Yes Virginia, Our Climate is Changing (and There is But One Solution)

Brian Murphy | AFS President. Email: [email protected]

This is my last column written as President of AFS. As always, the views expressed here are mine and are not intended to represent AFS or its members. I fully expect that some people will disagree with my contentions and opinions. Feel free to offer your viewpoint in this magazine’s new feature, Fisheries Forum.

“Yes Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.” So wrote Francis Church, an editor of The (New York) Sun in 1897 responding to an 8-year-old’s question, “Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus … Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?” He continued:

“Virginia, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds.” (Wikipedia 2021).

Some today would have us believe that the concept of global warming and resultant rapid climate change is like Santa Claus, a myth that they mock others for believing. These are the deniers, who have been with us since the start of the climate change discussion. Recently this denialism has been amplified in part by conservative policymakers and media, and a now-former U.S. President, who once tweeted, “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive” (Volodzko 2019). The question of climate change, and what can or should be done about it, has become a politically charged controversy that has moved well outside of the scientific and technical questions that should compose the critical core of this discussion. And while climate change denialism is solidly and embarrassingly centered in my own nation, the impacts of denialism and climate inaction already impact our entire planet.

Right up front, let me state the facts as I see them: (1) the Earth is warming and its climate regime is changing; (2) human activities are the major driver of this change, through our emissions of heat-trapping gases (primarily from the use of fossil fuels) into the atmosphere; (3) these changes have already negatively impacted both our natural and built ecosystems, and these impacts will only increase if we fail to take effective action; (4) there is only one real solution to slow or reverse climate change, and that is to reduce our emissions of heat-trapping gases; (5) certain people seek to block effective responses to climate change for corrupt purposes, and they use science denialism, rhetorical tricks, and propaganda to confuse the public and obfuscate the truth. Below I offer some of the evidence and critical thinking that leads me to accept these facts, and briefly discuss how we might counter science denialism that impedes effective response to global climate change. Due to space limitations I will not list citations for every event and data point presented here; reliable reports of those are accessible in news media and the scientific literature, but be sure to employ a critical eye when evaluating your sources (Murphy 2020, 2021).

First, let’s scientifically define some common terms for clarity in this discussion. Weatherreflects short-term conditions of the atmosphere (e.g., temperature, precipitation, wind) while climate is the average daily weather for an extended period of time at a certain location (NOAA 2021a). Climate change is a significant and persistent shift in weather patterns from the long-term averages that we have considered to be emblematic of the climate for a region. Finally, global warming refers to long-term heating of Earth’s climate system observed since the pre-industrial period, attributed by knowledgeable experts to the release and accumulation in the atmosphere of “greenhouse” (heat-trapping) gases primarily originating from the extraction and use of fossil fuels (NASA 2021a). Lobbyists, politicians, and politicized pundits seeking to dismiss concerns about climate change have long misused these terms and misstated these concepts. In one famous incident, a climate change-denying U.S. Senator brought a snowball to the floor of the Senate, as if a Washington, D.C. snowstorm in February were somehow proof that the planet is not warming (UCS 2021). Whether such specious claims are due to scientific illiteracy or intentional obfuscation for political purposes, what looks to many like an intentional disinformation campaign for political gain has understandably confused the public about whether global climate change is happening, much less its causes.

Climate change resulting from global heating is a relatively simple-to-understand concept that is dictated by the basic rules of physics and chemistry. Heat-trapping greenhouse gases (e.g., carbon dioxide and methane) from various sources (particularly the burning of fossil fuels) accumulate in Earth’s atmosphere. These gases trap heat energy that normally would dissipate into outer space, and the planet warms (particularly the oceans). The Earth’s energy budget increases, and the climate system is modified. That modified energy budget can change major air and water currents that have historically shaped our climate, and we see weather and climate events that were considered abnormal under the old climate system (e.g., extreme heat waves and drought, severe storms, catastrophic flooding). All of these events were predicted years ago, and we see evidence now that all are coming to fruition.

How Much Evidence Do We Need?

