Climate Change: Political Science vs. Soil Science

Candice Gaukel Andrews January 20, 2015 21

New studies show that permafrost is decreasing and polar soil is increasing in both Antarctica and the Arctic, as shown here in Greenland. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

Americans may finally be getting more concerned about climate change, according to the Pew Research Center. In a brand-new survey about policy priorities that was conducted January 7–11, 2015, the organization found that more of us now view “global warming” as an important consideration for the president and Congress.

At first glance, that would seem like a huge stride. The Washington Post even mentioned that until now, for as long as Pew has done these surveys, the issue of climate change has garnered low numbers. This year’s 38 percent is almost 10 percentage points higher than it was in January 2014, when the count was at 29 percent.

The ranking, however, tells a different, less positive story. “Global warming” landed in the 22nd spot out of 23 possibilities. Only “global trade” was graded lower.

Is this cause for hope that our politicians will begin to react to our nation’s rising concerns regarding the environment, or is climate change still too far down the list to set in motion any meaningful legislation to address it?

In the Arctic, more polar soil will lead to the release of carbon and methane, causing an increase in greenhouse gases. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

Soil science statisticians

The news from the Pew Research Center comes on the heels of studies from the University of Wisconsin-Madison that show that the seasonal thaw, or “active layer” of polar soils, is increasing and permafrost is decreasing. Permafrost is typically defined as soils that stay at or below freezing for two or more years at a time.

Understanding what will happen to the permafrost in a warmer world is one of the most crucial pieces to putting together the climate change puzzle. For millennia, this hard layer of frozen soil has sequestered vast amounts of carbon and methane, which contribute to greenhouse gas levels when they are released into the atmosphere. As the Earth warms, so does this soil, pushing the permafrost line deeper and freeing up more soil to release carbon and methane via processes such as erosion or microbial activity.

The Antarctic Peninsula is one of the most rapidly warming places on Earth. According to the UW-Madison, in a soil survey conducted on the peninsula in the 1960s during April (the warmest month of Antarctica’s short summer), researchers only had to dig about 16 inches into the soil before hitting hard permafrost. In 2011, scientists bored into the soil more than four times deeper—yet they still didn’t hit permafrost. What’s more, the temperature at the bottom of every hole they dug was well above freezing, suggesting that the permafrost was located yet several more feet beyond the reach of their drills.

In Antarctica, small plants that are beginning to grow could pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

Political science partisans

Some would argue that there could be something of a silver lining in the increase in the amount of polar soils. While in the Arctic, this will certainly lead to the release of carbon and methane—making it a huge source of greenhouse gases—the opposite may be true in Antarctica. Given the continent’s landmass, increasing plant cover and thus escalating photosynthesis, it might become a carbon sink. The small plants that are beginning to grow on Antarctic soils could end up pulling carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere instead of adding to the problem. But how much that will actually help is a big unknown.

Unfortunately, once again, the partisan divide over dealing with climate change is striking. According to the Pew Research Center, 54 percent of Democrats view this as a top priority for the president and Congress compared with just 15 percent of Republicans. This, even though we know that 97 percent of climate change researchers say that the effects of human-caused climate change will be devastating for everyone on Earth.

Do you think Americans as a whole are becoming more cognizant of and demanding more progress on climate change issues, or do they still overwhelmingly feel compelled to follow party lines?

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,



  1. Raymond Kinney February 4, 2015 at 7:26 am - Reply

    I’m begining to be pretty concerned that many thresholds on the timeline for climate change are happening even faster than most predictions have suggested (e,g, methane releases from the arctic, freshwater & drought issues etc.), which if not merely a glitch in my mind, will accelerate other global effects such as sealevel rise. Politicians as a whole will be so very far behind the curve that it boggles the mind how we can best work on it. It is really going to need all of the scientists, the natural resource conservation practitioners, and many flavors of visionary people to step up into roles that they really don’t want to have to do… too bad… we gonna hav ta man up to do it in the face of the politic status quo. we are going to each have to grow until it hurts… or our great grandchildren are going to have a very rough time trying to do many more things we should have dealt with. We in deep doodoo.

