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12 Graphics That Contain Everything You Need to Know about Climate Change

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Climate change is real, it’s here and it will be affecting the planet for a long, long time. That’s the lesson of the latest iteration of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change‘s state of climate science report, released in its entirety on January 30.

Concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere have now touched 400 parts-per-million—and greenhouse gas pollution generally shows little sign of slowing. In fact, pollution has outpaced even the worst-case scenario imagined by the IPCC as recently as 2007. The following charts and graphics explain what that might mean for you, your children and many generations to come.

“The debate is settled,” noted President Barack Obama in his 2014 State of the Union address, speaking about the scientific evidence. “Climate change is a fact.” So what will be done about it?



Courtesy of IPCC AR5

This is a record of climate change to date, otherwise known as warming in average surface temperatures across the globe. Note that the past three decades have been the warmest since comprehensive records began in the 1850s—by a lot.



Courtesy of IPCC AR5

The problem is a build-up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, primarily carbon dioxide. As a result, less of the light that comes in from the sun is being radiated back to space as heat, trapped by the thickening blanket of CO2 and other greenhouse gases. So far that blanket is pretty thin—just an increase to 0.04 percent in concentrations of atmospheric CO2—but that’s already enough to help trap an extra 0.6 watts of energy per square meter. And that little bit of extra energy is enough to change everything, from temperatures in the oceans to the amount of annual rain and snowfall.


Courtesy of IPCC AR5

It’s not just CO2 of course, though CO2 concentration is by far the biggest direct cause of climate change. Scientists call such changes in the planet’s energy budget a “radiative forcing,” which can either heat or cool the planet. Above they all are shown, from the tiny (but fast-growing) contribution of airplane contrails to changes in the power of the sun itself.


Cement, natural gas, oil and coal—these are the fundamental inputs of the modern world. They are also the four main reasons for rising greenhouse gas emissions, as the world burns ever more fossil fuel and builds more and more cities (for every ton of cement made, roughly a ton of CO2 enters the atmosphere). The most polluting is coal, so cutting back on coal burning (or capturing the CO2 and other air pollution it creates) is the number one priority for combating climate change.

Where does it all go? Below is a nice graphic showing all the places that carbon resides on Earth, from still underground fossil fuel reserves to the growing amount in the ocean (leading to problems such as ocean acidification). The key to combating climate change is keeping the amount of carbon in the atmosphere from growing—and potentially reducing it from present concentrations.


Courtesy of IPCC AR5

Keeping additional CO2 out of the atmosphere is key because a significant portion of it remains in the atmosphere even 1,000 years after it is emitted, still trapping heat.


Courtesy of IPCC AR5

In other words, if the people of 3100 do not like the weather, they may have us to blame.


Courtesy of IPCC AR5

Climate change is not merely the long-term forecast. It is already here, and it is likely to get significantly worse by the end of this century. The seas will sour as the water grows more acidic, extreme weather will become more extreme and more common, and Arctic sea ice in the summer may be a memory, as shown above.


Courtesy of IPCC AR5

Extra atmospheric heat causes ocean waters to expand and glacial ice to melt, both of which raise sea levels around the globe. Given that half of the world’s population lives within 100 kilometers of a coastline—including most of the world’s megacities—sea level rise could prove the most pressing challenge to humanity that climate change poses.

As climate change continues, more and more ice on land will melt, as seen below. That will contribute to sea level rise but also mean freshwater is no longer available in certain places, to either people or nature. Eventually, over centuries or even millennia, the massive ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica could melt away.


Courtesy of IPCC AR5

Some politicians still question climate change, or at least humanity’s role in it. But a massive body of observations, taken via the methods shown below, illustrates that global warming is indeed a scientific fact.


Courtesy of IPCC AR5

Human activities—whether burning fossil fuels for electricity or clearing land with fire—are behind climate change. Curb the cutting down of trees or pollution from industry and climate changing pollution will fall.


Courtesy of IPCC AR5

If the world continues on its present path of failing to significantly and strategically restrain the pollution that causes climate change, there is another way—geoengineering. Such large-scale manipulations of the planetary environment range from so-called solar radiation management, achieved by blocking sunlight with a sulfurous haze, for example, to the perhaps more palatable “carbon dioxide removal.” The latter includes techniques such as fertilizing the ocean with iron to force large plankton blooms and thereby bury carbon in the abyss.


Courtesy of IPCC AR5

An embrace of any of these fixes is troubling due to their massive scale, potential for unanticipated outcomes and novelty. The problem is we just might need them.

