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Climate Change is Natural? And That Doesn’t Freak You Out?


By Uday Kumar

In what now appears to be a regular habit, Gallup just surveyed a thousand-odd U.S. adults on their views on climate change. Overall, 49 percent of those surveyed attributed climate change to human activity while 46 percent blamed “natural” causes.

In a not-so-surprising but certainly fearful asymmetry, 72 percent of democrats but only 27 percent of republicans attributed climate change to human activity. Young adults: 61 percent human-caused, 38 percent natural; Older adults: 39 percent human-caused, 54 percent natural. This dichotomy in "beliefs" pervades other areas of scientific knowledge and splits states along political and demographic lines, as evident from the red-state-blue-state correlations in the maps above.

In summary, people who are older or republican are likely to favor the view that if climate change is happening (at all), it is due to unspecified “natural” causes. There has been much soul-searching and teeth-gnashing by frustrated analysts about why this split might exist, and so we will not engage in such self-flagellation. There is, of course, an abundant and well-constructed argument showing that the plausible natural causes, namely the sun, internal heat from the earth itself or cosmic rays, are not responsible for the current observed warming. Such shouting from the rooftops is equally futile and not worth rehashing.

What I want to get at is this: If one indeed believes that climate change is natural, should that not be far scarier than if it were human-caused?

First, just because something is natural does not make it salubrious or safe. We humans have survived by avoiding naturally dangerous things like like, well, the plague, microbes, past climate change (mostly by migrating) and saber-toothed tigers. I would argue that all of human “progress” has been one massive attempt to fight pesky natural inconveniences thrown our way.

Second, what happened to our fight-or-flight response? If you knew that a meteorite was heading for the Earth, a clearly “natural” event, would you not be packing your bags for … hmmm, bad analogy. But you get what I mean, don’t you? Why do some people feel better that climate change is a “natural” process, that we have had no part in it and therefore no control over?

If you ask me “natural” climate change is much scarier than a man-made one, particularly one for which said natural cause is unknown. For the following reasons:

  • If climate change is human-caused and we know the precise drivers for it -- say, just for argument’s sake, emissions of greenhouse gases -- then there is hope that we can begin to solve the problem by addressing the causes. If on the other hand, we have no clue why the Earth is warming (62 percent of the folks in that Gallup poll agreed that it is indeed warming, so that does not seem so much of an issue), that would mean that there is nothing we can do about it; that would be no different from that meteor scenario.

  • Since we can’t explain what its natural cause is, there is no way to know how high the temperatures will go. We have already exceeded temperatures seen for the past 11,000 years. The last time temperatures rose like this, we were thawing out of the ice age, but that temperature rise was about a hundred times slower than the rise we are experiencing. What is this diabolical natural phenomenon that is cranking up the heat on the Earth? And where will this climate Godzilla take us?

  • If there is no way to hold back this natural climate change and if temperatures continue rising at current rates for the next 50 years, then we can expect to see the ice-albedo feedback kick in -- and most likely a whole litany of other feedbacks. This may drop us off the cliff toward total loss of ice; the last time this happened sea levels were tens of meters above where they are today. That is a natural catastrophe of Noachian proportions!

  • The worst effects of this natural rise in temperatures will manifest later in this century, and my children will live to experience it. That more than anything makes me feel weak-kneed and woozy!

  • As we sit here watching this natural climate change unfold, with glaciers melting everywhere and the arctic warming at twice the rate of the rest of the globe, there is no remedy, nothing to do and no other planet to take refuge in. The expected damage from droughts and floods and sea-level rise could devastate economies -- particularly of already fragile nations -- and send refugees scattering around the globe to safer ground. But if it is, as the climate scientists seem to suggest, just a matter of carbon in the atmosphere, there are ways -- even at this late juncture -- to fight this thing. Oil is not going to last forever anyway, and everybody hates the pollution from coal (just ask the Chinese). So it may, after all, be a good thing to innovate our way out of this climate problem. And is innovation not the lifeblood of the American economy? And here we have the opportunity to transform everything we do through brand new technologies!

So, it seems to me that meeting this natural climate variation that is heading our way with sanguine resignation locks us into economic stasis -- frozen in place by the warming. I wonder what drives those who hold on to the “it’s natural” theory, the 70 percent of republicans and 54 percent of older Americans? It cannot be the fear that I feel at contemplating an unexplained, inexorable natural warming. Can it be fear of change?

Graphic compilation courtesy of the author, using Creative Commons licensed findings. 

Uday Kumar, PhD, is a Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Iowa. He teaches courses on Energy and Climate and does work in Rural India on sustainable energy.

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