Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

More Panic Than Heat: Gore on Global Warming

It may be that individual members of the media have free will, but sometimes the sudden feeding frenzy over a topic has all the inevitability of a chemical reaction. Such has been happening recently with the topic of global warming. Al Gore's movie An Inconvenient Truth provided the catalyst for a veritable firestorm of global warming hysteria. Not bad for what amounts to a filmed slide show.

Fawning reviewers like Roger Ebert are treating Inconvenient Truth like the newest revelation from on high. Indeed, the reception the 'religious right' gave to The Passion of the Christ is looking downright cool compared to the accolades being piled on Gore's work. Time Magazine, always a repository of deep thought about shallow subjects, intoned "Be worried. Be very worried" and provided a host of articles on impending sea level rises and storms. Even the usually skeptical ScienceBlogs.com seemed to provide only positive views and defenses of Inconvenient Truth.

Now, here's the thing: It's not that there's nothing to global warming. CO2 does indeed trap heat in our atmosphere. If you have any doubts that the greenhouse effect can make things unpleasant, read a little about today's weather on Venus. A toasty 900F degrees, anyone? And it makes sense that as the use of fossil fuels increases throughout the world, civilization will put more and more CO2 into the atmosphere. The 2+ billion people in China and India are still only starting to get close to an industrial par with the developed world -- and even with modern technology they will need to burn more fossil fuels before they move far enough forward to burn less. Global average temperatures have increased about one degree Celsius over the last century, and chances are good that human activity is at least one factor causing that.

However, the question that not enough people are asking is: How much of a problem is that in the grand scheme of things?

Supposedly science-educated people somehow seem to forget when they get started on the topic of global warming that the history of our planet goes back a whole lot more than a hundred years. There have been many times in our planet's history when, because there were no land masses near the poles, there were virtually no ice caps at all. Sea levels were higher. Roaches grew bigger. It was better weather for walking your sauropod. But the world didn't end. (Well, okay, so there was that thing about sudden global climate change after a giant rock fell out of the sky and blasted out a crater a hundred miles across -- but we'd be pretty hosed by a major asteroid strike now too.)

But you don't have to go back millions of years to see how much the climate can change without the planet going to pieces. A read of the Norse sagas clearly reveals that Iceland and Greenland had much milder climates around 900 to 1100 AD than they do now. So did Newfoundland, where the Norse briefly established a colony around 1000.

Indeed, people often forget that according to mainstream ice age theory, we are currently 10,000 years into an interglacial period in what is overall an ice age. Opinion varies widely as to how long interglacial periods typically last, and what exactly causes them to start and stop -- though the human production of greenhouse gasses might well artifically extend this one.

How bad all this is depends on your definition of what is an acceptable change in the status quo. It also depends a lot on more much linear change in the climate the release of greenhouse gasses will actually change. For instance, warming in the waters around Antarctica produces more precipitation over the ice sheet, which in turn means increased ice pack, not less. There are incredibly complex systems controling climate change on our planet, and it would be silly to imagine that we actually have them all figured out.

Many of the things that scare environmental advocates are also man-made problems. For instance, we're often warned that the sea level might rise 5, 10 or even 20 feet because of ice melt. So far, the verified sea level rise to due to ice melting is more in the range of a centimeter per decade, but leaving that aside: sea levels have changed radically over the history of the earth. Sea levels were much lower during the last glacial period. As sea levels rose again, whole areas (notably the Black Sea, which according to a fair amount of research only filled about 5000-7000 years ago) were flooded. Now, to the planet qua planet, that's not a problem at all. Sea levels change. It's supposed to be that way. But for our intrepid band of over-intellectual primates who have gone and built major cities in coastal regions subject to hurricanes on land at or below sea level -- it presents a problem.

Oddly enough, the environmentalist case against global warming is a case for the artificial lifestyle that we as a civilization have developed. The planet, and most of the species on it, are not going to be harmed by changes in the climate, even if those changes are partly caused by our industrial society. And so long as most of the effects are like those that have occured so far, or can be reasonably hypothesized, civilization as a whole is not going to be heavily impacted. We survived the black death and income tax, we can move to higher ground or cut our CO2 output, though the former might be more realistic than the latter -- and we won't need to move much higher unless changes of more than a few centimeters occur.

It seems ironic to me that while Ann Coulter's latest book claims that evolution is the religious myth of the liberal establishment, the liberal establishment is working itself into a lather over a set of climate changes which is neither big nor unprecedented when set against the wider scope of our planet's history. Perhaps young earth creationists should be freaking out about global warming, but people who allegedly understand that we live on a complex planet which has been changing in ways big and small for over four billion years don't need to be nearly as worried.

One of the few sane articles I've read lately on the topic asks the right set of questions: How do the costs of ending CO2 production compare with the costs of dealing with the effects of not doing so? Cost benefit analysis. What are they teaching them in schools these days?

11 comments:

CMinor said...

Excellent link--thank you for posting it. I'm glad someone is speaking for environmental protection alongside economic development Impoverished nations tend not to be ecologically sound, either.

Kevin Jones said...

"But for our intrepid band of over-intellectual primates who have gone and built major cities in coastal regions subject to hurricanes on land at or below sea level -- it presents a problem."

Thanks to this line, I just realized that because I live at one mile above sea level sea level fluctuations really aren't a pressing problem for me and my neighbors. Also note that one of the frequently-named scientists against global warming lives in Greeley, Colorado. I realize lots and lots of people do live in coastal areas, but inlanders like me aren't going to be nearly as troubled by powerpoint presentations of Florida doing an Atlantis impersonation.

Darwin said...

Indeed, it puts a whole new emphasis on taking the high ground.