So, is the Earth’s climate indeed changing? Look around. Evidence for a notable change in global climate patterns is all around us, and every day brings new examples of worsening disasters tied to the warming of the planet. If the world were not in a global pandemic right now, climate-related disasters would surely dominate the daily news. Look at what has occurred in just recent months:

  • The year 2020 was reported to be the second-hottest year on record, eclipsed only by 2016. All seven of the world’s warmest years have been since 2014. Last year was also the 44th consecutive year that average global surface temperature was above the mean for the 20th century (NOAA 2021b).
  • Multi-year drought in portions of North America has worsened this year to the point that the northern plains and everything west of the Rocky Mountains is classified as being in severe, extreme, or exceptional drought (NDMC 2021). The U.S. Southwest has been in drought for most of the past 2 decades, but experts say this year is unusual because extreme conditions are so widespread and are intensifying quickly (Popovich 2021).
  • Devastating wildfires plague western North America again this year, earlier and to a greater extent than many of their recent record wildfire seasons. Massive wildfires create their own weather, just as heat added to the Earth’s energy budget can modify our global climate. “Fire clouds” form over large fires, leading to severe thunderstorms with lightning that spark more fires, unpredictable winds, and even fire tornados. As of early August, more than 2.6 million acres have burned in the United States, almost 50% more than at this time in 2020. An additional 3.1 million acres have burned in western Canada, bringing the total consumed in the Northwest to an area (8,906 mi2 or 23,067 km2)) larger than the entire U.S. state of New Jersey. Two megafires (the Bootleg and the Dixie) together have burned an area as large as the cities of New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles combined. In a tragic repeat of 2020, another California town was completely consumed, as were two towns in British Columbia. And as I write, millions of people in the eastern USA (including me and my family in the Allegheny Mountains of Virginia) are under air quality warnings due to smoke from those western wildfires some 3,000 mi distant.
  • In early July a “heat dome” shattered all-time records for high temperature across the western USA and Canada, including 108°F in Seattle, 116°F in Portland, an all-Canada record of 121°F (49.4°C) in Lytton, British Columbia, and 130°F (54.4°C) in Death Valley, California, which might be the highest temperature ever reliably recorded on the planet (Craig and Kasakove 2021). The deaths of at least 117 people are attributed directly to the heat, and billions of shellfish and other marine creatures were literally cooked to death in shallow waters along the coast of British Columbia. More extreme heat domes are predicted for this season.
  • California Fish and Game warned that extremely high water temperatures this summer could kill nearly all juveniles of the endangered winter-run Chinook Salmon Oncorhynchus tshawytscha in the Sacramento River.
  • Severe and prolonged drought has reduced Lake Mead, critical water supply for millions of people in Nevada, Arizona, and California, to just 35% of full capacity. The only other time the lake was this low was as it filled after construction of Hoover Dam in the 1930s. The water dearth has reduced electric power generation from the dam by 25%.
  • As much as 31 inches of rain over several days in early July that triggered a cataclysmic mudslide in central Japan that destroyed structures and left dozens dead or missing.
  • Exceptionally heavy rainfall lingered over central Europe for days in mid-July, triggering catastrophic floods that killed more than 200 people in Germany and bordering countries.
  • In central China, a year’s worth of rain fell during just 3 days in July. Rapidly rising flood waters trapped commuters in trains that stalled in flooded underground tunnels. Hundreds had to be rescued, and at least a dozen people died.
  • Extreme drought in southwestern Iran coupled with government mismanagement of the limited water supply has led to citizen protests, to which the government has responded with deadly force.
  • Researchers reported that portions of the Amazon rainforest, long valued as a sink for carbon emitted by fossil fuel use, now have become carbon emitters rather than absorbers due to deforestation and climate change (McGrath 2021).
  • On August 9, 2021, the IPPC issued the first extensive update of their climate assessment in almost a decade (see Harvey 2021). The 3,000-page report, authored by 234 experts, states that evidence that global warming is caused by human activities is now unequivocal. The critical level of warming targeted by the Paris climate agreement (1.5°C above 19th-century levels) will be exceeded by the 2030s, much earlier than originally predicted. We can expect worsening weather and climate disasters of all types, and modifications to oceanic physical systems that will be irreversible for centuries to millennia.
  • If simple description of such events seem distant and insignificant to some people, suggest that they review the photo essay by Plimmer (2021) and James Watts’ (2020) summary of notable climate-related events in 2020. They reveal a staggering array of recent weather-related disasters around the world, from sandstorms worsened by extreme drought and desertification; to severe tornados, cyclones, and hurricanes; to severe floods caused by “once in a millennium” rainfall events; to exceptionally numerous and in some cases cataclysmic wildfires burning on every continent except Antarctica.

