Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Why I'm Not a Global Warming Denier

First of all, let's address this word "denier." The use of this word is deliberate, meant to equate denying the revealed truths of global warming with denying the proven historical facts of the Holocaust. That comparison is overheated, over the top, and grossly unfair.

The very fact that anyone who hints at doubting the Truth about global warming is pilloried as an ignoramus, a Neanderthal, a fool, or some sort of Holocaust denier is proof that the global warming movement is motivated by something more than a rational pursuit of scientific truth. This hysterical reaction against doubts of any kind (heresy, if you prefer), is why I'm forced to agree with SF writer Michael Crichton that radical environmentalism is a religion. That is not to say I believe that the theory of global warming is false. I just prefer more data and somewhat less judgmentalism and screaming, thank you very much. Sort of like people who are pro-choice don't like anti-abortion activists getting in their face: it accomplishes little, and often makes the other side hold their views even more strongly simply because they don't like being pushed around.

I'd venture to say that's where a lot of Americans are right now, especially those of us with slightly guilty consciences and less-than-adequate scientific educations. Now back in my wild-and-woolly youth, I happened to buy the global warming theory, hook, line, and sinker. Even wrote a couple science fiction stories set on a future Earth where the glaciers melted and everything was going higgledy-piggledy. So I'm open to the possibility, and I've seen enough data on the planet Venus to realize that excessive global warming is a Bad Thing.

However, I also recall the late 1970s. We had some of the worst winters in decades that year. The blizzard of '77 resulted in something like 10 feet of snow in the Chicago area and a week off from school. The blizzards of '79 and '83 weren't much better. One of the very first covers of Analog magazine I ever saw depicted glaciers, not ocean currents, moving through the steel canyons of New York. By 1986, it was warm water and boats. What a difference a few years makes.

There's also this: we humans didn't have regular, accurate, and systematic collection of the world's air temperatures until the 1850s. Before that, it was "hotter than hell" or "colder than a witch's bazoom" or somewhere in-between. If scientists share data from 100 years ago, and one picture of the world's climate emerges; from 1,000 years ago, and another story is told; 10,000 years, and we get another; 100 million, and still another. The world of the dinosaurs was sweltering (hotter than it is now) until an asteroid came in and covered the world with flame, dust, and tsunamis that covered the land and then then grew glaciers that froze the planet and killed 90% of the species on Earth. Once the damage from the asteroid was healed and life returned, life on Earth still faced age after age of advancing and retreating glaciers. The last "Little Ice Age" occurred from the mid-14th century to the early 19th century, not so long ago, and it was helped along in part by erupting volcanoes. Personally, being a lover of warm weather, I have a moral objection to global freezing. Ice ages can set in within less than a century. What we doing to stop that?

Here's the irritating part of the global warming/cooling debate: in both cases (freezing/baking), the proposed solutions have been to curtail technology, use of fossil fuels, capitalism, and individual choices/freedoms. Funny how that happened. You're saying that these solutions would work for global warming AND global cooling? Wouldn't increased use of fossil fuels hold back another ice age? Wouldn't global warming increase the growing season in colder parts of the world and reduce the number of deaths from freezing? Just who is making the judgments about what should be done? What figures of merit are they using to determine what is a benefit and what is a loss, and who stands to benefit from the proposed solutions? The folks on low-lying atolls might give one answer, the folks living in Canada and Siberia might give another.

Some cycles on this Earth last hundreds or hundreds of thousands of years. Shouldn't we gather enough data to know for certain which sort of cycle we're in before we go futzing around with re-engineering the environment? And what if, after all we do, we discover that the processes that really govern the world are beyond human control? Will the governments that took our choices away for the common good then give them back if it is discovered that said choices don't matter a fig to the planet as a whole?

Does this mean I want to go back to the height of the Industrial Age, where smog and soot were common in our skies and streets and rivers? Of course not. We've made remarkable progress in the 30+ years since the first Earth Day. But now we need to pause and think and ask ourselves when enough is enough. The developing world needs access to environmentally friendly technologies far more than the industrialized world does, and some of the worst polluters are the nations with the worst human rights records (e.g., China, Russia). There are things we can do to help those nations improve their situation while continuing to incrementally improve our own. We can export the cleaner technologies we've developed while developing newer and better power sources for ourselves. Or is it just easier to punish America rather than change others?

Anyhow, assuming there is still rationality among those who believe absolutely in the truth of global warming (and I know there is), I would like them to factor into their climate models the aggregate heat effects of the following processes.

Water cycle:
Ocean currents:
Hydrothermal circulation:
Plate tectonics:
Atmospheric carbon dioxide:
Other greenhouse gases (water vapor, methane, nitrous oxide, CFCs):
Natural and anthropogenic greenhouse processes:
Volcanic activity:
The Sun:
Solar (sunspot) cycles:
Space weather:
Terrestrial albedo:
Industrial air pollution:
Total world biomass:
Total birth rate:
Total death rate:

And when your models, incorporating all of these processes and backed by hard data, can accurately predict the weather on my birthday one year from now at a particular time and place, I might take your dire predictions seriously. In the meantime, there are more data to be gathered, and more incremental changes to be made. That might not be as sexy as tearing down capitalism, banning SUVs, or "sticking it to the man," but you just might find more people willing to follow your banner and take up your cause without coercion. And that's got to be better than screaming, right?

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