People don’t want to feel bad about how they live their lives, and they don’t want to feel like they’re the under the watchful eye of the government or do-gooders as they go about their business. Which is perhaps why it’s uncomfortable to discuss and even tempting to brush off human-caused or anthropogenic climate change (ACC). Admitting to the inconvenient truth of ACC means that you need to add energy use to a growing list of things you’ve been told to be careful about: your diet, your screen time, your choice of grocery bag, etc. This can be disheartening and invites rebellion.
That said – and stop me if you’ve heard this – “multiple studies published in peer-reviewed scientific journals show that 97 percent or more of actively publishing climate scientists agree: Climate-warming trends over the past century are extremely likely due to human activities” (NASA). To be sure, I dug deeper into this oft-cited “97%” statistic. In particular, a very recent study (April 2016) by Cook et. al. lists 14 other studies that have tried to determine scientific consensus on ACC, largely by reviewing abstracts of published papers and/or asking scientists directly. All studies conducted after 1991 identify a minimum consensus among publishing climatologists of 83.5%, with most in the 90th percentiles. Five separate studies identify a 97% consensus among this group, and Cook notes that the consensus generally increases in relationship to respondents’ expertise.
Of course even with consensus, common sense dictates that it’s tough to predict the exact effects that increased emissions from human activity will have on our climate. But that doesn’t mean we can’t have our brightest scientific minds make their best estimates. Here again, “the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which includes more than 1,300 scientists from the United States and other countries, forecasts a temperature rise of 2.5 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit over the next century. ‘Taken as a whole,’ the IPCC states, ‘the range of published evidence indicates that the net damage costs of climate change are likely to be significant and to increase over time’” (NASA). (Although the IPCC uses conservative language, a full list of anticipated impacts from ACC are detailed here.)
Ok, you ask, but what is energy’s role in contributing to ACC? According to a 2014 report from the IPCC, about 75% of global greenhouse gas emissions come from the energy sector, with remaining GHG emissions coming from agriculture, forestry, land use, and certain industrial processes. Therefore, the math is simple: fossil fuel combustion = greenhouse gas emissions = global climate change = significant negative impacts. Which means we can’t, in fact, have our cake and eat it too. It turns out that burning 74 million years’ worth of fossil fuels in a span of 200 years can and will impact our home and all that lives on it. And you might not need – or want – an international panel of scientists to tell you that.