Posted by: ericgrimsrud | March 25, 2019

An underappreciated point made by Greta

Concerning her scientific knowledge, Greta Thunberg appears to know a lot more than most. For example, at about 3.4 minutes into her speech, Greta made a very important comment that I believe is not generally understood by many. Therefore, I will take this opportunity to explain it further.

While addressing the paucity of media coverage concerning global warming, one of her examples was “nor does anyone in the press mention that existing air pollution is hiding a warming effect – which when we stop burning fossil fuels, will add an additional increment of warming, perhaps as high as 0.5 to 1.1 degrees Celsius”. Wow! Think about that for a moment. If true, and there is no reason to think it is not true, even if we stopped all fossil fuel combustion today, we would then immediately add the amount she states to the 1.0 degrees C of warming we have already caused. That would mean that the new global temperature average would immediately be between 1.5 and 2.1 degrees C of warming! Wow again!

So, what exactly was she scientifically referring to by that profound statement? It is this. In addition to the greenhouse gases, our lower atmosphere today also contains pollutants in the form of particulate matter. They have been formed primarily by the oxidation and then condensation of the sulfur dioxide that is emitted from fossil-fuel-burning power plants. Ironically, these sulfate particulates actually have a beneficial cooling effect. They increase the reflection of incoming solar radiation, thereby cancelling out roughly one-third of the heating caused by our excess greenhouse gases. Therefore, as we manage to reduce and then eliminate fossil fuel use, we must also realize that we will be progressively losing that cooling effect – resulting in an increase in temperature on top of that produced by the greenhouse gases.

In addition, increased particulate matter also affects our clouds, causing them to also reflect more incoming solar radiation back into outer space. The effect of these clouds on heating constitutes one of the least well understood aspects of global warming. This fact leads to the large uncertainly of expected additional heat stated by Greta, from 0.5 to 1.1 degrees C. In any case, that is a lot of additional expected heating – as a consequence of stopping fossil fuel use – something we must nevertheless do in order to prevent increased levels of CO2.  Oh what a web we have woven!  No wonder Greta is so concerned – she knows the science involved.

My point in this post is to compliment Greta on her consideration of even the scientifically complex aspects of climate change.  Hopefully, discussions such as this one of Greta’s comments will increase the public’s knowledge of the global warming problem.


Posted by: ericgrimsrud | March 21, 2019

Go Greta and don’t sweat the old farts!

This post has been motivated by several feedbacks I have received concerning the speech of Greta Thunberg, a 16-year old girl from Sweden, that I drew attention to in my previous post (see Greta’s speech again at I am addressing these feedbacks immediately here because I do not think their authors understood what Greta was saying and, therefore, wish to clarify a couple of points for their benefit.

All of the critical feedbacks I have read questioned Greta’s scientific knowledge. Of course, at age 16 Greta has not yet developed a complete scientific grasp of the science of climate change. But she was not claiming to have extensive scientific experiences. She was simply saying that she is aware of the recommendations that have been put forth by the real climate scientists who do have that knowledge and experience. And, just because there are so many scientifically deficient adults out there who don’t know where our very best science comes from, that does not mean that Greta doesn’t.  Nor does it mean that Greta should share their skepticism of our scientific communities. She knows where the best science of AGW can be found and has, indeed, found it.

Another silly comment I have heard or read too often is that this “poor little girl” is being unwittingly “used” by the  political forces “of the Left”. The facts suggest, however, that Greta is an extraordinarily serious, responsible, and self-motivated young person who would not be easily “trained” or “manipulated” by the adults in her life. In addition, many (including me) have learned how one’s battles with depression can cause one to develop an unusually strong reliance on one’s own independent sense of reality. Greta’s life history and present personality is that of someone who has, indeed, achieved a stable and mature state the hard way. Bravo for Greta!

