The Science Behind Climate Change

Ask Science discusses the science behind climate change—plus how to test it in your own kitchen.

Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD
4-minute read
Episode #215

Climate change is a complicated issue for a multitude of reasons. Much of the science itself is complicated: the Earth’s ecosystem can act as a complex loop meaning that there are multiple mechanisms that can contribute both to the heating and cooling of the atmosphere. As much as shows like CSI tend to depict otherwise, a scientific investigation doesn’t always take a clear path from one neatly outlined conclusion to the next. (Although to be fair to CSI, they have to wrap up their mystery in under an hour, but climate change science has been around for > 150 years!)

However, a more complicating factor by far is that a person’s stance on climate change has now become wrapped up in that person’s political affiliation. In a 2016 Gallup poll, 84% of Democrats and 64% of Independents claimed to worry about climate change “a great deal or a fair amount” while only 40% of Republicans felt the same way. It is worth noting, however, that the percentages of Independents and Republicans showing concern for climate change had each increased by 9% from a similar poll conducted just one year earlier.

But lucky for anyone who wants to understand climate science better or to decide for themselves whether or not it is a real issue with the potential to shape our future, there is one very simple and testable fact that lies at the basis of all the discussion: Carbon dioxide is a gas that is better at trapping heat than other gases. Whether or not you think human activity is to blame for rising carbon dioxide (CO2) levels in the atmosphere and no matter your opinion on what type of role government should play in reducing those levels, the chemistry of the link between CO2 and temperature is a closed case.

One of my favorite things about science is that the answers to scientific questions are there for the taking: they don’t care who is doing the asking. Of course, societal barriers sometimes exist to prevent us from getting at those answers directly, and we instead have to rely on the results of experiments conducted by experts.

For example, I, unfortunately, cannot afford to run my own cancer research clinic. (Nor do I have any experience in my career as an astrophysicist to suggest that I’d be any good at it anyway.) But that does not mean that I have to believe any individual article that comes across my desk telling me about recent progress in cancer treatments. I can choose to read peer-reviewed results from trusted sources and gather information from professionals who do run their own cancer research clinics to draw a conclusion pulled from the consensus of my own investigation.

This is not, however, the case with climate science. The science that underlines the climate debate can be easily tested in your own kitchen without the need for fancy equipment or an entire clinic at your disposal. We don’t have to just believe climate scientists nor do you just have to believe me!


Please note that archive episodes of this podcast may include references to Ask Science. Rights of Albert Einstein are used with permission of The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Represented exclusively by Greenlight.

About the Author

Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD

Dr Sabrina Stierwalt earned a Ph.D. in Astronomy & Astrophysics from Cornell University and is now a Professor of Physics at Occidental College.