Your science questions - answered


Here’s the top 10 most frequently asked questions we get from high school students (and our answers). 

Check out below for a full list of questions. If you still don’t find what you’re looking for, ask us yourself at science@climateeducation.org.
 


Top 10 FAQs

1. It's cold, it's snowing, does that mean climate change is a hoax?
2. Aren’t there some scientists who disagree?
3. Isn't climate change a natural thing?
4. Do people farts contribute to climate change, too? 
5. Is eating meat part of the problem? 
6. Are aerosol spray cans that destroy the ozone layer part of the problem? 
7. Hasn’t there been global warming before? 
8. Why can’t all the extra greenhouse gases just escape through the hole in the ozone layer? 
9. Is there anything GOOD about global warming?!
10. Could global warming cause an ice age, like in The Day After Tomorrow?

 

1. It's cold, it's snowing, does that mean climate change is a hoax? 

One day, or week or even month of unusually cold weather doesn’t disprove global warming. Nor does one hot week, summer or even year, prove it. It's like the Red Sox: Sure they lose a game or two sometimes, but they're still going to the post-season. You gotta look at at least 5-10 years to really see climate change. As one scientist told me, “Climate is what you expect; weather is what you get.”

Read more in this science report here

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2. Aren’t there some scientists who disagree? 

Not a lot! 97% of scientists agree that climate change is real and it's caused by people. It’s pretty hard to get scientists to agree 100% about almost anything! Scientists by nature and by their job are pretty skeptical people. They’re always looking for more data. If one scientist could come along and prove that something besides people was causing climate change (because we know it’s happening!), then other scientists would have to reconsider. But that hasn’t happened yet. In fact, human-produced greenhouse gases are the only thing that does explain climate change.  

Read the PDF of the article (Doran and Zimmerman 2009) behind this research here.

 


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3. Isn't climate change a natural thing?
 

Don’t we wish that was the case!  Climate change has been occurring naturally for as long as the Earth has been around and the factors that cause climate to change naturally (like the sun and volcanoes) are still at work today. However, their effects are pretty tiny when compared to the warming caused by people producing greenhouse gases.  So, it’s more like we’re causing almost all the warming, and natural processes have been pushed into the background.  

Scientists spend a lot of time studying natural forces of climate change, like the sun, and they know from satellite measurements almost exactly how much solar radiation the sun puts out from year to year.  They also have a good understanding of what that translates to in terms of temperatures on Earth.  The only way computer models can make temperatures over the last 50 years go up the way they have been is when they include CO2 increasing in the atmosphere from people burning fossil fuels.  Without that, temperatures would have stayed pretty flat for the last half-century or so.
 

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4. Do people farts contribute to climate change, too?
 


Not in the same way cow farts do! People farts don’t produce nearly as much methane as cow farts (and especially burps) do -- most human farts actually contain no methane at all (Miller et al 1982). That’s because cows are ruminants and digest their food differently than humans. It’s a process called enteric fermentation, where cows break down their food in a 4-part stomach. This system, as well as when cows chew their cud (spit up their food and chew it again – yum!), lets cows eat tough, fibrous material for food, but it also produces a lot of methane. About 95% of the methane from cows is actually from the burps, so farts are a pretty small contributor, even for cows.

You can read more about this on Grist here
 

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5. Is eating meat part of the problem?
 

For those of us who love a burger, sadly, the answer is yes. Eating red meat definitely increases your carbon footprint. People around the world are eating more and more meat, which means that we are raising more livestock than ever before. More livestock means more methane emissions from cow farts and burps. Meat is also a very energy-intensive food requiring lots of land, water and feed, which makes the climate impact of eating meat bigger than almost all other foods.
 

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6. Are aerosol spray cans that destroy the ozone layer part of the problem?
 


Actually, no! The hole in the ozone layer is a totally different problem than global warming.  It’s easy to get them confused though, since they both involve gases in our atmosphere.  The ozone layer is in the upper part of the atmosphere (the stratosphere) and it helps to block out ultraviolet (UV) radiation coming from the sun from getting to Earth and doing things like hurting our eyes and causing skin cancer.  
 

The hole in the ozone layer over Antarctica was created by human-produced chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) that came from stuff like aerosol cans and air-conditioning and refrigeration units.  This was a big problem in the late 1970s and 1980s. But in 1987, the world got together and passed the Montreal Protocol, which banned CFCs and replaced them with HCFCs, which don’t destroy the ozone layer. (They are a really long-lived greenhouse gas, though, so that’s not so good.) So now the hole in the ozone layer is getting better and should be all gone by the end of the century. Wish we could say the same thing about climate change!
 

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7. Hasn’t there been global warming before?
 


Yes! The Earth has warmed naturally before.  But, just because it’s happened in the past, doesn’t mean that what’s happening today must therefore be natural, too. We’re taking natural materials – fossil fuels buried in the Earth, which took millions of years to form – and we’re using them in a pretty unnatural way – burning them and releasing that hidden carbon back into the system in the form of CO2 so fast that the Earth doesn’t know how to handle it. 
 

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8. Why can’t all the extra greenhouse gases just escape through the hole in the ozone layer?
 


Wouldn’t that be great? Sadly, that’s not how it works. The greenhouse gases stick around in the atmosphere for the same reason that the rest of the atmosphere is here and for the same reason you and I are stuck to the Earth’s surface – gravity. Gravity holds all those millions of tiny molecules that make up our atmosphere close to the planet’s surface. This is a good thing, too, because we’d have no air to breathe without it!
 

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9. Is there anything GOOD about global warming?! 
 


