Friday, February 02, 2007


On Global Warming

Why is it so difficult to have a rational discussion about global warming these days?

Some people are calling it the first major religion of the 21st century, and I'm having a hard time arguing the point. True Believers abound, in government and academia and the press, and they seem incapable of speaking about it at anything less than a hysterical shriek. Nor have they any patience at all with people who deny, or even doubt, that global warming is an immediate threat, about to kill us all.

I'm not an environmentalist, nor a practitioner of environmental engineering. I'd like to know more about the issues, and I view the panic-making pronouncements with at least a bit of skepticism. (For example: as Arthur C. Clarke once pointed out, when it comes to emitting greenhouse gases, the best efforts of the human race still don't compare to one medium-sized volcanic eruption. And there are many, many other factors, such as the sun's recovery from the "little ice age" Maunder Minimum, that affect global temperatures greatly and are not under human control at all.)

Mind you, I don't at all deny that greenhouse gases can contribute to global warming; this seems obvious to me. But it's far from obvious how much human efforts contribute to the problem, or indeed, if global warming is a problem. Are we indeed seeing a warming trend? And, if we are, how certain are we that it is a direct result of human activities that can be curtailed, and not natural phenomena over which we have little to no control? (And to what extent would such a trend reverse itself with little or no human intervention at all?)

I'd like to hear more vigorous debate about this, because that's how good science is done. Good ideas battle bad ideas in the open air, where everyone can see them, and the weak ideas die out when they can't defend themselves as well as the robust ideas.

But that's not what we're seeing. Instead, we have articles like this:

Debate Over On What Caused Global Warming, Australian Expert Says

Australia must abandon the United States and join all the other developed countries that have signed the Kyoto Protocol on reducing the greenhouse gases that cause climate change, leading environmental lobby groups said Friday.

"If we don't cut greenhouse pollution now and get on board the global fight against climate change we will be knowingly committing a crime against our kids," Don Henry, executive director of the Australian Conservation Foundation, said in response to the release of a report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Australia, along with the US, has refused to sign Kyoto saying that mandatory targets would reduce Australia's economic growth. It also argues that China, India, Brazil and other big polluters should share the burden of curbing climate change.

The United Nations-sponsored IPCC warned that, unless modified, human activity would cause global temperatures to rise by as much as 6.4 degrees by the end of the century.

"The world's best scientists have said climate change is a really big, serious problem," Henry said. "It's happening and it's going to get far worse unless we act."

He urged Australian Prime Minister John Howard to join with every other rich country except the US and ratify the Kyoto Protocol that commits governments to greenhouse gas reduction targets.

Prominent scientist Tim Flannery, who was last week named Australian of the Year for his campaigning on environmental issues, said the IPCC report forecast "catastrophic" consequences.

Flannery said that the consequences of global warming, regardless of action now, could last for 1,000 years.

"There's a 10-per cent chance of truly catastrophic rises in temperature of 6 degrees or so," Flannery told national broadcaster ABC. "That would be a disaster for all life on earth. We will lose somewhere between two out of every 10 and six out of every 10 species living on the planet at that level of warming."

Anote Tong, the president of the tiny South Pacific island nation of Kiribati, said world efforts to curb global warming may come too late. He told the ABC that the people of Kiribati, which is mostly barely above sea level, would be forced from their homes. Tong said seaside homes in Kiribati had already been washed away by the rising sea level in the Pacific.
Notice anything interesting about that article? Apart from the fact that the failure to sign Kyoto is described as catastrophic, and that only "rich countries" are expected to commit themselves to greenhouse-gas reductions. (I thought that the discussion was global warming; surely it would be important to get everyone on board, wouldn't it?) Nor am I referring to the alarmist figures (e.g. "as much as 6.4 degrees"; the study in fact says that "temperatures are likely to rise by 1.1 to 6.4 degrees Celsius", which isn't as scary).