Who to Believe?

Scientists have collated a large body of evidence that the Earth is rapidly warming, a shift in our climate regime is occurring, and both are due in a large part to our burning of fossil fuels to meet our energy demands. Carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere is now at the highest level in 800,000 years. The concentration has risen almost 50% since the Industrial Revolution of the mid-1800s, and more than half of that increase has been since 1970 (Lindsey 2020). Global surface temperatures are at levels not seen for a thousand years or more, and temperatures are rising at least 20 times faster than when the planet emerged from the last Ice Age (Riebeek 2010).

During the past decade, several studies reviewed the peer-reviewed climate literature and concluded that a large majority (90–100%) of climate scientists agreed that humans were causing global warming and climate change. Cook et al. (2016) reanalyzed that literature and concluded that the consensus was 97%, a figure that is often quoted and sometimes questioned. Ritchie (2016) skeptically reviewed Cook’s famous number and concluded that the consensus was closer to 85% than 95%, but that seems a distinction without a difference as it still indicates a strong majority.

Adding even more gravity to the consensus among climate scientists is a long list of science organizations, professional societies, international committees, and world organizations that have issued similar warnings about the grave threat of human-caused climate change. More than 200 scientific societies around the world, including our own AFS, have published such warnings (NASA 2021b). The AFS statement spearheaded by Past President Scott Bonar brought together 111 aquatic science societies to warn of current and future climate change damage to global aquatic resources (this issue; available: Last year the National Academy of Sciences, representing the top scientists in the United States, teamed with the similar Royal Academy (UK) to strengthen and reissue their warning about the cause of climate change: “It is now more certain than ever, based on many lines of evidence, that humans are changing Earth’s climate” (NAS 2020). And of course the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has studied and reported on the cause and effects of climate change for decades, issuing some 47 extensive reports on numerous aspects of climate change science since their formation in 1988. The surveys are in, the ballots are counted: the vast majority of scientists consider human-caused climate change to be a reality.

The idea that humans themselves are playing a role in the increasing number of climate-related disasters does not sit well with what is a shrinking minority (now less than 20%; Leiserowitz et al. 2020) of the U.S. public, but unfortunately they seem to have an outsized voice with policymakers. A recent Pew Research Center survey found that, unlike a disappointingly and embarrassingly high proportion of their elected state and federal representatives, a majority (64%) of U.S adults agree with the statement that “efforts to reduce the effects of climate change need to be prioritized today to ensure a sustainable planet for future generations, even if it means fewer resources for addressing other important problems” (Tyson et al. 2021). The rest of the population falls into any of several groups: those who still cannot decide on a position, those who simply don’t care about the issue, and those who oppose the issue with ideological fervor that sometime borders on obsession (the deniers). Conservative media outlets have made a highly profitable industry of spurring outrage against what they call a hoax by scientists seeking fame and fortune, or a conspiracy by hot-button-named “enemies” (e.g., liberals, socialists, globalists, etc.) to gain control over “patriots.” As Uscinski et al. (2019) put it, “this conspiracy-laden rhetoric—if followed to its logical conclusion—expresses a rejection of scientific methods, scientists, and the role that science plays in society.” This manufactured outrage has even spurred a cottage industry of climate denialism, with numerous users of Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, and personal blogs spreading misinformation, disinformation, and distrust.