David Biello About the Author: David Biello is the associate editor for environment and energy at Scientific American. Follow on Twitter @dbiello.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. jtdwyer 3:14 pm 01/31/2014

    It sure would be interesting to see historical global population data plotted and correlated to temperature, atmospheric co2, etc. Without having done so, it seems quite apparent that there is a very strong correlation. Moreover, if human activity is the cause of global warming, then increasing population (and increasing industrialization of an increasing percentage of the population) should be at least a strongly contributing factor to climate change. The necessary data is readily available: see for example…

    Link to this
  2. 2. Chryses 6:02 pm 01/31/2014

    “Climate change is real, it’s here and it will be affecting the planet for a long, long time.”

    The expected longevity is why public policies here in the U.S. would be better if focused on accommodating the inevitable, rather than vainly trying to hold back the tide.

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  3. 3. GordDavison 6:13 pm 01/31/2014

    Reforestation. That’s the ticket.

    Link to this
  4. 4. Squish 6:27 pm 01/31/2014

    Chryses. Regarding “vainly trying to hold back the tide.”

    This is the wrong analogy. We cannot hold back tides. But our use of hydrocarbons is a choice. We can choose to reduce, maintain, or increase our use. According to your analogy this would be like us increasing, freezing or decreasing the tides.

    Here is my analogy: the early European settlers to New Zealand cut more than 90% of the colossal kauri trees down. When they realized that it takes them a few thousand years to get huge and there were a limited number, they stopped cutting them all down.

    There are far fewer of these huge trees left now (see wikipedia’s Tane Mahuta for an example)and the rate of replenishment is very slow so we will have a reduced inventory of the giants for a long time (i.e., earlier actions will affect us for a long, long time).

    However, the tide of decimation (I realize the irony) has certainly been reversed by our restorative actions.

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  5. 5. singing flea 6:37 pm 01/31/2014

    Reforestation will help, but that depends on local rainfall. The way the system works, first the trees than the rain. The trees are the great evaporators that tap the underground water sources and disperse it into the air through the processes of capillary action and aspiration. This is basic science taught in grade school. It is also the reason why huge deforested regions in the tropics turn to desert instead of regrowth forests. Most moisture from inland rainfall does not come from the sea. It comes from the forests and grasslands.

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  6. 6. jtdwyer 7:03 pm 01/31/2014

    What I was suggesting in my initial comment was that the increase in atmospheric co2 is highly correlated to global population growth and, independently, the population directly served by industrialization.
    The global population is projected to increase by >40% to 10 billion in about 70 years. That 3 billion increase exceeds the total population of the Earth at any time in its history prior to 1960.
    In addition, an increasing percentage of that growing population is understandably striving to benefit from increased industrialization – potentially compounding humanity’s global environmental impact.
    Gosh – perhaps we really need to address the root cause of humanity’s negative impact on the biosphere!

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  7. 7. hankroberts 10:23 pm 01/31/2014

    > fertilizing the ocean with iron to force
    > large plankton blooms and thereby bury
    > carbon in the abyss.

    Bring back the fish and whales instead; they consume the plankton blooms and put the iron back into the sunlit water

    where it makes more plankton, and fish, and whales.

    Dumping in iron and sinking all the minerals captured by plankton into the abyss is pushing in the wrong direction.

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  8. 8. hankroberts 10:28 pm 01/31/2014

    From the scienceblogs page, because it’s worth reading:

    Why should you care? Because the great whales are low in numbers. Which means less whale poop. And therefore less iron in the water, so less phytoplankton, and less krill. The researchers estimate the current population of krill in Southern Ocean (i.e. around Antarctica) may be as little as 20% of its pre-1980 numbers. And since krill is an indication of the presence of phytoplankton, we can assume a similar reduction in phytoplankton floating around down there.

    Figure 2: A few examples of phytoplankton. Yum. (Source)
    And what do phytoplankton do? Like any other plant, they do photosynthesis, which means they remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. That’s right, the same carbon dioxide that is so important in global warming.
    Moral of the story? Save the whales to help reduce global warming.
    (h/t Discoblog)

    Nicol, S., Bowie, A., Jarman, S., Lannuzel, D., Meiners, K., & van der Merwe, P. (2010). Southern Ocean iron fertilization by baleen whales and Antarctic krill Fish and Fisheries DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-2979.2010.00356.x

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  9. 9. Ralf123 11:30 pm 01/31/2014

    What, no deniers yet? Seems that WUWT hasn’t sicced it hordes yet. Maybe their mailing list is broken?

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  10. 10. Squish 11:33 pm 01/31/2014

    Considering the posts preceding:

    I suggested that we should reduce our polluting activities per person.

