Why Universe Today Writes on Climate Change

by Shannon Hall on April 9, 2014

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n this rare image taken on July 19, 2013, the wide-angle camera on NASA's Cassini spacecraft has captured Saturn's rings and Earth in the same frame. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

On Jul. 19, 2013 NASA’s Cassini spacecraft captured Earth as a pale blue dot. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Online science reporting is difficult. Never mind the incredible amount of work each story requires from interviewing scientists to meticulously choosing the words you will use to describe a tough subject. That’s the fun part. It’s just after you hit the blue publish button, when the story goes live, that things get rough. Your readers will tear you apart. They will comment on any misplaced commas, a number with one too many significant figures, and an added space in between sentences. They will criticize and not compliment.

Now I’m not saying this isn’t welcome. By all means if I have misspoken, do let me know. I need to be on top of my game 100% of the time and readers’ comments help make that happen. They can improve an article tremendously, allowing readers to carry on the conversation and provide a richer context. Thought-provoking commenters always bring a smile to my face.

But then there’s online environmental reporting. From day one, reader comments made me realize that I needed to develop a thicker skin. I won’t go into the nasty details here, but in my most recent article, readers asked why Universe Today — an astronomy and space news site — would report on the science and even the politics regarding climate change. Well dear readers, I have heard you, and here is the answer to your question.

Universe Today is a dedicated space and astronomy news site. And I am proud to be a part of the team bringing readers up-to-date with the ongoings in our local universe. But that definition covers a wide variety of subjects, some might even say an infinite number of subjects.

On any given day authors from our team might write about subjects from planets within our solar system to distant galaxies. We want to better understand these celestial objects by focusing on their origin, evolution and fate. And in doing so we will discuss research that utilizes physics or chemistry, biology or astronomy. We might even write about politics, especially if NASA’s budget is involved.

I argue that writing about the Earth falls into the above category. After all, we do live on a planet that circles the Sun. And unlike Venus, where thick skies of carbon dioxide and even clouds of sulfuric acid make the surface incredibly difficult to see, we can directly study our surface, even run our fingers through the sand.

Intensive geologic surveys of the Earth below your feet help astronomers to understand the geology of other environments, including our nearest neighbor Venus and distant moons. We now know Enceladus has an ocean because of its combination of two compensating mass anomalies — an effect we see here on Earth. Perhaps one day this research will even help us understand geologic features on distant exoplanets.

Any study, which helps us better understand our home planet, whether it looks at plate tectonics or the sobering effects of global warming, exists under the encompassing umbrella of astronomy.

Now for my second, philosophical, argument. On the darkest of nights, thousands of stars compose the celestial sphere above us. The universe is boundless. It is infinite. We stand on but one out of 100 billion (if not more) planets in the Milky Way galaxy alone, which in turn, is but one out of 100 billion galaxies in the observable universe. We live in complete isolation. It’s both humbling and awe-inspiring.

Carl Sagan was the first to coin the phrase “pale blue dot” and in his words:

“Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”

Sagan argues that we have the moral duty to protect our home planet. This sense of obligation stems from the humble lessons gained from astronomy. So if Universe Today is not the appropriate platform to write about climate change I’m not sure what is.

All comments welcome.

About 

Shannon Hall is an aspiring science journalist and is an editorial intern at Sky & Telescope magazine. She holds two B.A.'s from Whitman College in physics-astronomy and philosophy, and an M.S. in astronomy from the University of Wyoming. This fall she will attend NYU's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting program.

Dennis April 9, 2014 at 6:47 PM

Perhaps ignoring climate change is the answer to the Fermi Paradox. That would be sad.

Forty April 9, 2014 at 7:14 PM

Thanks for this clear statement, Shannon. And keep on with the good and needed work.

Superluminal April 10, 2014 at 3:18 AM

One of the things I love about astronomy, is that it is more than looking at the stars. It touches in some way on almost all science discipline’s. One criticism: I frequently read that man-made climate change is a threat, couldn’t climate change be a threat, no matter the cause?

Random63 April 10, 2014 at 7:52 AM

I agree we have a “moral duty” to protect the planet, but this site also has a moral duty to present good science. Global Warming or Climate Change, or what ever new “cause” the politicians come up with for new taxes and claim it is science is not good science, but pseudoscience.

Climategate and the fact that sensors were placed in various areas to guarantee abnormal readings have pretty much destroyed any credibility of the Global Warming folks. I live near the beach and I am still waiting for my front yard to become ocean front property.

Universe Today and it’s writers do a wonderful job covering astronomy and I use their site often in my classroom (I now teach science), but you have done quite a lot of damage to your credibility pushing Global Warming over the last few years. Global Warming is pseudoscience, nothing more, just a tool for a global taxation and not worth ruining the prestige of this website and it’s writers.

