12/22/2010 11:57 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Holiday Party Global Warming FAQ

Before heading off for the holidays it's always a good idea to prepare a strategy to keep the conversation lively at family gatherings and holiday parties. Andrew Freedman at the Capital Weather Gang got me started with his lament that climate change can be a conversation killer. That's true, but that can also be a valid strategy if your goal is to get to the eggnog. On the other hand, if you are tired of discussing your travel snafus and your Aunt Edna's medical conditions a more serious conversation about global warming might be just what the doctor ordered. So here I offer my top ten list of questions about global warming with two alternative responses: An eggnog answer for when you want to move on to other topics as quickly as possible, and a longer answer for when the eggnog runs out.

1. Do you believe in global warming?

Eggnog Answer: Do you believe in gravity?

Longer Answer: Global warming is a fact, not a question of belief. Carbon dioxide traps heat in the atmosphere. That's physics, not ideology. The decade 2000-2009 was the hottest on record, surpassing the 1990s, which itself surpassed the 1980s. This year will end up being the hottest, or among the two or three hottest years on record. These are observations, not speculation. Beliefs about the role of government legitimately influence people's views about the right policy response to these facts. As the Republican former Chairman of the House Science Committee said in a recent Washington Post op-ed:

The National Academy reports concluded that "scientific evidence that the Earth is warming is now overwhelming." Party affiliation does not change that fact.

2. It's really cold outside. What happened to global warming?

Eggnog Answer: Winter.

Longer Answer: As I noted last winter, global warming does not abolish the seasons. Global warming and climate change do, however, change weather patterns and increase the amount of moisture the air can hold, leading to more severe storms. The specific reason for the recent cold weather in Eastern North America and Europe (a very small fraction of the Earth's surface) is that cold air is spilling out of the arctic, cooling these areas but making the arctic significantly warmer than normal, as Jeff Masters explains in his excellent Wunder Blog.

3. Should it be called global warming or climate change?

Eggnog Answer: Call it whatever you want, but please pass the eggnog.

Longer Answer: The best term is probably "climate disruption," which John Holdren, who is now the president's science advisor, has been using for many years. In reality, all three terms are accurate. The globe is warming; the climate is changing; and our economic, social, and natural systems that are dependent on a stable climate are being disrupted. There is no magic term that will solve the problem if we repeat it often enough. So in this case, the eggnog answer is all you really need.

4. What about those emails?

Eggnog Answer: Can I post all of your private emails on the internet?

Longer Answer: Last year there was a huge hubbub in the press as a result of a handful emails selected from thousands that were stolen from a climate research center in England and posted on the internet. At the time I pointed out that these emails didn't change the facts about global warming. Unfortunately, the press thrives on controversy, real or contrived, so the email story got far more press than the consensus findings of the National Academy of Sciences. Subsequently multiple independent investigations exonerated the scientists who had been attacked based on the stolen emails and reaffirmed their scientific findings.

5. Don't scientists disagree?

Eggnog Answer: Of course they do. They're scientists.

Longer Answer: The scientific method is fundamentally based on developing hypotheses to explain observations and then trying to disprove them. Scientists are trained to try to shoot down other scientists' theories. There are also legitimate uncertainties--and disagreement--about many details of climate change. Active scientists focus their research on these areas, so you will inevitably continue to hear climate scientists disagreeing with each other about something. But after decades of intensive effort, the basic hypothesis that the Earth is warming as a result of heat-trapping pollution has not been disproved and there is no alternative hypothesis that comes even close to explaining the observations. This led the National Academy of Sciences to conclude earlier this year that this basic "theory" is as settled as gravity:

Some scientific conclusions or theories have been so thoroughly examined and tested, and supported by so many independent observations and results, that their likelihood of subsequently being found to be wrong is vanishingly small. Such conclusions and theories are then regarded as settled facts. This is the case for the conclusions that the Earth system is warming and that much of this warming is very likely due to human activities.

6. What's your best argument to make climate change deniers shut up?

Eggnog Answer: Please pass the eggnog.

Longer Answer: Ideologically-driven climate change deniers are impervious to facts and reason, so there is no argument that will convince them (see eggnog answer). For everyone else, I consider the increasing heat content of the ocean to be the single most compelling fact demonstrating that global warming is occurring due to heat-trapping pollution. Jim Hansen of NASA calls this the smoking gun. The total quantity of energy stored in the form of excess ocean heat is so vast that it can only be explained by a persistent imbalance between the energy the Earth receives from the sun and the energy the Earth returns to space. That imbalance is a direct result of the increasing concentration of heat-trapping pollution in the atmosphere.

7. What are you going to do now that cap and trade is dead?

Eggnog Answer: Move to California.

Longer Answer: Comprehensive energy reform and climate protection legislation passed the U.S. House of representatives in 2009 but died in the Senate when the Majority Leader concluded that he couldn't muster the 60 votes needed to break an inevitable filibuster. As a result of November's election there will be more Senators and many more Representatives hostile to such legislation next year, so the prospects for passing a comprehensive cap on carbon pollution in the 112th Congress certainly don't look very bright. These election results, however, were not driven by climate policy. In the one place climate policy was directly on the ballot -- California -- voters overwhelmingly rejected Proposition 23, which would have suspended California's groundbreaking Global Warming Solutions Act. So California is moving forward and recently finalized its plans to establish a cap-and-trade system starting in 2012 to achieve about one-quarter of the pollution reductions mandated by its law. California would be the eight largest economy in the world if it were an independent country, and its cap-and-trade system will join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative system operating in the Northeast U.S. and the European Emission Trading System. So it turns out that cap-and-trade is not so dead after all. Meanwhile, here in Washington the Environmental Protection Agency is doing its job by beginning to limit carbon pollution as required by the Clean Air Act. While this is not as effective as comprehensive carbon pollution limits would be, it is a practical way to make progress nationally over the next few years and will not be the end of the world, as claimed by doom-saying lobbyists for the big polluters.

8. If we reduce our carbon pollution, what about China and India?

Eggnog Answer: It turns out that they care about their children too.

Longer Answer: China is now the world's largest carbon polluter and India is the world's most populous country, so what they do about global warming pollution definitely matters. As it turns out, both countries well recognize that unbridled global warming is a serious threat to their development and have taken important steps to curb their emissions and develop their vast clean energy potential. So the biggest threat that the U.S. faces now is not that we will act alone, but that we will be alone in not acting. That would mean losing out on the trillion dollar clean energy market and ending up importing wind turbines and solar panels rather than exporting them.

9. Isn't it too late?

Eggnog Answer: Yes. Please pass the eggnog.

Longer Answer: The sad fact is that we are already suffering significant consequences due to climate disruption. This year offered plenty of examples of extreme events that have been made more likely by the heat-trapping pollution that has already built up in our atmosphere. We need to do what we can to be better prepared to manage the impacts that can no longer be avoided. At the same time we need to do everything we can to limit future damages by curbing emissions of heat-trapping pollution. In other words, we need to manage the unavoidable and avoid the unmanageable.

10. OK, I'm convinced. What can I do to help?

Eggnog Answer: Donate to NRDC and please pass the eggnog.

Longer Answer: Seriously, a donation to NRDC is a great way to get into the holiday giving spirit. Beyond that, make a New Year's resolution to practice the three P's: Personal action, Policy advocacy, and Political engagement. None of these avenues will be sufficient on its own, but together their combined power is transformational. This is a New Year's resolution we can't afford not to keep. And please pass the eggnog.