Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Who's Afraid of Global Warming?

The so-called "controversy" between those who want Intelligent Design to be taught in biology class and those who want science and not religious dogma to be taught, is not unrelated to the brewing war of words over the threat of Global Warming. Some of the same groups who want the Bible taught alongside Darwin are probably also aligned with those who downplay or deny the phenomenon called Global Warming. This is not surprising. Both Darwin's theory of evolution and the theory of Global Warming involve virtually imperceptible changes to our natural habitat over a protracted period of time. As Darwin observed in his Origin of Species, "so imperfect is our view into long past geological ages, that we only see that the forms of life are now different from what they formerly were." However, the key difference between evolution and climate change is that the former is a natural process over which humans have very little influence, whereas the latter is a troublesome reality precisely because we have no one to blame but ourselves for the changes we have wrought on nature. Among scientists, there is no disagreement that increased concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere means higher temperatures. Like evolution, Global Warming is not a speculative theory, but a verified reality. The question, however, is whether politicians should take this reality seriously.

That the climate has changed, just as species have evolved, is all too evident. This is not news. Nor is it news that humans have altered the earth's atmosphere. What is news is that we can no longer watch reports about Global Warming as merely news, but must do something, must really do something significant, and quickly, before the earth is rendered "inhospitable" to human life, as Bill McKibben continues to warn.

During the last half of the twentieth century, a period characterized by the Cold War, the fear was that the human race would destroy itself directly through a nuclear war or indirectly as a result of the damage such a war would inflict on our environment. This threat remains. We still live in a nuclear age stalked by the threat of nuclear extermination, as Jonathan Schell, author of The Unfinished Twentieth Century, and Robert S. McNamara, former U.S. Secretary of Defense, continue to warn. But the fear of nuclear annihilation has been eclipsed in the public imagination by the fear of Global Warming, the new favorite topic of prophetical fearmongers.

A case in point is Al Gore’s new movie, "An Inconvenient Truth." Unfortunately, it has already created more buzz about Al Gore’s non-existent ambitions to be president than about the "Truth" of its title. As the title indicates, and as Al Gore has insisted repeatedly, the film is a vehicle of Gore the Professor, not Gore the would- and should-be president. Its goal is a moral one: to bring to light inconvenient facts -- inconvenient, that is, for Party platforms. This movie is very much the creation of a man who has made teaching his new vocation. And it will be Gore’s moral achievement if the audience of his movie should come to accustom themselves with the facts, and demand real action from politicians.

I haven't seen the movie, but I’ve read that Gore, like McKibben, suggests that Global Warming, in the not so distant future, may make the world unfit for human habitation. This is an unproductive digression from the inconvenient truth: an attempt not to persuade people to love the environment but to make people fear inaction on the issue. Resort to fear here is an act of desperation, a political weapon in defense of an all but lost cause. This is not a productive way forward, for it provides the opportunity for politicians to appear active by claiming credit for token legislation that fails to change the facts. Our environment will only be adequately protected once it becomes the object of our love, guarded with jealously against those who would despoil it. Until then, let us hope that the apocalyptic fearmongers are wrong. I'm afraid that we believe our hopes more than our fears, and that while we may fear the worse, we will commit to action only on the basis of our hopes for the future.

9 comments:

xtrachromosomeconservative said...

it is quite the sleight of hand to suggest those that downplay the significance of global warming or the man made contribution are knuckle dragging bible beating christianists. To the contrary the evangelical movement, that very same movement that seeks to inject religion into the classroom while calling it science, is increasingly aligning itself with environmental causes. It would be no less reasonable for me to assert as Ken Lay of Enron was a strong proponent of Kyoto and the certainty of global warming that all those who have come to the same conclusion posess the same rapacious tendencies and lack of virtue. I think the question most have is the extent of the man made contribution and whether or not a energy capping scheme would in fact be effective.

Ilya said...

