A Conversation with a Climate Denier

I was at the Tustin Chili Cook-Off over the weekend and noticed a Republican registration booth, brandishing a large Trump sign. I decided to walk over and inquire about Trump's recent announcement to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord. What were the views of these representatives, I wondered. Upon inquiring, a middle-aged lady rep responded, "It's too expensive. We've already given $1 billion to other countries." She proceeded to explain to me that volcanoes are responsible for warming the planet, not greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. I thought I'd share our conversation and my reply, since this otherwise nice woman is probably not alone in her views.

First, ensuring a stable climate for future generations and the survival of our species is "too expensive?" Besides the ridiculous sound of this comment, please, note that the $1 billion we've pledged to other countries is a mere rounding error in the U.S. annual budget of over $3 trillion.

Second, volcanoes are heating the planet? It is accurate that volcanoes influence the climate. But the influence she noted is completely backwards. That is, volcanoes do not heat the planet, they actually cool the planet. Much like burning fossil fuels doesn't heat the planet due to the hot flames created, but rather because of GHGs emissions that tram solar radiation, volcanoes do not heat the planet due to their hot lava. Instead, volcanoes cool the planet because they emit particles called sulfate aerosols into the atmosphere, which actually reflect solar radiation.

Whether you are Republican or Democrat, it is important to understand climate change, and seek facts from credible sources. If you are hosting a political booth, it is even more important to get the facts straight. Otherwise you run the risk of propagating misinformation and doing a disservice to your community. Climate change is a critically important issue. In a previous blog, I have discussed the issue of misinformation in some detail and listed credible websites for basic science and climate change information. Be sure to check it out!

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                                                    Shahir Masri
                                                    Doctor of Science
                                                    Environmental Health Science


Climate Change #4 – The Tipping Point

If you’ve heard of climate change, you’ve probably heard of the “tipping point.” But what does this mean? To understand, you must first understand earth’s “positive feedback” systems. Let me explain. 

Major Positive Feedbacks

You’re all familiar with positive feedback mechanisms whether you know it or not. Positive feedback is when a change in A leads to a change in B. And the change in B leads to a further change in A, which further changes B. This goes back and forth as both A and B continuously reinforce each other—a sort of snowball effect. Besides snowballs, earth has some positive feedback systems with tremendous implications to the climate. Let’s take a look at a few and discuss how initial small changes can rapidly get out of control and send things down an undesirable path.
  • Snow Cover – As sun hits earth, some light is absorbed and some is reflected. The pleasant climate we enjoy on earth is the result of a delicate balance between this incoming and outgoing energy. Snow and ice on earth play an important role in this energy balance, serving as the “mirrors” that reflect much of the sun’s energy. As greenhouse gases (GHGs) from human activity continue to warm the planet, however, these mirrors are decreasing in size. That is, snow and ice are melting. And these reflective white surfaces are being replaced with land and ocean, which absorb rather than reflect energy. This is where the dangerous positive feedback process kicks in. Replacing a reflective snowy surface with a heat-absorbing surface leads to more warming. With more warming, even more snow melts, leading to even more warming.  The process goes on and on, the end result being higher and higher temperatures. It is a frightening path, yet one we’re already pushing forward.
  • Water Vapor – The oceans have done us an enormous favor over the centuries by absorbing much of the GHG we’ve emitted to the air. As physics would have it, however, warm water isn’t as good a gas absorber as cold water. Therefore, as we warm the oceans, we reduce the capability of the oceans to help us. On a global scale, warmer oceans absorbing less GHG has quite an impact. The oceans play another important role. Warmer temperatures lead to the evaporation of more ocean water. Water vapor is even a more powerful GHG than carbon dioxide. So as we warm the oceans, we increase the heat trapping capacity of the atmosphere, and in turn warm the oceans further. Another self-perpetuating feedback loop in motion.
  • Dying Forests – The rain forests represent an enormous source of stored carbon on earth. As warming temperatures lead to dying forests, however, dead plant matter decomposes and releasing this stored carbon to the air. Active deforestation is also contributing to this. Unfortunately, less forest means less carbon storage. This means more atmospheric carbon and higher temperatures. Higher temperatures lead to even greater forest death, and so on. The cycle continues, again racing us to the precious of a runaway effect.
  • Methane & Permafrost – This is potentially the most alarming feedback of them all. Within the soils of the frozen tundra is an enormous quantity of organic matter—partially decomposed plants and other organisms. While frozen, these organics pose no threat to our climate. Were the tundra to melt, however, decomposition of this matter would release vast quantities of methane and carbon dioxide into the air. Methane is even a better heat trapper than carbon dioxide; twenty-one times better! It is estimated that enough carbon is stored in permafrost to more than triple the current level of carbon in the atmosphere. I hate to report that global warming has already caused permafrost in Alaska and elsewhere to begin thawing as many regions that were previously frozen year round now experience above freezing temperatures. Carbon in the tundra represents a dangerously large source of GHG that is best left in the ground. 