There are a few things – more crop productivity and the opening up of the Northwest Passage are two. But these are also balanced out by some serious negatives on the other side… Read more in this science report here
 

 

10. Could global warming cause an ice age, like in The Day After Tomorrow?

Cheers to The Day After Tomorrow for bringing global warming and great terms like “paleoclimatologist” into the public attention!  Being a Hollywood blockbuster, they did exaggerate a bit (or more than a bit).  But the movie is based on some real science.  

The premise of the movie is that global warming could cause the next ice age.  This is how it could happen:  As more and more ice and glaciers melt in the Arctic, they pour more and more fresh water into the North Atlantic.  The North Atlantic is a really key spot for the ocean’s circulation system, which distributes heat from the equator to the poles.  It’s in the North Atlantic where water gets both cold enough and salty enough to become really dense and sink to the bottom of the ocean.  Theoretically, if enough fresh water from melting glaciers gets dumped into the North Atlantic, this would make that water so much less salty and therefore less dense, that it couldn’t sink anymore, which would slow, or even shut, down the ocean circulation system.  This would make the Arctic a lot colder and it could start growing a big ice cap, which would, in turn, reflect more sunlight back out to space and make the Earth cool even more, spiraling us into an ice age.


The slowdown and shutdown of the ocean circulation system is something that scientists do worry about.  Global warming is predicted to make a small dent in that system in the next few hundred years, but not nearly to the point of shutting it down and causing an ice age.  So, that’s not really anything to worry about for several hundred years yet.
 

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More FAQs

Didn’t find what you were looking for? Check out more FAQ below. 

11. What’s the story with those errors in the IPCC report? Answer.
12. Why does global warming mean global WEIRDING? Answer 
13. What’s up with ocean fertilization? Answer.
14. How do fossil fuels get formed? Answer.
15. What’s so bad about black carbon? Answer.
16. What the heck is a methane hydrate? Answer.
18. Is it possible to cool it back down? 
19. Why does sunlight pass through the atmosphere, but not heat on the way out? 
20. How do you get temperature from an ice core? 
21. Why did temperature and CO2 go up and down in the past?
22. Does recycling help? 
23. Does my cell phone charger use energy even when my phone isn’t plugged in? 

 


18. Is it possible to cool it back down? 

Yes, but it’s going to be hard work and it will be a long time, maybe even centuries, before we get to see the results.  For climate to cool down, people not only have to reduce how much CO2 we’re producing, we actually have to stop producing any CO2 (like having to completely turn off the water flowing into a bathtub to make the water level stop going up) and then find ways to pull the extra CO2 that’s in the atmosphere already back out (like pulling the plug on the drain).  The Earth itself does this naturally in lots of ways, but we can help the process by doing things like planting trees, which naturally take in CO2 when they grow.


Right now, people have a long way to go before we get to this point, but through strict international treaties and lots of negotiation and compromise, it is possible to get there.
 

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19. Why does sunlight pass through the atmosphere, but not heat on the way out? 

Sunlight and heat are both forms of energy or radiation, just different wavelengths.  Sunlight is short-wavelength energy, the visible part of the electromagnetic spectrum.  This short-wavelength, high-frequency energy can pass right through our atmosphere without interacting with its gases.  The Earth absorbs this energy and warms up, releasing heat.  The heat coming off the Earth’s surface is long-wavelength, low-frequency energy.  At this wavelength, it interacts with certain molecules in the atmosphere, particularly the bigger ones, like CO2, H2O vapor, CH4 (methane) and other greenhouse gases.  These gases absorb this heat and reemit it in all directions, much of which ends up staying inside Earth’s atmosphere and keeping us warm.
 

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20. How do you get temperature from an ice core? 

Temperature is measured from the isotopes of hydrogen and oxygen that make up the ice in the ice core.  Most oxygen is O16 – 8 neutrons and 8 protons.  But some oxygen has a couple extra neutrons, O18.  This is an isotope of regular oxygen.  The only difference between the two is that the 2 extra neutrons make O18 slightly heavier than O16.  Being heavier means that it likes being water instead of a gas more than O16.  But this preference for the heavier state (water, ice or snow over vapor) is temperature dependent.  So we can use the ratio of O16:O18 to tell us about what temperature was like in the past.  
 

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21. Why did temperature and CO2 go up and down in the past? 

In the ice core record of temperature and CO2 from Antarctica for the last almost million years, the real driver of climate change has been cyclical changes to the shape of the Earth’s orbit, like very long-term wobbles to a spinning top.  Although these changes are very small, they’re enough to slightly change the amount of sunlight the Earth receives at different times of the year, which can then trigger a series of other changes, ultimately moving the planet into or out of an ice age.  As the planet cools into an ice age, CO2 is transported to the deep oceans, helping to cool the planet.  As the planet again warms at the end of an ice age, this CO2 is released from the oceans into the atmosphere, helping the warming process along.  How and why CO2 gets stored and released from the deep oceans is something scientists are still working on.  Increased wind, driving more ocean circulation and changes in marine algae that take in CO2 may be parts of the process.
 

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22. Does recycling help? 

Recycling does help.  When you recycle paper, you’re preventing a few more trees from being cut down, which lets them continue as an important carbon sink.  Recycling plastic (made from petroleum) means less oil needs to be used as well.  Processing recycled paper uses less energy and less water than paper from raw materials, which also reduces CO2 emissions.
 

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23. Does my cell phone charger use energy even when my phone isn’t plugged in? 

It does.  When your phone charger is plugged in, there’s still a small amount of electricity that gets lost as electricity is constantly circulating out the outlet and through your charger.  The real energy vampires to watch out for, though, are those electronics with small lights that are always on if it’s plugged in.  Plug them into a power strip and save yourself money by switching off the power strip when you’re asleep or not at home.

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