  2. Ian Ripper January 28, 2015 at 6:07 am - Reply

    America is always so polarized it is hard to second guess. For sure some of the most striking technologies will come from USA and that might avert catastrophe, but on the downside so many Americans just want more stuff and already burn so much energy, that without a big political move the USA may take us all down the climate ruin road. I think a few more climate disasters on US soil that cost a lot will be needed before the wake up call chimes laud.

  3. Yaw Atuahene Nyako January 25, 2015 at 5:33 pm - Reply

    Unfortunately, politicians mostly take decisions bearing in mind the votes they will gain or lose in the next elections. If hard decisions are to be taken but with the benefits to be realised too far in the future then I am afraid politicians will be reluctant to do so without much pressure from the voters.

  4. Risto Nuutinen January 25, 2015 at 5:30 pm - Reply

    Maybe both, or maybe it is like here in Finland:
    The congress elections are coming and more and more “articles” are written by politicians about nature conservation and climate change. Some of the people believe that politics “are telling the true thing”, they don’t see thru them what is obvious: they only want to win elections and after that they change their minds again.

  5. Gbolagade Lameed January 25, 2015 at 5:29 pm - Reply

    Actually, it is difficult to separate the problem of Climate change from being political issue. This is because most the problem of climate stems from the political frontiers who do every thing to get into power during Political Campaign. Some of their provision or promises to the Electorate are not considered environmental-wise before and after election and in the long run they produce deleterious effect to the environment. Our action and reaction as human being must always be weighed and checked so that the lethal effect of all we call enjoyment, scenery, fashion, technology and other advancement or development will always leave serious NEGATIVE IMPACTS on the general environment (Global warming/Climate change). If aforementioned reasons are true picture, then POLITICS can not be separated from the problems of the climate change. The problem deserve holistic approach of both politics and science to combat so that human race will not continue to dig same pit to bury themselves and if they are doing so now, the pit should not be to deep or irreversible to correct and amend. I am not against development, but there must always be a rethinking to rectify problems that may accompany such.

  6. Jerry Hickman January 25, 2015 at 5:27 pm - Reply

    Climate change in my area of the Western United States brings to mind, research that potential problems for the Aspen Tree Community especially on the local Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge in Eastern Washington. And secondly, the threat to island community of the Western US mountains. The species in these ecosystems have shown a trend to move up the mountains in search of a niche they have occupied for years at lower elevations. One of these species is the Pika. A common name for this small mammal is haymaker, because they cut and cure plant materials for storage in the talus slides of the mountain for use during the long, cold winters with deep snow.
    The opportunity for finding such habitats at higher altitude is shrinking as the aridity of the recent decades and other climate changes shrink the available mountainous closer to timberline and above. Aspen and Pika are only a couple examples of possible changes yet to come to all mountain obligate communities.

  7. Lawan Bukar Marguba January 25, 2015 at 5:26 pm - Reply

    It is inevitable that any matter, whether scientific, cultural or whatever, once become matters of public attention invariably become political science issues for political solutions. Climate Change is no exception. Just as the Ebola epidemic in west Africa has now been raised to global attention even though it is basically a health issue. It has received heightened political consideration and attention, particularly in the West to the extent of bringing in healthcare experts and soldiers, so is Climate Change a matter of political science. The fact that Coastal erosion and floods, droughts, heatwaves, ozone depletion, etc, are subjects of scientific interpretations do not alter the fact that these are of political science interest.

  8. Susan Sharma January 24, 2015 at 5:20 am - Reply

    The climate change war will ultimately be “fought” by the people affected by it and not by political parties.

  9. Karen Schneller-McDonald January 23, 2015 at 7:40 am - Reply

    I think our education system and lifestyles factor into this disturbing lack of interest or concern in environmental protection. We aren’t teaching many of our kids about the natural world and how it sustains us; even more important, we aren’t giving them the kind of outdoor experiences that enable them to form a personal connection with nature. Our problem is cultural, deep-seated, and very challenging to change. Kids who understand the importance of the environment today are the adults who will vote tomorrow.

