on just the coldest days of the year"?  The reality is that none of these events can be seen in isolation -- from our strangely warm winter to satellite images of melting glaciers -- not even this map.   All of these things add to the overall picture about what is happening with our climate and can not and should not be rationalized away.  

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