So, my main point here is to explain why the critics I mentioned above did not understand what Greta was saying. She was not trying to teach them new aspects of the science. Most of that science has been known for some 30 years. What she was doing was giving the adults of the world a bad time for not doing what they clearly should have been doing in recent decades. Being on the receiving end of such clear and appropriate criticism can be difficult for many to handle, however, especially for those of us who have reached the classic “old fart”, “full of hubris” stages of our lives. I doubt that Greta even expects to achieve any converts among that group. Instead, she is wisely focusing on the involvement of youngsters such as herself and with them, is going directly to our national and international branches of government. Perhaps the adults, who have already had their chances (in spades, actually, and have always failed miserably), should now just get out of the way and not continue to screw things up. After all, we of my generation will be fine during the rest of our undeserved, exceedingly high environmental impact existences.  While our great lifestyle will have to be paid for by all future generations, my own generation has still not contributed a pittance and deserves the term I have assigned them here.  Read More…

Posted by: ericgrimsrud | March 19, 2019

Youngster speaks truth to adults

I recently noticed what is perhaps the most compelling short presentation on the subject of climate change that I have ever heard. See it at

It is provided by a 15-year old Swedish girl named Greta Thunberg. She speaks with extraordinary clarity and purpose – two characteristics Greta believes she acquired in the process of dealing with her personal malady of Asperger’s Syndrome in childhood. Please share Greta’s video with others of all ages.

Posted by: ericgrimsrud | March 7, 2019

A debate at Harvard on divestment

On this website, I have repeatedly requested the administration and faculty of St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota, to provide the reasons for why the endowment funds of that college should be invested in fossil-fuel producing industries as they currently are. I have even asked the President of St. Olaf College, David Anderson, if St.O has any intention of divesting itself from those industries and his answer was simply “no”. Therefore, I have made some effort in the last few years to get my alma mater to think more deeply about this issue and, if not devest itself, at least understand and explain why they intend to continue those investments.

So far, I have heard of only a couple of trivial reasons for St.O’s actions and will not embarrass them again by repeating them here. Instead, I will ask them to watch the video I will refer to below. It is a visual and verbal recording of a debate recently held at Harvard University between two faculty members, one is for divestment and the other is against. Like St. Olaf College, Harvard has chosen not to divest itself, so far, but the issue remains a highly contested one on its campus. As evidenced by this video, the quality of intellectual thought on this issue at Harvard appears to be couple tiers above that at St. Olaf College. Therefore, my object in sharing this video here is to raise the quality of discussion at St.O to above that of the “too small to matter” defense. In addition, I hope that St.O viewers note that at Harvard University, the students in attendance are entitled to a question and answer session following a presentation concerning the difficult, but most important subject of our time. This simple observation contrasts with one of my own presentations at my alma mater in September of 2016 when the faculty moderator in charge announced about half way through my planned interaction that the students needed to get back to “their studies” and thus prevented any discussion with the students. Apparently, Harvard students are allowed to stay up past 8 pm.

As a graduate of St. Olaf (class of “66 – back when we did, in deed, have to get our dates back to the women’s dorms by 10 pm), I, for one, care very much about the degree to which the most important problem of today is being understood and addressed at St. Olaf College.

Thus, I refer you the promised debate at


Posted by: ericgrimsrud | March 5, 2019

Initial thoughts concerning the Green New Deal

I applaud the GND movement for the attention it is generating on the subject of Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW) and for the sense of urgency it conveys in addressing it. Given the magnitude of the problem, any successful plan might, indeed, require the extraordinarily rapid changes that the GND recommends. We don’t really know for sure yet how rapidly the ravages of AGW will unfold and it will be better to error on the conservative side. At the same time, however, there are two specific aspects of the plan that I fear might lead to a failure of the GND at its very onset. If so, that failure might then also damage other, alternate plans that might follow.

So, what are the potential show-stoppers of the GND as it now exists? One is that in its most aggressive form, its proposed time frame for bringing all CO2 emissions of the USA to zero is 2030, just eleven years hence. Very few knowledgeable scientists and policy makers are likely to consider this time-line to be possible. So far, our scientific leaders have been challenged to envision how the world can get to zero emissions by 2050, 31 years hence. The sad fact is that over the last 150 years mankind has dug itself into a hole that is very possibly much deeper than the GND acknowledges. From now going forward, we must address the problem with complete honesty and not just wishful optimism.