  10. Ed Lagace January 23, 2015 at 7:33 am - Reply

    I speak with High School students regularly on this topic. When I enter the room I ask the students to sit in three places of their choice.
    1. Believerin Climate Change?
    2. Do not believe
    3. Not sure
    Then we have an informative shared conversation about questions statements concernes excetera. When done I again ask them to all stand and move into a group to stretch and think about what they are thinking. Fifteen mineuts latter I again ask them to sit in the location that represents what they believe.
    So far it appears that the participents will definetly change their views when faced with scientific proof of why it is most likely climate change is real. They do however believe there is little that can be done to change the direction it is going.

  11. Barbara Hayton January 23, 2015 at 7:11 am - Reply

    Time will tell, Candice. I think the evidence is there as more of the ice in the polar regions continues to melt as unmindful of politicians as they seem to be of nature and the environment.

  12. Hal Michael January 23, 2015 at 7:06 am - Reply

    Part of the problem I see with the whole issue of climate change is the insistance on blaming somebody. We already have major problems with water supply, floods, sealevel rise and so on. Carbon taxes, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, etc. will do little or nothing to solve today’s problems. We need, I believe, to tackle both issues. That is, unless one can guarantee that an x-% reduction in emissions will regrow the polar ice caps by y in the next few years.

    It seems we have problems to deal with today and we try to provide solutions that will take decades do show benefit. Not that we shouldn’t make changes for the future, but need to fix stuff today.

  13. Monte Garrett January 22, 2015 at 1:57 pm - Reply

    It certainly is a political issue. But I think human nature is to blame for why most Americans still have the environment low on their priority list. The environment is not ‘immediate’ enough for most people; higher priorities are their jobs, their businesses, costs of basic needs, their kids, etc. True, the environment does affect these things, but the health of our planet seems to be a longer term concern.

  14. Dennis Williamson January 22, 2015 at 1:54 pm - Reply

    Candice, although this article offers a small glimmer of hope, it sounds pretty much like the same old, same old. Nero fiddles while Rome burns.

  15. Michael Jenkins January 22, 2015 at 1:03 pm - Reply

    I believe the lack of environmental prime time television on major channels and movies is a major reason for lack of interest in the environment. No more “Flipper” or “Grizzly Adams” type shows. Very little Native American shows lately which spurs interest. The radio talk shows also knock environmentalism really hard and have made environmentalism out of style in alot of America.

  16. Sue Jarrett January 22, 2015 at 10:56 am - Reply

    Global Warming was changed to Climate Change because it is colder in the US. Also Climate Change is largely nature. It has not been proved that so many corporations are causing climate change. Closing coal sites will make electric costs go up. According to the EPA “Domestic livestock such as cattle, buffalo, sheep, goats, and camels produce large amounts of CH4 (Methane) as part of their normal digestive process.Methane is also emitted from a number of natural sources. Wetlands are the largest source, emitting CH4 from bacteria that decompose organic materials in the absence of oxygen. Smaller sources include termites, oceans, sediments, volcanoes, and wildfires.”All of us wildlife lovers want to get rid of wildlife?

  17. Dr. UN Nandakumar January 22, 2015 at 9:16 am - Reply

    Nasa Scientists say that 2014 is one of the hottest as well as coolest year in almost all part of the world and they say it is essentailly due to global warming &change change.They also feel that this phenomena will become more accute in the coming years. Hence it is important to put mitigation & adaptation to climate change in the top of the agenda all over the world!

  18. John H. Gaukel January 20, 2015 at 6:45 pm - Reply

    According to the EPA, climate change will effect the water cycle, which is a delicate balance of precipitation and evaporation. Warmer temperatures increase the rate of evaporation and allows the atmosphere to hold more water, which may dry out some areas and fall as excess precipitation in other areas. Recent changes in the amount of rain falling during storms now are providing evidence that the water cycle is already changing. Climate change is likely to increase water demand while shrinking water supplies. The question is, how many gallons of water do you use a day and what are you willing to pay for that water?

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