Expert Richard Alley Shares Facts, Optimism About Climate Change
Renowned geoscientist’s presentation caps 25th Isaac Symposium
April 25, 2014 | By Jake Weber
Albion College’s 25th Elkin R. Isaac Student Research Symposium showcased the work of some 110 Albion students, encompassing everything from a guitar concerto to lunar glass analysis, Michigan World War II history and the anthropology of obesity.
Nobel laureate Richard Alley received an honorary doctorate before delivering the Joseph S. Calvaruso Keynote. Alley, a geosciences professor at Pennsylvania State University who regularly advises world leaders and U.S. legislators on climate-change science, used history and personal anecdotes to illustrate the science and to suggest workable ways to combat global warming.
Alley started with a brief overview of how American forests and the world's whale populations were on the brink of extermination when fossil fuels were developed in the 1800s. "We have whales and trees because we burn fossil fuels," he said.
One large problem with the pollution caused by fossil fuels is its near invisibility, illustrated deftly by Alley. "You go to the store and put a gallon of milk in your cart. If you had to bring home 16 gallons of gas that way, you could hardly do it," he said.
"Those 16 gallons weigh about 100 pounds. You burn that, it makes 300 pounds of CO2 and that drifts away into the air," Alley said. "If we took all that CO2, compressed it into the density of water and spread it on the roads, that's an inch a year."
Another way to look at it: "What we put out to the curb for the trash person to pick up is 1,000 pounds per person a year. Our CO2 generation is 40,000 pounds a year," Alley said.
Alley, who has won many prestigious awards for his work presenting science to general audiences, stressed that "skeptics" of climate change are just plain wrong.
"We've known about the warming effects of CO2 for well over a century. That knowledge was old when Einstein got busy." Alley noted that U.S. military physicists began studying the heat-trapping effects of CO2 in the 1940s while developing heat-seeking missiles, and the military continues to monitor atmospheric CO2 levels.
"The warming influence of CO2 on the planet is not something you 'believe in,'" Alley stated. "It's physics."
Alley also debunked a popular skeptic statement that Earth is not warming. He noted that even as much of North America experienced record cold temperatures during the winter of 2014, the rest of the planet, from the tropics to the poles, was warmer than average. "It's two steps forward and one step back – overall, you're definitely moving forward," he said. "If you look at thermometers in the ground … in the ocean … looking down from space …. they all show warming. This is real science."
Noting that many Americans don't respond to news about shrinking ice sheets and rising sea levels, Alley offered a close-to-home scenario. "Most of our corn is grown at temperatures that are higher than optimum for the corn plant. By the end of this century, if we keep doing what we're doing, the hottest summer we've seen will be below average. If your food is already heat-stressed, it's going to be a very hungry world."
Like the science, Alley noted that the "solution" of wind energy is well understood, as well as tried and true. "Abraham Lincoln made speeches promoting the use of wind power," he said. "In 30 years, the U.S. could be making a third of the world's energy with wind power, The resources are there."
"There are no serious flaws in the science; there is no 'other side,'" Alley concluded. "If you use this knowledge, you end up with a stronger economy, you get more jobs, greater national security, take out insurance against disasters, get a cleaner environment. It's more consistent with the Golden Rule and you can power everybody forever."