Another potential problem with the GND, as it presently exists, is that it also includes various social issues, such as universal health care and guarantied federal jobs. This is a huge mistake. The climate change problem, all be itself, will challenge us to our limits and should be placed front and center all by itself. We should not share that spotlight with other ongoing issues even if the others are meritorious and long-overdue. Immediate action on the AGW problem is of paramount importance. We will have the time and inclination to address other issues either sooner or later – but only if the big one is being successfully addressed. Just as there would be little point in replacing the windows of your home if the house itself was on fire.

In a world warmer than 2 degrees C, organized efforts and even organized civilizations, as we know them today, are likely to no longer exist. Due to what we have already done to our atmosphere, we are already half way to that 2 degree C limit. In addition, it should be noted that many scientists believe that the exceedingly dangerous temperature limit that we must not exceed is closer to 1.5 degrees C than 2.0.

Our next swing at this approaching fast ball might very well be our last. So, for the sake of your children, grandchildren and all of our other descendants that manage to be born prior to the onset of uninhabitable conditions on this planet, please pay very close attention to the plans presently being formulated for the stabilization of our planet’s temperature. For starters, I believe that the GND should be modified as suggested here so that it has a snowball’s chance of public acceptance in our rapidly warming world.

Posted by: ericgrimsrud | February 22, 2019

Still waiting for St.O’s response

In addition to my occasional posts at in which I use St.Olaf College as an example of weak academic leadership on the greatest problem of our time (that is, global warming, of course), I have also occasionally sent private letters to St.O President Anderson concerning this issue. For example, two years ago I sent the following letter to President Anderson via email. Because President Anderson appears to be ignoring them, I feel free to share one of them here with the general public.

To David Anderson, President of St. Olaf College, March 12, 2017

Dear David

On the issues of racial, gender and individual rights, your recent actions have shown that you take alleged offenses in those areas very seriously. Your actions concerning the cases of former Professor Dittman and the St. Olaf baseball team, for examples, have shown that you are willing to do more than just “talk the talk” at St. Olaf on these issues. Not that these actions necessarily solve any issue – but they do send a message concerning the ethical and moral principles St. Olaf College embraces.  

At the same time, I wish you could also find the courage to be similarly proactive on the far more important issue of global warming – as I have repeatedly explained on my website, Concerning that enormous problem, you have been able to “talk the talk” by pointing to your non-CO2 producing means of electricity production on the StO campus, but have not yet recognized the need to wean the world, including St. Olaf College, of essentially all CO2 emissions within the next couple decades. Concerning that point, you have been silent about how StO might make environmentally responsible changes in its extremely carbon intensive programs such as those involving the transport of a large fraction of its students, faculty and even alumni to distant locations. Note that there is no such thing as “good” or “ethical” CO2 emissions – all of it is “bad”.  Therefore and unfortunately, we can no longer afford to give “travel indulgences” to those claiming to be doing “good works”.  

Given this blind spot at St. Olaf College (and, I should add, in most other colleges and universities) in both action and acknowledgement, I am left to wonder if the administrators of St. Olaf College, including its President, are actually aware of the perils posed by our increasing greenhouse gases and especially that of CO2.  For this reason, I would ask you to reread my post of January 31, 2017 at, entitled “Power Keg Earth, ready to go off”. It describes the science that dictates much stronger and immediate action on reducing emissions of CO2. Then I would ask you to explain why this science does not have the same effect on you as it does on me.  Because you are not a professional scientist please feel free to include in the preparation of your response any persons at St.O or elsewhere who are knowledgeable climate scientists and whose advice you appear to be taking. Surely you are in touch with such people, right?

I am guessing that the reason for our differences on this issue might be one of the following?  Perhaps you think the science I relate is wrong or exaggerated? Or is it because you think scientists will be able to solve the excess CO2 problem later when its effects become even more obvious? Is it because the Board of Regents of St. Olaf College does not include anyone who understands and appreciates the role science plays in understanding what Mother Nature does?  Is it because the issue of climate change is too serious and difficult for little St.O College to take a public stance on. Is it possibly because the administration of St.O is so focused its problems associated with student and faculty misconduct that it does not see the more important issues of our times?   