To scientists (or at least to me), it seems inconceivable that people would discount expert opinion and peer-reviewed scientific evidence, and instead choose to believe elaborate conspiracy theories, half-truths, and outright disinformation (e.g.,; Economic losses from climate-change-fueled disasters are already staggering, and will only increase; eventually they will outstrip any costs associated with transforming our energy economy away from emissions-producing fossil fuels. Everyone on Earth will suffer the consequences of inaction regarding climate change, so what motivates people to adopt a position that is seemingly against their own self-interest? Certainly a portion of deniers have been misled by those whom Oreskes and Conway (2010) called the “merchants of doubt.” For many years unethical scientists and public relations experts helped the tobacco industry obfuscate the truth about their profitable but harmful products. In contrast, some scientists working in the fossil fuel industry honestly reported their findings linking fossil fuel use to greenhouse gas emissions and climate change as long as 40 years ago but, like the tobacco giants, their employer spent decades sowing doubt about their profitable products’ role in the climate crisis (Hall 2015).

It is easy to assume that more public education will persuade deniers to abandon their skepticism or at least not traffic in misleading claims. Information is easily available to debunk the myths being propagated about climate change (e.g., Maslin 2019a, 2019b). But in many cases, deniers are not lacking information, they just chose to discount or ignore it because the implications of acceptance run counter to their beliefs and values (Feinberg and Willer 2011; Hall 2019). For our message about the need for climate action to resonate with them, we must reframe it within their values system. Our conversations must center on common values (family wellbeing, economic security, enjoyment in the outdoors, pride in the nation’s natural resources, etc.), and be illustrated with personal stories that stir empathy.

You need search no farther than our own AFS members to find personal stories of climate change impacts. One story comes from Scott Bonar, who studies threatened and endangered fishes. You have heard him repeatedly speak of current and projected impacts of climate change on our world, particularly its aquatic systems. His alarm has been reinforced by his own experience with the devastating wildfires spawned by extreme drought that has plagued Arizona (and much of the western United States) in recent years. His graduate students have been driven repeatedly from their aquatic research sites by wildfires, and their study sites have been destroyed by fire and then by post-fire sludge flow from fire-denuded uplands when rains did come. Last year, the U.S. Forest Service and the Arizona Game and Fish Department recruited Scott and his research team to help rescue and transport to safety as many endangered Gila Chub Gila intermedia as possible from an approaching wildfire. This was the second time the team moved endangered fishes from fire-threatened sites to a laboratory setting to prevent local extinction of the species.

I also have personally experienced climate change impacts on our farm in Virginia. We have lost nearly 100% of our fruit crops for the majority of the past decade to late frosts that kill all the blossoms stimulated by unseasonably early warming spells, with cascading harm to my multiple honeybee colonies. But “late frost” and “unseasonable warming” are defined by longstanding climate patterns; we are in a new climate regime now. Imagine the economic impacts of such crop losses to the major commercial orchards and wineries in the nearby Shenandoah Valley. Established agricultural systems throughout the world are experiencing losses to a variety of climate change-driven events (e.g., extreme drought, flooding, etc.). Sharing these stories with some of my climate-skeptical farming neighbors has softened their resistance, particularly since they respect my science background.

The Final Word

Certainly scientists, including many in AFS, are conducting important research to find ways to ameliorate some of the negative impacts of global warming and climate change through adaptation, resilience, and mitigation. These approaches are critical in the short term to protecting valued natural resources and the human communities that rely on them. But we must recognize that short-term solutions do not treat the root cause of climate change—the continued emissions of greenhouse gases that are warming the planet. I realize that even the most softcore deniers likely will be put off by talk of reducing emissions (which inevitably means reducing our use of fossil fuels) because it portends personal inconvenience and sacrifice. But despite disinformation about the efficacy of alternative energy technologies being spread by deniers, the pain of transitioning our economy away from planet-warming fossil fuels could be softened if policymakers themselves would abandon self-serving climate change denial and actually work toward a better future for society.

Effective action on climate change is critically needed, and we as scientists and our professional organizations should take all steps available to help break the political logjam preventing such action. Thankfully, generational cohorts following me and my Baby Boomer compatriots are more keenly aware of the pressing need for climate action (Tyson et al. 2021), but this problem cannot wait until they control the levers of political power. Let’s all act now. Talk about climate change with your neighbors, talk with the public whenever possible, and hold your elected representatives to their civic duty to act in the best interest of society.