    However, it is fairly noted that – by way of an example – if a person reduces the amount of their output of pollution which I define here as that which harms other people directly or indirectly (including damaging a system that a person relies on) by 10%, then that will reduce total pollution output by 10% if everyone does the same and if the population remains the same.

    It the population increases by 20%, then the aggregate amount of pollution after the reduction is still greater.

    Pollution = amount per person * number of people.

    We need to factor in both parts of this equation, agreed.

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  11. 11. jtdwyer 7:08 am 02/1/2014

    There are still large segments of the global population that do not have access to electricity or personal transportation, for example. In recent years an increasing percentage of people (in China and India, for example) have been able to benefit from increasing global industrialization. This is, as I understand, the root cause for the growth in construction of new (coal powered) electrical generating facilities in China.
    While it may seem reasonable to ask everyone to reduce their environmental impact, those who as yet have no access to the benefits of industrialization cannot reasonably reduce their environmental impact. Instead, it should be expected to increase!

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  12. 12. MayorQuimby 1:28 pm 02/1/2014

    Correlation does not equal causation. Perhaps Mr. Biello can tell us how/why the climate has changed so frequently in past eras. Was the medieval warming period due to Romans driving SUVs?

    Reducing CO2 is a noble goal and I like the ideas above about reforestation and reducing garbage, coal plant usage ( go to nuclear) and other ideas. But let’s let go of this CO2 fantasy and get real.

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  13. 13. sciencegal57 4:41 pm 02/1/2014

    @MayorQuimby, there is plenty of science showing causation. Climate has changed in the past due to natural forcings, such as the sun and volcanic activity. Currently the sun is in a cooling phase, however greenhouse gases are increasing. Moreover, greenhouse gases from human activities have a specific signature that is different from naturally-produced greenhouse gases.

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  14. 14. tbrian 5:58 pm 02/1/2014

    Is said the population of africa will in a few short years be larger than India and China combined … and there is already a shortage of food and water???

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  15. 15. jackdale 7:34 pm 02/1/2014


    For last 400,000 years CO2 fluctuated between 180 and 300 ppm. Then in the mid 18th century we started burning billions of tonnes of stored carbon. That broke the natural cycles.

    Since 1751 approximately 365 billion metric tonnes of carbon have been released to the atmosphere from the consumption of fossil fuels and cement production. Half of these fossil-fuel CO2 emissions have occurred since the mid 1980s. The 2010 global fossil-fuel carbon emission estimate, 9167 million metric tons of carbon, represents an all-time high and a 4.9% increase over 2009 emissions. The increase marks a quick recovery from the 2008-2009 Global Financial Crisis which had obvious economic and energy use consequences, particularly in North America and Europe.

    And we are destroying the natural carbon sinks.

    We are now the first humans to breathe an atmosphere of 400 ppm CO2. Isotope analysis tells us that the increase is due to burning fossil fuels.

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  16. 16. schatzieD 8:12 pm 02/1/2014

    @Ralf123 – I was thinking the same thing and also how nice this comment section is…refreshing!

    Does anyone know, offhand, where to find out about the benefits of painting roofs white? I saw that listed in one of the charts above and I was wondering how significant an impact that could be. I sat in on a lecture by Bill Clinton years ago referring to this effort, but haven’t heard much since.

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  17. 17. MayorQuimby 9:20 am 02/2/2014

    Again…. Not saying we shouldn’t reduce CO2 output. I’m just saying there are higher correlations between sunspot activity and temps than CO2. The temp/CO2 connection is just a theory. Instead of throwing out model after the model that fails, lets stick to the goal of reducing carbon emissions, increasing forestation, improving renewable energy…etc

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  18. 18. jackdale 10:09 am 02/2/2014

    @ MayorQuimby

    The Stanford Solar Center says you are wrong, as does NASA.