All of this reminds me of another time in history exactly 500 years ago when a professor of theology at the University of Wittenberg, Germany, came to realize that the business-as-usual forces of his time (the Roman Catholic Church, that is) had turned Christianity into a business in which wealth was more valued than service to mankind. That state of affairs might have continued if it had not been for the courage shown by Martin Luther. Luther literally risked his life for an important point of principle on which the meaning of his religion depended. Apparently, we need another Martin Luther today to remind us of the difference between a religion and a business. Selling one’s soul to our business-as-usual fossil-fuel-driven industrial complex is just as abhorrent as selling indulgences providing immunity against God’s punishments. Both of these activities interfere with service to the real needs of mankind.

I would be pleased to see your response to my questions and, if you would feel comfortable doing so, please share this letter with other members of the St.O. Board of Regents. In my opinion, the topic addressed here merits the highest level of consideration St. Olaf College can provide.


Eric Grimsrud

President Anderson has not responded to this letter over the two years since it was sent. As of Feb. 22, 2019, I am still waiting for that response. As a result, I fear that any honest responses to my questions might require admissions that St.O does not want to make in a public forum. For example, I fear that the St.O College of today is more inclined to serve the needs of its corporate donors than it is to those of its students and the general public. As Dwight Eisenhower finished his last term as US President in 1960, he warned the US public of a Military – Industrial complex that he thought threatened our representative democracy. Since that time, another union between our Industrial Complex and our universities has also increasingly threatened our democracy. Even at Harvard University where much of the best research on climate change has occurred, its controlling Board of Regents has refused to divest its enormous assets from the fossil fuel industries. St. Olaf College has chosen to the same.

As I have illustrated in this and other interactions with my alma mater, it appears that St. Olaf College cannot adequately explain its behavior in public. It either “stonewalls” questions on this issue or provides simplistic responses not worthy of serious consideration in view of the magnitude of the problem.  In the meantime, I suspect that St.O has placed its bets on the likelihood that our “business as usual” forces will continue to overwhelm conscientious and responsible discussions on this subject.  As I said in my original letter, Martin Luther would, indeed, not be impressed with this institution that was rooted in the branch of theology that Luther gave rise to.  As I recall, one of Luther’s main points was to show that a religious institution should not degenerate into a business.







Posted by: ericgrimsrud | February 16, 2019

An update on warming and negative emission technologies

Over the last 3 years, I have used my alma mater, St. Olaf College of Northfield, Minnesota, as example of the lack of understanding of climate change that still exists even within our colleges and universities. In those interactions, the stance of St.O has become increasingly clear. In the view of its main representative, President David Anderson, St.O is doing its part to combat climate change primarily via wind mills and solar panels which now provide all of the electrical needs of the St.O campus. Sure, St.O is also financially invested in fossil fuel industries and promotes some very high carbon footprint programs, such as their extensive studies abroad programs, but these environmentally detrimental activities are offset by their wind mills and solar panels – so President Anderson’s argument goes.

These interactions with President Anderson have caused me to question whether or not he understands how dire our real state of global warming actually is today.  Modest half-measures and gradual changes will no longer suffice. In addition, we must have all segments of society involved – especially our colleges and universities who have great influence on the younger portions of our society.

For these reasons, I will refer below a recent presentation by one of the world’s leading climate scientist, Kevin Anderson, without additional comment. Hopefully the great differences between the views and attitudes of these two Andersons, Dave and Kevin, will be made clear and show that St.O College has barely begun to do its part.

The Gordon Goodman Memorial Lecture 2017 – Kevin Anderson

Kevin Anderson is Professor of Energy and Climate Change at the University of Manchester and Deputy Director of the internationally Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research. This talk provided the main event at this climate change conference in Sweden. It can be seen at

And be sure to rise as Her Royal Highness of Sweden enters the room!