The Tipping Point

This brings us to the so called tipping point, or what is often thought of as the point of no return. That is, the point beyond which humans will have any real control over continued climate change. Right now, the main driver of global warming is human activity. However, once we reach a certain point and unlock the carbon in the tundra, as well as propel many of these other positive feedback systems, humans will have little say in how much our climate warms. Our efforts will be of negligible importance. Releases of permafrost methane, a shrinking of earth’s “mirrors,” and a more humid atmosphere are just a few of the many processes that will secure the fate of our climate. 

Triggering the permafrost to melt is probably the most frightening scenario given the enormous reservoir of carbon waiting to enter the sky. A true tipping point will have been reached. We'll have unleashed the giant. Melting of the snow would then accelerate. Dying of the forests would increase. The atmosphere would gain humidity only humidity. And all these processes would only accelerate each other, as positive feedbacks do. It’s a frightening prospect to say the least, but a very real one. And only underscores the importance of current climate action efforts.

So when is the tipping point? It’s any scientist’s best guest. But evidence suggests it’s sometime soon, if we haven’t already reached it. We are playing with fire, as they say. We are quite literally conducting a global experiment. 

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Shahir Masri, Sc.D.

Environmental Health Scientist


How a Citizens’ Lobby Will Empower You to Fight Climate Change - My Latest News Publication!

Hey blog world,

Last week I had my first publication in Thrive Global! This is Arianna Huffington's latest news website, which I'll now be a contributing author to. The title (and link) of the article  is:

The article is about climate change and the work a very important non-profit organization called Citizens' Climate Lobby is doing. Give it a read and check out the organization! =)

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                                                                -Shahir Masri, Sc.D.


This Morning I Gave Trump a Chance

I recently heard that Trump removed the “climate change” tab from the new White House website. Now to be perfectly honest, I don’t know anything about the old tab because I happen to get my climate science from other sources. Having said that, I was nonetheless interested to read what Trump’s new White House page had to say on the matter. I decided to give Trump a chance on this!

Rest assured, climate news wasn’t plastered on the homepage, but who would expect that anyways? With a quick scan I located the “Issues” tab. With climate change a number one issue, this sounded like a reasonable place to harbor the topic. Among the six topics listed, none actually read “climate change.” Fine, he called it a hoax in his campaign, so perhaps he’s being a bit soft or indirect on his website. There is at least an “America First Energy Plan” tab. He probably buried the issue there.

Let’s take a look at the Energy Plan. A quick word search for “climate” yields one result. Uh oh… But at least it’s mentioned! Let’s hear what the site has to say about it. I scroll to the word “climate.” It’s actually capitalized and followed by the words “Action Plan.” Wow, a Climate Action Plan!?  I’m admittedly surprised. Maybe Trump will impress! Let’s read this Action Plan. Following the words to the start of the sentence, my excitement is short and any confidence gone. The full sentence reads as follows:

“President Trump is committed to eliminating harmful and unnecessary policies such as the Climate Action Plan and the Waters of the U.S. rule.”

Yes, the only reference to climate change on Trump’s White House website is in reference to dismantling climate policy. Wow. To be sure, I subsequently query the entire White House website. Not a single result for “climate change.” Simplifying my search to “climate” still only returns two new results. Neither of which have to do with climate change.

Reading the Energy Plan page in its entirety, we can gain some further insight about Trump’s interest in acting on climate change.  After advocating for the increased production of natural gas and oil, it states:

“The Trump Administration is also committed to clean coal technology, and to reviving America’s coal industry, which has been hurting for too long.”

Renewable energy technologies are not mentioned once on this entire webpage. The America First Energy Plan sounds more like the Fossil Fuel Industry First, America Last Energy Plan to me. America, the global leader, has decided to take a back seat on clean energy innovation and adoption. This is hardly the position of a leading nation. This combined with an absence of climate policy spells a very foreboding future for the United States and world. This morning I gave Trump a chance. By noon I was disappointed.

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Shahir Masri, Sc.D.
Environmental Health Scientist


Climate Change #3 – Carbon, Temperature & Geologic History

Over my last two blogs, we discussed climate variation driven by natural phenomena such as the physics of the earth and sun, as well as greenhouse gases (GHGs). While both play key roles in climate change, it has hopefully become clear that on the time scale of present day climate change, it's GHGs and not natural phenomena that are steering the ship. This is the science. Not the politics.