All silliness aside, and whether or not global warming is actually going to cause major changes in the climate and sea level, putting major cities in hurricane/flooding target zones (just like putting them at the foot of major volcanoes) is something we should think about a little more consciously. That's just common sense.

Wadard said...

I can't see why you can't reduce emissions - oil and coal are not the only energy sources. Youc an't give up like that! You are resigned to your grandkids fate - that sucks!

jenny said...

The only economically feasible solution to greenhouse gas emissions (not that you'll never hear a liberal mention it): NUCLEAR!

My husband the paleontologist is all in favor of global warming. Bring back the shallow inland seas and increase the rate of fossilization!

Darwin said...

Hey, I'm all for a nuclear reactor in every neighborhood. It's just that not many other people seem to be...

It's not so much that I'm giving up, wadard, as that I think a certain degree of realism needs to be brought into it all. Most of all, a certain amount of fairness. It strikes me as particularly heartless when some environmental advocates praise the low per capita emmissions of India, China and other parts of the developing world, when that figure is bought with unimaginable suffering and squallor on the part of the poor in those countries.

While I would love to see the US move to use nuclear energy as successfully as some European countries do -- those developing nations (with much larger populations than our own) need to keep using easy fuels such as oil and coal for quite a while yet. And that means adopting a certain degree of realism as regards to dealing with global warming, whatever those effects may turn out to be.

Cynthia said...

Not to be confrontational in any way, but have you seen the movie? Have you seen the scientific evidence presented, and the photographic evidence to show the effects that global warming is having on the earth right now?

Gore shows studies of Antarctic ice that correlate with rises and falls of global temperature and compare them to the the levels of CO2 in the atmosphere. Then he shows us where our levels are currently compared to the average earth temperature, and where they are projected to be in 50 years.

It's very compelling evidence.

monogodo said...

One thing to keep in mind about the effects of "...Florida doing an Atlantis impersonation..." is that it should trouble inlanders, too. Where do you think the people who live in coastal areas are going to go if/when the sea level rises? That's right, inland, into your neighborhoods. Just because you live in an area that is safe from a rise in sea level, it doesn't mean you won't be affected adversly by it.

Darwin said...

Cynthia,

You'd have to try a lot hard than that to make me think you were being confrontational. :-)

I haven't seen the movie yet. (Actually, the only movie I saw in theater in the last six months was X-Men 3 -- getting a babysitter for all the monkeys is kind of tough.) However, I do try to keep up on the actual scientific stuff published in Science and Nature. One quick overview (the full articles are subscriber only) from Science is
here.

My point is not so much that global warming isn't happening, nor that CO2 from burning fossil fuels isn't partly to blame, but rather that people need to keep a perspective on the magnitude of change, the relative costs of dealing with the change versus preventing it, and the complex nature of this planet on which we are passengers.

30,000 years ago during the last glacial period, the sea level was several hundred feet lower than it is now. 130,000 years ago during the last interglacial period -- much more of the Greenland ice sheet had melted and sea levels was 6-15 feet higher than now. The summary in Science I linked to above suggests that the current warming tends (in relation to Greenland) could result in getting us back to that point in about 130 years if current trends continue.

However, it's important to remember that the planet is a very complex system. The same warming of the antarctic waters that is causing ice sheet loss in the West Antarctic is causing increased precipitation (and thus ice build-up) in the East Antarctic (see Curt Davis' June 2005 paper in Science). Now, that still results in a net loss of ice (it seems to be melting faster in the West than it's building up in the East) but one of the question marks is to what extent even more warming will cause even more precipitation, thus possibly slowing or even reversing the net loss.

The most basic point, however, is that the planet as a planet will be just fine. It's survived periods much hotter and much cooler than humanity is going to cause any time soon. It won't hurt the earth for the sea level to rise ten feet over the next hundred years. But it would hurt a bunch of people who (for a host of personal and historical reasons) live at two feet above sea level. The important things to do are:

a) Weigh the costs that global warming's effects might have on civilization against the costs of drastically reducing CO2 emmissions. (The latter may hurt more people, especially in the developing world.)

b) Remember that no matter what we do, the Earth is much, much bigger than we are. Certainly, we should make reasonable efforts (if they're likely to work -- many treaties like Kyoto aren't likely to make much difference) to avoid climate change, but at the same time we need to keep in mind that the Earth changes climate all on its own, in ways that might be fine for the planet but very hard on civilization. It's all very well to build a city behind dikes or on top of an earthquake fault or in the path of a likely volcanic erruption -- but we need to realize what we're doing and be prepared for it, not act shocked when nature does what nature does with no regard for our comfort.

monogodo said...

Go see the movie, with an open mind, then come back and review your post and comments here.

Zachriel said...

Darwin: "climate changes which is neither big nor unprecedented when set against the wider scope of our planet's history"

That's true, but from that vantage point, the extinction of the human species (or a severely reduced population) is not that big a deal either.

Darwin: "How do the costs of ending CO2 production compare with the costs of dealing with the effects of not doing so?"

That is certainly a very important question, but first you have to look at the evidence and accept if global climate change is real. If it is, it could cause major dislocations of populations. More importantly, it could cause major dislocations of agriculture. Longer term, it could cause a complete degradation of the environment and broad societal dislocations. Large migrations often create large political problems, maybe even very destructive wars and inhumane policies.

Think of it this way. Population tends to grow exponentially. If a Petri dish starts with a single bacterium and the population doubles every day for a year, at what point the Petri dish is full? When is the Petri dish half-full? And from the point-of-view of the expanding population, what does that mean?

kevin jones: "I realize lots and lots of people do live in coastal areas, but inlanders like me aren't going to be nearly as troubled by powerpoint presentations of Florida doing an Atlantis impersonation."

Um, where do you think they are going to move to? ;-)