Unless you and the institutions you represent have been scientifically out to lunch in the last decade, you know very well that:

  • Increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases in the Earth’s atmosphere are causing the heat content and average temperatures of our planet to increase
  • These changes have been occurring continuously and increasingly since the beginning of the Industrial Age – largely due to the combustion of fossil fuels, a process by which geological carbon is converted to its biological forms (CO2 and plants).
  • That new, additional biological carbon does not get converted back into its geological forms for a very long time – it takes millions of years to convert CO2 to limestone and plant material to fossilized carbon.
  • Mankind has not yet discovered a means of removing that excess biological carbon on an industrial scale at a feasible cost.
  • While great advances have been made in the means of energy production by non-polluting alternative methods (such as solar panels and windmills), the atmospheric content of CO2 is still increasing and is doing so at an increased rate each year. It is clear that fossil fuel use is still increasing, not decreasing.
  • In order to have a chance of successfully arresting continued warming for the sake of future generations, we need to reduce CO2 emissions to absolute zero within the next few decades.
  • Given the above information, a central requirement of arresting the advance of additional warming is the elimination of all anthropogenic emissions of CO2 in the next two or three decades. This means the elimination of natural gas, gasoline, diesel fuel, and coal use for providing the energy we require for work, heat, and transportation.
  • These changes have and will continue to cause consternation in many sectors of our economy that have developed a dependency on fossil fuels.
  • Nevertheless, Mother Nature does not give a hoot about the maintenance of our present lifestyles. She does things one way – Her way – in response to the changes we are making in our atmosphere.

So what is my “beef” with St. Olaf College? In their actions and their publications, they do not seem to recognize the list of concerns I posted above. Instead, they seem to be ignoring the calls for aggressive action against global warming. Most egregious of their actions is the fact that they continue to invest in fossil-fuel-related industries. If one wishes to reduce fossil fuel use to zero as rapidly as possible, all investments in the industries that either produce fossil fuels or make extensive use of them must be stopped.

When the President of St. Olaf College was recently asked why they continue to invest in these companies, he offered two reasons. One was that the resources of St.O are too small as to make a difference in the US markets.  In other words, he seems to think what St.O does doesn’t matter.  The other reason he offered was that being invested in the fossil fuel industries provides St.O with a “seat at the table”. Concerning his first reason, he is throwing away his opportunity for leadership on this issue. Concerning his second reason, he is suggesting that the fossil fuel corporations will be receptive to the recommendations of an institution that “talks the talk” better than it “walks the walk”.

Let’s face it. St. Olaf College, like many colleges in the USA, are essentially “business as usual” partners of Corporate America. While they do their best to appear to also be centers of intellectual thought, their inaction on the greatest problem of our times suggests that they are not. They appear to be sitting this one out for fear that their industrial donations might be damaged if they become too active – better to focus instead on civil rights issues that no longer take a lot of courage to endorse.

In closing, one might ask, where are the students, faculty, and alumni of St. Olaf College on the issue of global warming? Have they also been cowed into silence? Do they really believe that their windmills and solar panels allow St.O a pass on participation in the more substantial and possibly more painful changes that will also be required in order to bring emissions to zero in a couple decades? Shouldn’t all fossil-fuel intensive activities sponsored by St.O College be more carefully examined starting right now?

There was a time, prior to about 1950, when our institutions of higher education focused on the academic disciplines they represented – with minimal or at least secondary consideration of the effects their work might have on the myriad commercial interests of the industrial world and the military needs of our armed forced. Then, starting with WWII and the Cold War that followed, our federal government began to provide increased funding to our universities for undertaking research, especially in the sciences, related to national defense. Then, following the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, our universities found that they needed another source of funding and found it in our then prosperous industrial sectors. Presently at age 74, I personally witnessed some of these changes at all of the educational institutions I studied and worked at, including St. Olaf College of Minnesota, the University of Wisconsin, Madison, the University of Alberta, in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, Washington State University, Pullman, and Montana State University, Bozeman.

As a direct result of these changes, our colleges and universities are now largely directed and controlled by Boards of Regents, headed by the presidents and administrative staff of those schools along with a group of appointed individuals selected largely from the business communities of their region. As the costs of higher education (tuition, room, board and special programs) have increased enormously in recent decades, the role of the Boards of Regents for raising needed funding has proportionally increased. Without those funds raised by the Boards of Regents and their associated fund-raising networks, the extensive programs now commonly offered to potential students would not be possible. Therefore, it is not surprising that the controlling entity on the campuses as they exist today are the Boards of Reagents who raise the funds for the programs they have created.

