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Archive for July 26th, 2006

This blog really is going to be about more than climate change. Really, I swear. But it was the BIG THING on my mind (before the missiles started flying between Israel and Lebanon, anyway) when I started it. I’m going to attempt to put this topic to rest for now (at least for myself), with an examination of some of the myths and truths regarding the science of climate change, and what what the facts are (and are not).

As best as I can tell, these are the most common arguments against responding to climate change, each followed by critique and explanation:

1) We all know that the earth’s climate is cyclical in nature, and that it has been both warmer and cooler in the past than it is now.

Remember how in elementary school, your teacher told you that if a question contains even one false statement, you must mark “false” on the test? We must keep this in mind, and consider three important facts:

a) We are experiencing unprecedented warming, not just a routine incline on the graph. For instance, the “medieval warm period” is often cited as being warmer than it is today. This assertion has proved to be incorrect (and was based on such “observations” as Norwegians in Greenland and vineyards in England). It is warmer now than it was then. In fact, what has stood the test of rigorous science is the fact that the “Little Ice Age” of the 15th-19th centuries was cooler than the “cool” period of the mid-20th century.

b) The climate record of the past several thousand years shows a very small range of variability – a “warm” period can be distinguished from a “cool” period by less than a degree (think of your own body temperature – a couple of degrees is the difference between sickness and health), and both can have environmental impacts. The current warming trend is set to increase 1990 level temperatures by at least three degrees this century.

c) The climate does not change all by itself. It is changed by things. This is a common, yet flawed, understanding of the “cyclic nature” of our climate. The climate is a system that is influenced by what is happening globally – it is not some sort of moody character that changes its disposition on a whim. These occurrences and conditions that cause changes in the climate are called “forcings.”

2) Since the climate is cyclical in nature (see above), there is no way to prove that humans are causing global warming.

We should all know that “coincidence” means “the state or fact of occupying the same relative position or area in space.” When scientists and laypeople look at historic and current temperatures, and compare them to historic and current atmospheric CO2 levels, they will notice a startling thing: the graphs are nearly identical. We know that humans are responsible for this rise in carbon dioxide levels – this is fairly uncontroversial. So how do we know that more carbon dioxide causes higher temperatures, besides relying on coincidence? It’s actually pretty well established. However, if a record of 650,000 years of greenhouse gas concentrations doesn’t impress you, you can always research greenhouse gases, starting here and here.

3) CO2 is a naturally present gas, which can be absorbed in many ways by the planet. Heck, I read somewhere that more CO2 is good for plants, and will cause our agricultural yields to increase. Things will adapt.

This is one of my pet arguments “against” global warming, and the most obviously circular one that the title of this post refers to: 1) Global warming is not caused by humans (increased atmospheric CO2). 2) Even if it is, it’s probably a good thing. Which is it? We aren’t causing it, or we are?  

First off, I’m rather proud of my little analogy about human body temperature and variability. I’ll stretch it out a bit here. When you have a temperature of around 100F, you might not feel so good. “Low grade fever” is usually what we think of here. When you discover that you’re at 102, you generally feel pretty lousy. And when you are at 104 or above, it’s time to go to the hospital. Much higher than that, and the enzymes in your body will begin to denature. Can your body adapt to a 107F internal temperature? Can we just assume that plants and animals, which have evolved over many millennia of fairly constant temperatures, will be able to adapt to comparatively sudden changes in global temperature? Does this make sense, given what we know about evolution? The issue is not a very gradual warming over a very long time – that we could probably handle. It is the rate of warming that we need to be concerned about. Sudden changes are not so easily adapted to and, contrary to what it seems, three degrees in a century is sudden. Many of the mass extinctions in history have been attributed to rather sudden changes in climate (before you think, “See! You’re proving my point about the natural cycles of the climate!” please see here).

We know that our current plants have evolved with a fairly constant level of atmospheric CO2. We also know that plants absorb CO2. Many people use this information (and a “more is better” mentality) to postulate that more CO2 is good for plants and will help them grow better, meaning a boon for agriculture. However, this is another case of things being more complicated than they seem, with recent studies indicating that increased CO2 levels will not increase crop yields, and will actually result in less nutrient-rich yields. 

4) Besides, it would be devastating to the economy to put measures in place to reduce CO2 emissions. The economy is more of an immediate concern than the environment.