    Most recently

    ” Small influence of solar variability on climate over the past millennium

    Andrew P. Schurer, Simon F. B. Tett & Gabriele C. Hegerl
    AffiliationsContributionsCorresponding author
    Nature Geoscience 7, 104–108 (2014) doi:10.1038/ngeo2040
    Received 02 August 2013 Accepted 14 November 2013 Published online 22 December 2013 Corrected online 07 January 2014
    Article tools
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    The climate of the past millennium was marked by substantial decadal and centennial scale variability in the Northern Hemisphere1. Low solar activity has been linked to cooling during the Little Ice Age (AD 1450–1850; ref. 1) and there may have been solar forcing of regional warmth during the Medieval Climate Anomaly2, 3, 4, 5 (AD 950–1250; ref. 1). The amplitude of the associated changes is, however, poorly constrained5, 6, with estimates of solar forcing spanning almost an order of magnitude7, 8, 9. Numerical simulations tentatively indicate that a small amplitude best agrees with available temperature reconstructions10, 11, 12, 13. Here we compare the climatic fingerprints of high and low solar forcing derived from model simulations with an ensemble of surface air temperature reconstructions14 for the past millennium. Our methodology15 also accounts for internal climate variability and other external drivers such as volcanic eruptions, as well as uncertainties in the proxy reconstructions and model output. We find that neither a high magnitude of solar forcing nor a strong climate effect of that forcing agree with the temperature reconstructions. We instead conclude that solar forcing probably had a minor effect on Northern Hemisphere climate over the past 1,000 years, while, volcanic eruptions and changes in greenhouse gas concentrations seem to be the most important influence over this period.”

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  19. 19. AlanKey 11:10 am 02/2/2014

    Very pretty graphs. I just wish that data or ideas that do not support the idea of catastrophic anthropomorphic global warming had been addressed. My first degree was in engineering (MIT 72) and my second in law. In neither field is one credible when one proposes an idea and ignores known (credible) opposing ideas. As I sense from some of the comments, this group seems to deal with opposing ideas using ad hominem responses. Now this can be quite amusing, but sadly has nothing to do with the scientific method, the adversarial legal system we use, nor design and planning protocols for technology projects. I’m still wondering about the Maunder Minimum and its effects, the medieval ice age, the Roman warming period, and the 300 year climate cycle recently discussed by that professor from Georgia Tech (at the risk of being ad hominem myself, may I say, you probably have photos of her house…so you probably know her name – sorry, just couldn’t help myself).
    Now I suppose all of the articles below (and many more that I have read) could be just “crazy, oil company sponsored, right wing propaganda – but if those folks have that much power – why not just buy SA and suppress “the truth” – or better yet control it? Conspiracy theories are so comforting. Better even than dismissing any argument that disagrees with yours as the product of (choose one or more): an idiot, a lobbyist, a bad researcher, right/left wing nut, denier (cause we all know what that means don’t we?), etc.

    And don’t I wish that some oil company (or maybe the Heartland Institute) was paying me to write this!

    Something else to factor in/worry about:

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  20. 20. David Biello in reply to David Biello 9:32 am 02/3/2014

    Link to this
  21. 21. Sisko 3:33 pm 02/3/2014

    In the charts you posted- I have two very simple questions
    1. Do you believe the outputs of the CMIP5 models are reasonably accurate? If they have not been accurate in matching actual observed conditions why would you believe these deeply flawed models outputs for over 100 years into the future?

    2. There has been no increase in the rate of sea level rise since the beginning of the satellite era of measurement (late 1992). How long does the current, un-alarming rate of sea level rise have to be maintained for you to acknowledge that it is not the worry that you once believed?

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  22. 22. 10:26 pm 02/3/2014

    This article says that fresh water will become more scarce. Melting ice increases the amount of sea volume while decreasing its salinity. Coupled with increased temperature this must increase atmospheric water vapor. This must inevitably produce more rainfall, which is the ultimate source of all fresh water. I try to be open-minded about climate change, but I am bothered when I read claims that don’t seem consistent with basic physics. Can someone point me to some solid research predicting the impact of climate warming on global rainfall? URLs?

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  23. 23. Dr. Strangelove 2:09 am 02/4/2014

    Granting all of these things are true. Where are all the dead bodies from global warming catastrophe? Dead bodies are more convincing than crying it’s the end of the world! End of the world! I predict without dead bodies, industrialized and developing nations will continue merrily, burn fossil fuels burn! While activists will keep on crying end of the world! End of the world! Until their faces turn blue and die of exasperation. But still no doomsday

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  24. 24. jrvz 5:38 am 02/4/2014

    jtdwyer has hit the nail right on the head! I am sure that population growth, levels of all sorts of pollution and climate change are closely related, but for some reason or other this factor always seems to be ignored. Along with other measures this factor should also be addressed.

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  25. 25. jrvz 5:44 am 02/4/2014

    dr strangelove – there are dead bodies galore everywhere in the developing world. Look at the average life spans, and the death rates amongst newborn & young children. Over population is not the only factor, but directly and indirectly it is a factor. This was recognised by China when they introduced the one child per family policy. Just because there are not dead people lying in the streets does not mean that there are no people dying as a result of climate change and pollution.

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  26. 26. MARCHER 10:44 am 02/4/2014


    Thanks for demonstrating the typical denier straw man argument.