There was a time when one could seek the thoughts and advice on any issues of interest from individual scientists or administers at colleges and universities. Today, that task is not so easily accomplished. Both the faculty and administrators are now hesitant to interact with the general public for fear that such communications might go against the “brand” that the Boards and Presidents are trying to sell to potential donors – many of whom come from the wealthiest sectors of our economy. Therefore, even though I am a graduate of St. Olaf College (class of 1966) who became an accomplished scientist in the field of atmospheric chemistry during my subsequent career, I have found it very difficult to interact with all levels of personnel at St. Olaf College on the subject of anthropogenic global warming. They and the economic forces they are tied to don’t what to hear about it. Too much action along those lines could be harmful to the businesses of their donors.

If you would like to see an example of this, scan the list of posts I have placed on this web site over the last three years. About a half dozen of them concern my attempt to engage the administration and Board of Regents of St. Olaf on the subject of man-caused global warming. Specifically, I have suggested that they should play a greater leadership role in this area – by example, as well as by their communications. But throughout my extended, but largely one-way dialog with the President, the Environmental Faculty, and the Board of St. Olaf. I have received exceedingly little feedback – even though I have repeatedly offered to meet with their environmental science departments. I was allowed an interaction with a small group of St. Olaf students about two years ago, but that interaction was unfortunately terminated by the faculty member in charge at the very moment I invited questions and interactions with the students. (That faculty member “explained” to me that the students – apparently all of them – needed to get back to their dorms at that moment in order to study???)

Both the faculty and administration of St. Olaf appear to be under the controlling influence of the Board and do not feel free to express their own opinions concerning the greatest issue of our times. Their only comments on this topic are of the “greenwashing” type, heavy on talk and light on meaningful action (note that the wind mill on its campus does not justify a “free pass” for St. Olaf from participation in all of the other more painful actions that need to be taken by all of us in order to eliminate green house gas emissions).

What a great shame all this is. Institutions that should provide society with intellectual leadership, instead are relatively mute on this difficult issue and provide poor examples of what must be done going forward. As one of America’s leading intellectuals, Noam Chomsky, explained in his address at St. Olaf College last May, unfortunate behaviors such as those we now see at St. Olaf College are the result of the business models that have been widely adopted by college and universities in recent decades. In this way, our colleges and universities have essentially sold their souls to the business-as-usual forces of America. While our institutions of higher education still claim to be centers of intellectual excellence in their lavish promotional literature, in fact, they no longer are. Instead they have morphed into businesses in which their actions are determined primarily by their financial “bottom line”.

So, for example, should St. Olaf College divest itself from fossil fuel industries? “Never”, its President has told me. While that and other actions are now clearly warranted at St. Olaf, some of those actions might go against the “business model” it is now a captive of. For extended discussions of this institutional disease, perhaps President Anderson and his Board should invite Noam Chomsky back again this year.

Posted by: ericgrimsrud | November 8, 2018

Our scientifically hapless media and the lay public they produce

Thomas Jefferson is said to have stated: “if I had the choice of having a government, but no media, or a media, but no government, I would choose the latter”. I also believe that our media plays a central and essential role in governing our country but have noted that they do a terrible job of covering issues related to science. This deficiency is most unfortunate, because our modern world is so closely tied to and dependent on the details of scientific issues.

Just think back for a moment two years ago to the many debates that occurred between candidates of both parties for the US presidency. In all of those debates, there was almost zero consideration and questions concerning the greatest environmental problem before us (that would be global warming, of course). That’s right – almost zero attention to climate change. And, all of those debates were directed by members of the media. I suspect that most of the candidates did not want to be put on record for their views in this area and the media happily obliged partly, I’m sure, because they also felt unsure of how to direct such discussions.

So how could that be – one should ask. Isn’t global warming the most important environmental issue today? In fact, isn’t global warming the most important issue, period, on the table. The blame for this ridiculously inadequate coverage lies primarily at the feet of our national and regional media, does it not? Most individuals of the media don’t know very much about basic science themselves and are poor referees of conversation dealing with science.