I agree with the question of the effectiveness of proposed solutions. However, I must disagree with the suggestion that the extent of the human induced climate change is an open question. As far as I know, scientists have a good handle on that question, and the models more or less fit with empirical data. As I tried to suggest, though I probably could have done a better a job articulating it, I am skeptical of the doomsday scenarios. Though we know the earth is warming, and we can already observe certain effects, the leap to utter catastrophe seems dubious. Though I could be wrong. I just think the evidence of discernable human influence on the environment is overwhelming. The question is what should be done about it.

xtrachromosomeconservative said...

I would be interested to see models that have fit the empirical data. At least until very recently my understanding was that climate models when inputted with data to predict yesterday's weather or that of five years ago were wildly off. I doubt very much, that anybody has a model that is worthwhile, too many unknowns.

Ilya said...

For the record:

"The models that have been constructed agree that when, as has been predicted, the level of carbon dioxide or its equivalent in other greenhouse gases doubles from pre-Industrial Revolution concentrations, the global average temperature will increase, and that the increase will be 1.5 to 4.5 degrees Celsius, or 3 to 8 degrees Fahrenheit. The results of all the global climatic models are consistent within a factor of two."
--Bill McKibben, THE END OF NATURE (New York: Anchor Books, 1999), 20.

xtrachromosomeconservative said...

ilya, this doesn't address my point, but good quote nonetheless.

Ilya said...

The model that everyone still talks about is that of James Hansen. He lead in its development in the 70s while he was at NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies. McKibben admits that "it remains a rough simulation of the mightily complex real world." It is designed not to account for past climate conditions, but to forecast the effects of incremental increases in carbon dioxide. Even though many effects are still unknown, the effects that have been observed are unlikely to be due to random, accidental, 'natural' variations in warming. In short, to borrow McKibben's words again, "To declare, as some editorialists have done, that the warming has not yet appeared and therefore the theory is wrong is like arguing that a woman hasn't yet given birth and therefore isn't pregnant."

xtrachromosomeconservative said...

yet again you are essentially missing my point. You have declared that the models predict with certainty, which in of itself is a red herring, as most models are inherently uncertain. The question is whether such models possess adequate predictive capability. One means of testing their predictive capability is to falsify the results, i.e. input data as if you were attempting to model yesterday's climate. your last sentence is yet again a sleight of hand. I have not argued that warming has not happened or is unlikely to happen, I just question to what extent carbon emissions are the contributing factor, they are obviously a factor, and may very well be the factor. I would be more confident in the seriousness of the environmental debate if each time i read about a dissenting theorist they were not being labeled as petro stooges or were not subject some other ad hominem attack when the petro part is not applicable, if some actual engagement of the issues were involved. Even in your posts on global warming you have felt the need to erect some absurd strawmen and otherwise cast aspersions.

xtrachromosomeconservative said...

"It is designed not to account for past climate conditions, but to forecast the effects of incremental increases in carbon dioxide." I don't buy this idea that whatever that the hansen model cannot be used to falsify past results. A vast simplification of the hansen model is probably this: x units of carbon emissions over period of time results in +/- y degrees celsius to earth's tempurature. So surely it could predict past warmings or coolings given the available inputs.

Ilya said...

Xtra, this is why I'm still curious about your 'point'. We can all agree that the earth is warming, but we may disagree as to the cause of that warming. If this is your point, then I don't see how McKibben's arguments do not speak to it: there is a discernible human component of the warming trend as a result of man-made CO2 emissions. Now, we can ignore this fact and pretend that we are not responsible for the consequences of Global Warming, or we can recognize it as a troubling reality for the future of life on earth.

Now, you seem to suggest that we do not know what is causing this warming. This is false. We know CO2 contributes to warming and we know that we have been producing a lot of it since the Industrial Revolution. The models may not be perfect, but they predict more warming in line with what we are currently experiencing.

If your point is rather that there are no practical solutions to Global Warming, then the debate we have been having about the models is besides the point.