In this blog, let’s look at the relationship of temperature and GHGs from past to present. First, let me remind you that GHGs aren’t new to the air. It’s in fact the presence of GHGs that have enabled a habitable temperature on earth by trapping solar energy. But don’t let this throw you off. It doesn’t take much GHG to have a warming effect. Throughout human history, GHGs have in fact made up only about a meager 0.03% of the atmosphere. Compared to the 21% oxygen we breathe, that’s basically a drop in the bucket! So what we’re talking about with present day climate change is a change in this very modest 0.03%. Over the last 200 years, the burning of fossil fuels have added enough GHG into the atmosphere to increase this to 0.04%. Yes, we’ve always been talking about small fractions. But the percent change from the old small fraction to the new small fraction is enormous—an increase of 33%! Actually, I’ve been rounding numbers; the true increase is over 40%.

If you added 40% more salt to your dinner, ate 40% more calories, or exercised 40% more often, there’s little doubt the change would be noticed. Change of course wouldn’t be instantaneous, but rather over the coming weeks or months. With earth, a 40% increase in GHGs is similarly a tremendous shift from the norm—a shift that will also bring no subtle change. Except, rather than noticing change over weeks or months, we’re talking years to decades. And as the years pass, we’re indeed observing this change. How much change will occur still depends on how quickly we adopt more modern energy technologies are reduce GHG emissions. But the sky is the limit (no pun intended!). Remember, an atmosphere with 0% compared to 0.03% GHGs has been the difference between a frozen earth and the comfortable earth on which our ancestors roamed. Moving then from 0.03% to 0.04%, as we’ve done over the past couple hundred years …well you can only imagine the possibilities! And 0.04% isn’t where it stops. Given the current rate of carbon emissions, this percentage will only continue to grow.

So you know that GHGs trap sunlight and thus warm the planet, and you know GHGs have been skyrocketing since the industrial revolution. But sometimes a picture (or graph) is worth a thousand words!

In the above graph, notice two key things. First, temperature and carbon dioxide (the major GHG) are indeed highly correlated through geological history. This isn’t a shocker given what we know about the warming effects of GHGs, but it’s nonetheless powerful to see the data. Second, modern day carbon dioxide is literally off the charts (top right of graph). If we extend the graph further to the left, as shown below, you’ll notice carbon dioxide concentrations are actually higher now than at any point in the last 800,000 years.

In short, we’re in completely uncharted territory in terms of climate—a planetary experiment if you will. Both graphs are worth a moment of pause and thought. The million dollar question being, how will the red line in the first graph ultimately respond to the blue line? There are many scientists whose careers are dedicated to answering this question. But I’ll save discussion of long term implications and temperature projections for a later post.

If you’ve taken the time to read this, congratulations! You now understand the climate change issue better than most. Now it's your turn to educate others. Please share!   

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Shahir Masri
Doctor of Science
Environmental Health Science


Climate Science #2 - Natural Variation?

In my last blog, I talked about greenhouse gases (GHG) as an important driver of climatic variation. Well, what about natural variation? Earth's temperatures have gone up and down in the past, so what if the current warming trend is just part of a natural cycle? Well, let’s discuss. 

Aside from GHGs, three distinct physical cycles have historically played a key role in earth’s major climate fluctuations. Collectively, these are known as the Milankovitch cycles, and include the following:

Precession (P) – If you’ve ever spun a top, you’ll notice as it slows it wobbles. Much like a top, the earth too spins with a slight wobble. Much slower than a top, however, the earth completes one full wobble about every 26,000 years. 

Axial Tilt (T) – Earth is currently titled at about 23.5 degrees from vertical. This  in fact gives rise to our seasons! As it turns out, this angle is not fixed, but rather fluctuates back and forth by a few degrees over time. One full fluctuation takes approximately 41,000 years. 

Eccentricity (E) – You all know that earth orbits the sun. What you may not know is that the shape of this orbit changes from oval to more circular at predictable cycles. One cycle takes about 100,000 years to complete. 

Figure 1. The three Milankovitch cycles depicted. 

Notice the above cycles occur at frequencies of tens of thousands of years. In other words, while the earth has warmed over the last two centuries, these three natural cycles have essentially remained constant. In fact, the current orientation of the Milankovitch cycles actually favors cooling, not warming. But again, these cycles are slow, and essentially play no role in recent temperature changes. 

Are there any other natural drivers of climate change? Sure, solar cycles. In contrast to the Milankovitch cycles, solar cycles actually occur at a much higher frequency—about every 11 years. In this case though, they occur too frequently to explain the gradual warming of the past couple hundred years. What then is the ex factor driving current climate change? Turning again to my last blog, we discussed GHGs. These gases are also known to be major drivers of climate variation. And, in fact, their concentrations in the atmosphere correlate perfectly well with the temperature changes we've observed. 

