COE Distinguished Speaker Presents Myths and Facts on Climate Change

Dr. Richard Holdaway: “The impact we have won’t make any difference”

In the fourth installment of his six-part speaker series, Dr. Richard Holdaway took a bit of a departure from his previous space-themed talks to discuss the myths and facts regarding one of today’s hottest topics: climate change.

With over 17 years’ involvement in climate programs and experience working on the ESA/NASA collaborative Solar Orbiter, Dr. Holdaway chose to present the audience with research on the topic of climate change. “I’m not going to focus on my opinion,” he began, “just on the facts.”

The talk focused on several key questions: First, is the Earth’s climate changing, and how? Secondly, if so, is humanity a major cause? Third, if we are, to what extent does it matter? And finally, if it does, what should our governments be doing about it?

Dr. Holdaway began with a quick poll of the audience: Is the Earth warming up, cooling down, or maintaining a relatively constant temperature? With the votes split mostly between warming up and constant temperature, Dr. Holdaway remarked, “That’s very interesting.” The case he then made was that it depends on what time frame you examine the data. Over the reconstructed history of Earth, the planet is cooling down, he says.

He posed three “indisputable” facts that he says scientists have universally agreed upon. One, the climate is changing – in fact, it always has and always will. “The Earth has been a lot warmer than it currently is,” Dr. Holdaway claims, citing data that says that the years 700, 800, 900, 1000, 1100, 1200, 1300, and 1400 AD have all been warmer, by the global average, than Earth is now. This time frame is known as the Medieval Warm Period and is characteristic of the climate oscillations that Earth appears to have experienced in its reconstructed history.

Some of the main reasons, according to Dr. Holdaway, that the Earth’s climate can vary so widely are solar cycles, natural events such as volcanoes, and weather patterns such as El Nino. “Predictions on climate change are wrong almost every single time they’re made. Every time,” he says of the media-propelled idea that the human race is entering an era of irreversible damage to our habitat. 

The second indisputable fact: the Earth has warmed up in the past century. Dr. Holdaway attributes primarily this to the natural cycles of solar output and weather patterns, and also claimed that there has been no global increase in temperature in the last fifteen years.

And three, humans are in fact adding to the warming. “You, me, and the other seven-some billion people who haven’t come to this talk: we’re making it worse.” In addition to the natural events that can change the global temperature, Dr. Holdaway says humankind is adding to the warming: “on the order of 10%” of the impact, industrial activities such as transportation, fossil fuels, agriculture, and population growth are contributing to the increasing temperature of the Earth.

Dr. Holdaway also touched on greenhouse gases. Although it’s one of the most major topics in the media, Dr. Holdaway claims carbon dioxide isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. “Carbon dioxide is not the major greenhouse gas. Despite what you see and what you hear, it’s not even close,” noting that water vapor makes up fifteen times more of the atmosphere than carbon dioxide. 

Dr. Holdaway also drew a parallel between corn growth and an increase in carbon dioxide, stating that the greenhouse gas is actually necessary for agricultural growth and that some areas of the Sahara Desert have become fertile because of its increase. “We are almost out of carbon dioxide,” Dr. Holdaway commented on the “unprecedented low” concentration in the atmosphere compared to the ancient history of Earth. “The greenery on the planet is thriving because of the small increase in carbon dioxide.”

The presenter also touched on forest fires, which some cite as evidence for climate change, commenting that there has been very little change in the number of forest fires as the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere has increased. Finally, he discussed what he called some “inconvenient facts” (inconvenient, that is, for the media’s case on the subject). First, the hottest day ever recorded was in 1922. Second, palm trees used to grow in Greenland. Third, only four of the seventeen biggest hurricanes on record have occurred since 1970. And lastly, climate change activist Al Gore to whom many attribute some of the popularization of climate activism, flunked environmental science at Harvard.

Although he doesn’t see the current climate or climate trends as an issue, Dr. Holdaway still had recommendations for making society more efficient. The frontrunner of these was reducing our use of fossil fuels: nuclear fusion power, he says, “would make far more difference than the current strategy at reducing pollution.” He also recommended low-energy buildings and a reduction in the cutting and burning of wooded areas.

“Why do we have so much misinformation, or don’t understand what we’re told?” Dr. Holdaway asked the audience. “We’re all reasonably intelligent adults.” The problem, he claims, stems from multiple avenues: the nonstop access to news and social media, self-serving special interest groups, and politicians and celebrities bandwagoning the topic. ”It’s seen to be trendy. Most of these people haven’t the faintest idea what they’re talking about,” Dr. Holdaway commented.

Dr. Holdaway took a few questions, some for clarification and others in disagreement with his thesis of the presentation. The lively discussion lasted well past the hour session. Readers are encouraged to do their own research on this topic. Dr. Holdaway’s last lecture in the series, “Been there; done that. What’s next?” will be on March 3 from 7:00-8:00 p.m. in the DLC auditorium.

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