Note also that whenever the media hosts a legitimate climate scientist, they often introduce that person with the comment, “some scientists think ……” or they frequently include comments made by a pseudo scientific denier who has the opposite view – deniers are all too easy to find. This leaves the public with the impression that the issue is unsettled – something like a 50/50 split even at the basic scientific level. This conclusion is not at all true, of course. Within our legitimate scientific community, the issue is as “settled” as any issue of some complexity can be and it has been studied for many decades. Yet, the media leaves us with the impression that this issue is not totally settled.

So why does our media do this? Part of the reason is that they are taught in their schools of journalism that every issue has at least two different legitimate sides. While this is true in many areas of human interest, it is not true when dealing with a science-based issues. This is because Mother Nature does things one way – Her way – and the goal of science is to identify what that one way is. Nevertheless, no matter how certain and well-understood a given issue in science becomes after years of study and observation, the media still continues to present other alternative and unsupported views as if they were equally credible. The media often leaves the public thinking that the correct science is simply a matter of personal opinion.

The media is prone to doing this because of their training in journalism and their poor acquaintance with science. Let’s face it – studying science is difficult and relatively few choose to study science in earnest – and certainly not those individuals preparing themselves for a career in journalism. They have so many fields to become aquainted with and are not likely to spend lots of time on the most difficult of these. Therefore, when directing a debate on climate change between two or more participants, they typically cannot tell when the comments of one or more of the contestants is scientifically out of bounds, thereby allowing nonsense to consume much of the allotted time.

I have a couple of examples that illustrate how even utterly ridiculous science can pass without comment in the political domain even with hordes of media present. During one of his annual State of the Nation speeches President Clinton said “and we will continue to address our environmental problems – such as stratospheric ozone depletion, global warming and black holes”. So black holes constitute an environmental problem that mankind has any control over? In fact, the closest black holes are about 100,000  light-years away from Earth and even if they had any detectable effect on us, we would have no chance of affecting them. What an absolutely silly comment! What amazed me most about this incident, however, is that I neither read nor heard any comment or corrections by the media about Clinton’s looney comment.

Another example: During one of her State of the State speeches the then Governor of Montana, Judy Martz, she was asked by a reporter “in view of the global warming problem, do you promote the increased production of electrical power by the coal-driven power plants in Eastern Montana”. Governor Martz then scolded that reporter with the strong retort, “my record concerning the regulation our smoke stack industries is absolutely clear. They have been forced to include the latest technologies for the removal of pollutants.” Then, neither that reporter nor those covering that speech bothered to point out that the pollutant under discussion at that moment, CO2, cannot be removed from smoke stacks by existing scrubbing devices. All coal, oil, or gas burning power plants emit all of their carbon as CO2 into the atmosphere. Again, I noted not a single comment in the media concerning this ridiculous statement, neither at that moment nor in the state’s several newspapers the following day. The Governor had just shown that she did not understand this most basic aspect of fossil fuel pollution and the media let it pass most probably because they did not understand it either.

Winston Churchill is reported to have once said “the best argument against a democracy is a five-minute conversation with an average voter”. If Winston was correct, a major reason for this is that our media is the major source of information for the public and, as I have been pointing our here, our media is all too often not sufficiently knowledgeable as to keep discussions of modern scientific issues between the rails of confirmed science.

So, what the media needs, of course, is increased knowledge of science and, if that is not possible, then they need to at least know and understand how the scientific community works and where they can find the best versions of any scientific issue. A public gathering of a political nature is not where the laws of nature are likely to be accurately decided. In such discussions members of the media should arrive with sufficient minimum knowledge as to keep the discussions between the rails of scientific reality. Also, they should know that to downplay the seriousness of the climate change issue is all too easy to do – it is, after all, what we all wish we could do. At the same time, facing this problem squarely and trying to successfully address it can be very difficult to do and might even require a considerable amount of sacrifice and lifestyle change for the public. Yes, the media does control the extent to which the lay public understands the issues before them. That is a great responsibility on which both our democracy and the physical state of our planet depend.



Older Posts »