Unsettled Science
What a Cooling Antarctica Means for Climate Science

Antarctica spent most of the second half of the 20th century warming, a fact that inspired a steady stream of doomsaying pronouncements from the Chicken Littles of the world. Loath as we are to let facts get in the way of a good story, we’d be remiss not to note that over the past two decades, our southernmost continent has actually been cooling, sending scientists scrambling for explanations and silencing the shouts of environmentalists who just twenty years ago were convinced that we’d be seeing an ice-free South pole by now. As Reuters reports, a group of researchers think they’ve figured out what’s behind this recent cooling effect down there:

[A] shift to colder winds and more sea ice since then have brought a chill to [Antarctica] despite the build-up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, the scientists wrote in the journal Nature. […]

Since about 1998, local air temperatures have fallen about 0.5 degree Celsius (0.9 Fahrenheit) a decade, roughly the rate at which they had previously been warming since about 1950. Stabilization of the ozone hole over Antarctica, which shields the planet from ultra-violet rays and has been damaged by man-made chemicals, may partly explain the shift in winds that led to the cooling, the study said. […]

“The increase of greenhouse gases … is being overwhelmed in this part of the Antarctic” by natural variations in the local climate, said lead author John Turner of the British Antarctic Survey (BAS). “We’re certainly not saying that global warming has stopped. On the contrary,” he told a telephone news conference on the study. “We’re highlighting the complexity of climate change.”

That last quote by the study’s lead author is particularly important, and if we unpack it we can get to the frustrating core of the modern environmental movement’s relationship with science.

First, let’s be clear: this latest research doesn’t “disprove” climate change. Average global surface temperatures are still rising, and at a general level we can understand why: a higher concentration of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane are trapping more of the sun’s radiation in our atmosphere. We can also recognize that humans are responsible for a huge amount of those emissions, and point to that as a real problem that needs addressing.

But—and here is where most greens lose both policymakers and the general public—the details of climate change, where the proverbial devil is, are far less clear. Our planet’s climate is necessarily global in scope, but it’s also bewilderingly complex at every level, with complicated relationships between variables creating feedback loops and ripple effects, many (if not most) of which we still don’t understand. There’s a clear need to devote more time and effort into deepening our knowledge of our climate, but just because we can identify some mechanics at a macro level doesn’t mean the job is somehow done. Climate science is nowhere near “settled,” and it’s downright irresponsible to suggest that it might be.

And yet that’s precisely what greens have been doing, so eager to browbeat skeptics and the public more generally into submission that they run roughshod over the real nuance of climate change, the more detailed topography of the problem that any scientist will tell you is inherent to serious research. If they want to be taken seriously, environmentalists need to acknowledge the wrinkles that still exist in climate science, because the alternative only loses them credibility. Declaring the issue done and dusted only serves to feed the ranks of climate deniers when new research like Antarctic cooling comes to light.

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