In a perfectly unbiased and politically neutral society, we would accept this with little resistance. It is quite clear and makes perfect sense. In a world influenced heavily by major industrial players who have high stakes in the game, however, this sense has been passionately battled. 

Let's recap! When we look at natural drivers of climate variation, they don’t explain the rapid increase in temperatures we’ve experienced in recent times. Those committed to refuting climate change, however, often cite such cycles as evidence against the major causes. And unfortunately, most people aren’t familiar enough with the issue to correct this fallacy. Hence, this blog! I hope I’ve informed you such that you can now inform others and refute the fallacy. 

In my next blog, I’ll present the temperature trends of the earth both in recent and ancient times as well as provide historical carbon dioxide concentrations. We will also discuss the implications of present day GHG emissions.

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                                                                            Shahir Masri
                                                                            Doctor of Science
                                                                            Environmental Health Science


Climate Science #1 - How Carbon Warms the Planet

In my last post I mentioned the launching of an educational blog series on climate change. Through this, I hope to inform the public on the science of the issue, its importance, and the ways in which we can each take action to help mitigate its severity. Absent of nuclear war, climate change represents the most threatening issue of our time. It affects national security, the economy, human rights, health and disease, wildlife, and more. Sadly, the solution to the problem is one that threatens the very rich and powerful fossil fuel industry; namely, a shift to alternative energy. To prevent this shift, the industry has launched a massive mis-informational campaign designed to ensure inaction on the issue. Their goal has never been to win a scientific debate on climate change. After all, 97% of scientists agree on the facts. Rather, their goal has been to divide the public on the issue. To generate doubt. To prevent public mobilization and political pressure. And very successful they’ve been. Here we are, decades after scientists caught on to climate change, still languishing politically to address the matter.

As an air pollution scientist with zero industrial ties, I ask you to please take this blog series as an opportunity to learn about and understand the facts surrounding climate change. Do not let industry turn this into a "debate." In this series I'll explain why the climate is warming, the extent to which humans are a cause, the importance of a 2 degree temperature increase, and much more. We have a potentially catastrophic situation on our hands, and it is time to dispel the industry propaganda and truly become educated on the matter. The next step will be to seriously pressure the government for change. Our kids and grand kids will thanks us! 

The Not So Vast Atmosphere

So let's begin with the basics of greenhouse gases. What are they, how do they trap heat, and are we really releasing enough to alter the atmosphere? While the atmosphere seems infinite, consider this. On a planet that spans 25,000 miles around, the bulk of our atmosphere (99%) is only 18 miles high. If you’re from Orange County, that’s the distance between Newport Beach and Dana Point! Alternatively, that’s 30 football fields side by side. The point is, though we can view the nighttime stars, our own atmosphere is nothing more than a thin veneer around the planet. 

The Greenhouse Effect

You’re all familiar with a botanical greenhouse. It stays warm even on the coolest of days, so long as the sun is shining. So how does it work? First, let me say that the sun emits short wave radiation. As objects absorb this radiation they become warm. This is of no surprise so far. What’s important, though, is that when objects warm they too emit radiation. They release long wave radiation. Now back to the greenhouse. It turns out that short wave radiation (sunlight) can pass uninterrupted through glass, while long wave radiation (from warm objects) cannot. The result is sunlight passing into the greenhouse, warming the internal environment, which then releases long wave radiation. That long wave radiation, unable to escape back out of the glass, becomes trapped. Heat then accumulates. In the case of the earth, our atmosphere is the glass. Well, not the whole atmosphere. Certain gases in the atmosphere behave as the glass of the house—gases such as carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane. Not surprisingly, we call these "greenhouse gases," or GHGs for short. With the earth, our glass ceiling is not a perfect heat trapper. It is more like glass with windows. As we emit more and more GHGs, however, those windows begin to close and temperatures rise. This is what’s been happening over the past 200 years. The graph below shows average CO2 concenrtions in the atmosphere, and the progressive closing of these windows. 

Figure 2. Carbon dioxide concentrations over the past 1,000 years. 

Notice in the above graph, also featured on the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration website, that CO2 concentrations rise abruptly around the year 1800. This reflects the enormous spike in emissions following the industrial revolution, as mentioned earlier. This rise is no coincidence and is very substantial. From this, we might expect an increased trapping of heat and a rise in global average temperatures. Well, that's what we observe. And I'll present such temperature figures in the coming weeks. 

So what about natural climate variability? In my next blog I will cover this in detail. 

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                                                                 Shahir Masri
                                                                 Doctor of Science
                                                                 Environmental Health Science