    Nowhere on this article do the words “end of the world” appear. It does provide information regarding current science on climate change. Trying to imply otherwise is blatantly disingenuous.

    Meanwhile, asking for dead bodies usually just leads researchers to point out disasters that were caused or exacerbated by AGW, to which anti-science deniers just whine that the research is garbage and the evil “alarmists” are again crying “end of the world” and trying to scare people instead of reporting the science.

    A move straight out of the big tobacco hand book. I predict deniers will continue to do this instead of actually trying to discuss the science until they go blue in the face with histrionic, anti-science rage.

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  27. 27. David Biello in reply to David Biello 11:42 am 02/4/2014

    That comment was not in reference to rainfall, but rather glacial meltwater, which is the primary water supply for a number of cities around the world. If there are no glaciers, there is no meltwater and thus, their water supplies will be affected. Hope that helps clarify for you.

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  28. 28. 12:17 pm 02/4/2014

    Re David Biello’s response to my commrnt about global rainfall: That’s not a satisfying answer. Those glaciers get the water that becomes ice from rainfall, not magic. If you melt the glaciers, the rain that used to pass through the intermediate phase of glacier ice would simply become available to the people as water. Globally, warming may be the only practical means of providing a growing population with drinking water. I’m still interested in any valid studies of the impact of warming on global rainfall.

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  29. 29. Dr. Strangelove 3:13 am 02/6/2014

    Please look at the average life spans, and the death rates amongst newborn & young children in 1900 vs. today. I’m sure google search can answer that and I’m sure global warming is worse now than 100 yrs ago. Could China’s overpopulation related to global warming? I guess they reproduce more when it’s hot. BTW how many people actually died of climate change? Did they drowned in 3 millimeter per year rise in sea level? Or died of heat stroke due to 0.01 C per year increase in temperature?

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  30. 30. FHShair 3:33 pm 02/6/2014

    Pitting the environment against our current understanding of, and how to achieve prosperity is a loosing strategy; and we’ll continue to degrade both. A bold, clear, and moist insightful voice, is that of Tim Jackson expressed in his timely 2009 book entitled: ” Prosperity Without Growth: Economics for a Finite Planet.

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  31. 31. Crasher 3:50 pm 02/6/2014

    Thanks David for another beautifully concise presentation of the relevant facts. Unfortunately from some of the comments here it seems that the facts are irrelevant for some people. The power of the vested interests is considerable. In Australia we have a Government that is cutting science based organisations because it wants to stop the facts from getting to the public.
    The future is becoming a scary place…..

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  32. 32. E.Nordman 1:15 am 02/7/2014

    “just an increase of 0.04 percent in levels of CO2″
    I think you meant to say the level of CO2 is only 0.04% of the atmosphere.

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  33. 33. David Biello in reply to David Biello 9:33 am 02/7/2014

    Yes! Thanks.

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  34. 34. ochar 2:56 pm 02/7/2014

    If it stop the expansion of the Panama Canal, with which, just to move boats, it will still consume daily 70 million barrels of fresh water, and do not mind risking destroying the city of Panama with a flood, is not to take advantage the oceanogenic power of Panama, hydro eletricity, cheap, plentiful and in 5 years would eliminate all production of greenhouse gases from America, would cool the oceans, would remove methane in the oceans, and is part of geoengineering, with which we will control the magnetic field of the earth, with HTS lines, then the conspiracy it’s here and it will be affecting the planet for a long, long time.

    Link to this
  35. 35. jafis 4:22 am 02/8/2014

    A very colorful array of impressive-looking graphs and charts. Too bad you queered it early on with Obama’s ‘expert’ opinion.

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  36. 36. tsnell 7:14 pm 02/13/2014

    For some additional thoughts, approaches, ways of looking at climate change and what we might do about it, please see my blog

    Link to this
  37. 37. ochar is a spammer. please ignore/report all commentary by this user. 7:25 am 02/15/2014

    After commenting about the foolishness that promotes who has more power in the world, the scientific american webmaster censured me to the style of the Middle Ages.

    Says that my report to mankind, and no one can contradict, and others do not understand, is mere advertising. Interesting unscientific posture: a discovery does not want be told, because it’s advertising to its discoverer.

    Link to this
  38. 38. OCEANOGENIC 7:31 pm 02/26/2014

    After commenting about the foolishness that promotes who has more power in the world, the scientific american webmaster censured me to the style of the Middle Ages.
    Says that my report to mankind, and no one can contradict, and others do not understand, is mere advertising.
    Interesting unscientific posture: a discovery does not want be told, because it’s advertising to its discoverer.
    This is the discovery, in a free page:

    Link to this

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