This one, for me anyway, causes a dumbfounded, “Huh?!?” kind of reaction. But that, of course, is not very scientific, so let’s inject some common sense: Fossil fuels are a non-renewable resource. Eventually we will need to develop an economy based on different sources of energy. How far away is “eventually”? I don’t have an answer for that, but given that we are nearing or have arrived at peak oil, I am inclined to think that it is necessary to immediately begin aggressively pursuing alternative fuel sources. I have used this quote in another post:

But in my view, tackling global warming is extremely unlikely to damage the American economy. What’s required is another industrial revolution. America is rather good at these. Britain led the first (coal and steam), but America has pioneered the rest (the internal combustion engine, telecommunications, computers). Each one only adds to our prosperity, and it will be the same once again.

But there is an important difference from previous industrial revolutions. This one requires political leadership; the market on its own won’t do it. As an Englishman I am often impatient with the notion of America as “the indispensable nation,” but on this occasion I think that it is. To combat global warming, the world desperately needs U.S. leadership.

While I am fairly pessimistic about our willingness to pioneer a new fuel revolution in time, I do think that if we had the will, we could accomplish it, to the benefit of the economy, the environment, and our health. Why do we so closely link consumerism and material wealth with happiness (more on that in another post)? How can the economy be more important than the health of the planet, our only viable address? Why do people think like this? Why can’t we see this as an exciting new challenge, rather than a foregone impossibility?

5) And, by the way, this whole global warming panic is being promulgated by a bunch of liberal commies who just want to scare people into adopting their anti-capitalist ideology. These people scared us in the ’70s, only that time we were facing another ice age.

I cannot speak for political ideology in this debate, as I attempt to steer clear of -isms. However, I do acknowledge that the implications of the science are sobering and yes, a little frightening, in their own right and without comment. I happen to believe that people tend to operate as crisis managers, resisting change until there is no other option. The “alarmists,” it seems to me, are not hoping that the earth will descend into environmental apocalypse – they are trying, as best they know how, to raise awareness to bring about change. What concerns me about people like Senator Inhofe and others who deny the reality and urgency of this issue, is that people who are looking for an excuse for complacency actively search out contrary “evidence” to put their minds at ease. It is interesting to note that much of the skepticism about global warming is reactionary, emotional and incredulous (I reference the the latter link as a common example of citing, in particular, two – and only two – climate scientists, John Christy and Richard Lindzen, in an attempt to downplay the reality of anthropogenic climate change). Interestingly, however, both Christy and Lindzen acknowledge that global warming is real, and is in part caused by human activity (oh, the power of agenda-driven quote mining!) The links above provide more information on this.

Finally, as for the “alarmists” of the 1970s, thankfully others  have taken on this task and you can read the piece below, and browse through contemporary scientific publications to see for yourself what the scientific community was saying.

The state of the science at the time (say, the mid 1970’s), based on reading the papers is, in summary: “…we do not have a good quantitative understanding of our climate machine and what determines its course. Without the fundamental understanding, it does not seem possible to predict climate…” (which is taken directly from NAS, 1975). In a bit more detail, people were aware of various forcing mechanisms – the ice age cycle; CO2 warming; aerosol cooling – but didn’t know which would be dominant in the near future. By the end of the 1970’s, though, it had become clear that CO2 warming would probably be dominant; that conclusion has subsequently strengthened.

 What do I make of all of this? Honestly, I’m not sure that drastically reducing CO2 emissions will be the great cure-all for our environmental problems. I think the fundamental issue is how we view our environment – right now, with few exceptions, it’s simply a moneymaker, something to be exploited. I also think that, deep down, we have a collective sense of guilt, but aren’t sure how to reverse a centuries old mentality – it is madness to deny that human beings have had a detrimental effect on the planet. One of my favorite lines concerning our relationship with the earth is, “woe to the creature that soils its own nest” (author unknown). Here are a few more:

The care of the Earth is our most ancient and most worthy, and after all our most pleasing responsibility. To cherish what remains of it and to foster its renewal is our only hope” ~Wendell Berry

The significant problems we have cannot be solved at the same level of thinking with which we created them. ~Albert Einstein

After one look at this planet any visitor from outer space would say ‘I want to see the manager.’ ~William S. Burroughs

Environmentally friendly cars will soon cease to be an option…they will become a necessity. ~Fujio Cho, President of Toyota Motors

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it is the only thing that ever has. ~Margaret Mead

Only when the last tree has died and the last river been poisoned and the last fish been caught will we realise we cannot eat money. ~Cree Proverb  

We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect. ~Aldo Leopold

When the well’s dry, we know the worth of water. ~Benjamin Franklin

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