Global Warming - Can the average person understand it?

Is there any way that the average person can understand global warming? Where can the average person go to get the information to understand why global warming has been established in the scientific community to caused by humans and not cycles or changes in the Sun. I don’t think there is any big conspiracy by scientists, but when someone says that Iceland was once a nice warm place to live I don’t know what to say. Is there anyway to understand this issue without years of study? How much time would the average person have to put in to understand this issue?

One of my goals in coming to this board was to gain a further understanding of global warming. I started a GD thread “Fight my ignorance, RE: global warming”. (I’m a guest, so I can’t get to it any more.)

Over the course of the thread, someone (was it Colibri?) made the excellent point that very very few people in the world understand every aspect of our current knowledge of global warming. Even the top climatologists in the world don’t know the ins and outs of every last theory out there. This is one of the major causes of contention in this arena: no one has every answer for the other guy’s arguments.

In light of this, I would suggest you reframe your question. You need to define how well someone needs to understand the issue before you consider it “understood.”

Can the average man understand it well enough to know the basic current scientific consensus? Sure.

Can the average man understand it well enough to take a well-reasoned positin on it? Maybe.

Can the average man understand it well enough to debate it with the average climatologist? No way in hell.

I think that the problem is that the average person thinks that they can understand it, rather similar to Milton Friedman and Monetarism.

Very simple theories lead to semi-religious followers.


You can point out that historical reports of warmer climates in parts of the northern hemisphere don’t prove the existence of globally higher temperatures in the past. NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center explains:

As Randy pointed out, there are different levels of understanding involved. The basic premise underlying the current mainstream hypothesis of anthropogenic (human-caused) global warming, or “AGW”, is simple enough to state non-technically in a few sentences:

So-called greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide in the atmosphere trap radiation from the sun, warming the earth’s surface and the atmosphere. This is the fundamental “greenhouse effect”, which is very important to the development and survival of life as we know it (without such gases in our atmosphere, we’d have much harsher extremes of heat and cold). Over the past couple of centuries, human activities such as fossil-fuel burning and large-scale livestock husbandry have significantly increased the concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. And over the past several decades, global temperatures have been rising to an extent and at a rate that has not been satisfactorily explained in terms of normal climate cycles or solar phenomena.

Therefore, scientists have hypothesized that the current warming is mostly or largely caused by an “anthropogenic enhanced greenhouse effect”, due to the increased atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Now, the tough part of the question is: Why is the “enhanced greenhouse effect” or AGW hypothesis generally considered a better explanation of the current temperature increase than other explanations depending on non-anthropogenic factors? That requires a lot more specialized knowledge to understand, and probably nobody who’s not a professional climate scientist understands it fully. But there are lots of summaries for the lay reader available, such as this one:

There’s no way to definitively judge the merits of opposing claims without working through reams of very complicated technical material. The best most of us will be able to do is to understand accurately what the basic issues are, and decide thoughtfully which claims seem most plausible and which sources seem most trustworthy.

Al Gore’s movie does a good job. I presume it will play on network TV before long, and probably become a standard for high school science classes.