Nancy Atkinson April 11, 2014 at 11:01 AM

The problem with your comment is that we ARE presenting all the good, peer reviewed science on climate change. When 9.7 out of 10 climate scientists agree that the Earth’s climate is warming and humans are part of the problem, the peer reviewed science refuting that is few and far between. In fact, in over 2,200 peer-reviewed articles about climate change by over 9,000 authors, published between November 2012 and December 2013, just one author and one paper rejected human actions as the cause.

It’s like, if you went to 10 doctors and 9.7 agreed on your prognosis, but you decided to go with the one guy who mostly agreed with the other nine, but thought there was a 30% chance your condition could be caused by something else.

And keep in mind that real climate scientists have spent their career studying the climate and are staking their reputations on their work. While they do get funding for their work from the National Science Foundation, NASA and other science groups, they are not being funded by the $1 billion being spent every year by the fossil fuel industry and other groups trying to deny science and oppose action on climate change (read more about that here: http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2013/dec/20/conservative-groups-1bn-against-climate-change ) much like the tobacco companies did in the 1960′s and 70′s in an attempt to muddy the waters of real science.

I think our credibility would be damaged if we didn’t publish the clear message that the peer reviewed science is showing about the climate.

paul585 April 11, 2014 at 4:11 PM

Climate science is not pseudo science and is an insult to the thousands of people all over the globe who devote their time and energy to the study of climate.
Temperature measurements are made everywhere, on the ground, in the air and from the bottom of the oceans. Not just from “heat island” cities where I heard one quite eminent “scientist” claim. Do they really think we are that stupid?

Remember it is not just america that’s putting money into this. In fact a lot of your ie American money was and is going into the denial pot! And if anything the USA was quite late in coming to the table to really research this. Your individual contribution might amount to a few cents so far. But don’t worry we (the rest of the world) will do the science for you if you’d rather spend your money on something else and time will prove we were right.

Scientists by and large are not well paid and don’t do it for the money or the prestige. I could of earned more money working in a call centre.
The simple fact is: there was a theory that CO2 in the atmosphere could cause runaway global warming. The concentrations have been rising since systematic observations began. Since all other activity that could account for such a rise, volcanic activity, rise in vegetation etc have been ruled out human activity would seem to be the cause. If people think that we are incapable of changing our atmosphere and its processes remember we did it with ozone depleting chemicals – fridges mostly. The world got together and banned them (ODC’s not fridges) and now the ozone layer is beginning to recover. We can do the same with greenhouse gases and perhaps make the world a better place along the way, but only as long as we are not too late. Which we might be, thereby making the solution even more expensive. Thats worth a couple bucks a year surely. Oh! But wait. If there’s no disaster then nothing for those big industrial combines to overcharge governments (ie your money) for trying to put it right. I expect they want it to happen. After all these CEO’s earn enough not to worry – they’ll be safe. Will you and your family?

Finally this web site is for an international audience not just America or an American agenda. I expect most of us who are not American would rather not have our coverage of this very important issue censored. Keep up the good work Shannon!

Dangbert April 10, 2014 at 8:17 AM

Random63 is right, pretty much across the board.

Having said that, let me add, Climate Change is a fact of life, in fact its been going on since the birth of the planet. What has tainted and tarnished the “Crusade” we are now seeing against Man’s contribution is the unequal application of a corrective. The developed countries, which just happen to be liberal democracies, are being asked to hobble their economies, while the greatest polluters are pretty much left free to continue to do what they wish.

What we are witnessing is “possibly” a change in climate (odd how the phrase ‘Global Warming’ had dropped out of vogue) and a possible human component, though miniscule, in that change. The truth is, Earth’s climate has never been steady and unchanging. IF we are on the cusp of another change, it is just that “another change,” we will be inconvenienced by it. We would be much better served by working to both mitigate its effects than hobbling those economies which are in the best position to enable such mitigation.

This whole scenario reminds me of one of the folk tales from my childhood – Henny Penny

Random63 April 10, 2014 at 10:58 AM

Well said Dangbert and thank you.

I teach my kids to use the scientific method and to read the original data and evaluate the methodology used if possible.

I also teach them to “follow the money.” If a scientist received a grant from a corporation/government that is looking for a particular outcome, and lo and behold the scientist comes up with that very outcome, be suspicious. Scientists can and are bribed every day via grants. They are human too, and hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants are very tempting.

It’s up to us to ensure that they are being true to the scientific method and methodologies, and just not accept their word for it.

Random63 April 10, 2014 at 11:50 AM

One other thing…..

I also teach my kids that when a statement is made and followed up with “the science is settled” effectively trying to shut down debate before the debate can actually begin i.e. peer review, beware. The science is NEVER settled due to the influx of new methods of collecting data, and the new data it generates.

Speaking of data, it’s interesting that the Sun and its effects are always left out. Global Warmers always blame Humans. Why not compare climate data of the other planets in our Solar System and see if they are seeing any of the same trends that Earth is. Are they and the Earth cooling? Warming? Staying the same? Do all the trends diverge? We have had probes around many of these planets long enough now to compare it against the Earth data we have of the last 20-30 years.

jjasensio April 10, 2014 at 2:52 PM

Hello Random63. I agree with your advice: “follow the money.”. But do you really think that also many big organisations are not economically very interested on denying the global warming/climate change? I have no idea where the money comes from or goes to. But I am sure that the hell of money is flowing from BOTH sides. If you think that money is the reason of all this issue, fighting uncritically for one of them against the other is playing the play of one part. You have of course the right to do it. But I would advice you to follow your own advice…

Random63 April 11, 2014 at 7:38 AM

jjasensio,

I agree that some opponents of Global Warming are being funded by entities, but the point I’m trying to make is to clear out the funders and just look at the science. I do follow my own advice, and disregard anyone that has a financial gain to see a certain outcome no matter which “side” it is.
Far too often science and the scientific method is corrupted by funders that are seeking justification for their agenda, and far too often scientists are willing to take the money and perform for those funders. How can science have any credibility if that is allowed to continue?

Anyway, glad to have you join the discussion.

paul585 April 13, 2014 at 8:09 AM

Most of the climate change “denial” money is coming from the states. I think it quaint that you suppose that there is a worldwide conspircy of scientists in order to get more funding. Our wages stay the same whatever happens so we have got nothing to gain.
I would say look to your own country’s recent history that basically went into Iraq and trashed it. Where was the money trail in that? Leading right back to the big industrialists who are now in there rebuilding the infrastructure that they blew apart in the first place. I imagine they are essentially following the same business model only this time instead of a country in the middle east it will be worldwide and the disruption will be enormous and costly with consequently massive profits and bonuses to them. They think they have something to gain from letting the world go to hell. Don’t forget from a life perspective Mars is a failed planet. There is no inalienable law that says it couldn’t go equally as badly here.
To follow the money you have to have your eyes open unless it’s the smell you are following and there’s an almighty stink coming from the “do nothing until it’s too late” camp

Doug Allen April 10, 2014 at 9:53 AM

Since yesterday’s comment did not make it through moderation, I’ll try again.
For those interested in cosmology, astronomy, and especially for those numerate and scientifically literate, the American Physical Society (APS) is re-evaluating its statement on global warming/climate change in a transparent manner we should all applaud. Their re-evaluation includes the online transcript of an all day interview of six prominent climate scientists by the APS review committee. No where else can you find such up-to-date information about the science.

The APS charter requires a review of their statements every 5 years ,and you can read a transcript of that interview on the APS web site. For those of you with strong opinions, but little knowledge of climate science, which includes most people, I think,, here is a chance to learn about climate science issues from experts who are civil, respectful of different estimates and opinions, and mostly agree. I promise you will come away with great admiration for the difficulties of climate science in the super-charged political environment and climate wars that exist, to which Universe Today recently became a participant.
Here is the APS site URL- http://www.aps.org/publications/apsnews/updates/statementreview.cfm
And here is the transcript URL-
http://www.aps.org/policy/statements/upload/climate-seminar-transcript.pdf

I will be using the transcript as a homework assignment in the Global Warming/Climate Change course I teach fall semester, and I highly recommend it.
Doug Allen
OLLI Furman University

RUF April 10, 2014 at 11:48 AM

I also completely agree with Random63, and applaud his clear and well-said comments. A line must be drawn between science and psudo-science.

Many people believe in astrology, UFOs, and ancient aliens — and they claim to have “proof.” Luckily, those topics aren’t discussed here. “Climate-change” is problematical at best — but anthropomorphic climate change should be right out.

paul585 April 13, 2014 at 4:57 PM

Random 63 Last time I heard Good ol US of A was the number 1 emitter of carbon dioxide and has the largest carbon footprint. China will overtake you in a couple years but right now the USA is top of the tree. Don’t you know anything?

stevenso4 April 14, 2014 at 4:13 AM

Every climate sceptic when asked about the cause of the 0.8oC rise in temp says “it’s part of a natural cycle” which is akin to telling someone who’s sick in hospital well, we can never know what’s ailing you: it’s simply part of nature.” This is preposterous folly that underscores the sceptic camps lack of understanding of cause and effect – and basic science. If there is a rise in temp it must have an identifiable cause. I have yet to see a sceptic (in the UK) identify what they think is the cause of warming if it isn’t CO2. The Sun: has the Sun brightened enough t make the Earth warm by this extent: that would be an impressive rise in luminosity; are there more sunspots now than 100 years ago? Absolutely not. Why not simply accept that if you put a gas into the atmosphere that absorbs energy then the temperature will rise. I wouldn’t go to my doctor bleeding from a gunshot then argue that I had a Cold. The argument is not that we are causing the current rise in temperature; it’s what (if anything) we want to do about it. This may be harsh but if you are a climate sceptic you really have to put up (the science to validate your position) or shut up. If there is peer-reviewed science that contradicts the general and overwhelming consensus on climate change/global warming then please can I see it? I want to see the data on which the contrary arguments are built. I have asked climate sceptics for this in the past but have come up empty handed.

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