No, what I found most interesting was that the headline -- "Debate Over On What Caused Global Warming" -- is nowhere to be found in the article itself. Did the reporter make that up, I wonder? Is this yet another example of editorializing-by-headline? (Here's another example: a news article about weather satellites, which makes no mention whatever of global warming... so, naturally, the headline has to refer to global warming, even if the headline now has nothing to do with the article it's supposed to describe.)

I'm willing to grant that it might have been a simple mistake -- perhaps that quote should have been in the article itself, but was mistakenly omitted. But I haven't noticed such errors happening in the other direction. Can you imagine an article on the impending dangers of global warming, warning us all of the grave peril we're in, with a headline "Global Warming: Real, But Nothing To Worry About"? Press bias on this issue is a serious matter.

But it's not only the press that, to all appearances, feel compelled to push this issue as hard as they can. Since when are global-warming alarmists considered for the Nobel Peace Prize, for example -- and not even for doing anything, but simply for talking about global warming?

(According to the article, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded in 2004 to Kenyan environmentalist Wangari Maathai, so this isn't anything new. On the other hand, if Yasser Arafat can win a Nobel Peace Prize -- and do it not for renouncing terror, nor even for looking like he was renouncing terror, but simply for saying that he might... well, then I guess anyone can win it these days.)

UPDATE: Glenn Reynolds weighs in, with one of his rare multi-paragraph posts, in response to a reader -- who suggested that he contribute something constructive to the discussion, instead of merely being snarky. That he does:
What about a carbon tax? In principle, it might be an okay idea -- though I note that claims that it will spur technological advance are iffy, as Europe, which has very high gas taxes, hasn't been a hotbed of innovation in automotive efficiency. What's more, I worry that the advocates of a carbon tax are in fact often more excited about the "tax" part than the "carbon" part. If something like this is enacted, it should be revenue-neutral, with offsetting cuts elsewhere. Eliminate the income tax in favor of carbon taxes? On that, we can talk.

At any rate, Kyoto -- despite the way it has been misrepresented in the press -- could never pass even when the Democrats were in charge, and wouldn't make much difference even if the U.S. was a party, and if Europe wasn't engaged in rampant cheating. ("In truth, Europe's CO2 emissions are rising twice as fast as those of the U.S. since Kyoto, three times as fast since 2000. ") The fastest-growing producers of CO2 are in Asia, and won't slow their economic growth significantly in order to fight the greenhouse effect -- and they would have difficulty in doing so even if they wanted to. Short of Bush nuking the Saudi and Iranian oil fields (defunding terrorism and stopping global warming in one blow!) no single change we can make is going to make a big difference. I'm all for more research on more efficient technologies, but that takes time.

One thing that I think is important: Energy conservation needs to be something positive. Nothing sells on a "suffer for the future" model very well. Too many environmental activists are hair-shirt types (at least when the hair-shirt is for other people) and that stuff is poor salesmanship. Martin Eberhard, of Tesla Roadster fame, is right when he says that many early electric cars were "punishment cars," predicated on the notion that driving was inherently suspect. Make electric cars fun, and useful, and people will want them. This lesson applies to lots of other things, too. Neo-puritanism, on the other hand, has a certain personal and political appeal to some people, but it doesn't sell beyond its niche. The less scold, the more sold.

Of course, none of this is to say that a ban on private jets wouldn't help, too . . . .
His aforementioned snarkiness, I should have said, had to do with environmental activists who travel around the country in private jets to promote reduction of greenhouse gases. I do think he has a point there! (Environmental activists would get a lot more positive attention, I think, if they were more willing to lead by example.)

The Wall Street Journal isn't impressed by the UN study either:
The document that caused such a stir was only a short policy report, a summary of the full scientific report due in May. Written mainly by policymakers (not scientists) who have a stake in the issue, the summary was long on dire predictions. The press reported the bullet points, noting that this latest summary pronounced with more than "90% confidence" that humans have been the main drivers of warming since the 1950s, and that higher temperatures and rising sea levels would result.

More pertinent is the underlying scientific report. And according to people who have seen that draft, it contains startling revisions of previous U.N. predictions. [. . .]

While everyone concedes that the Earth is about a degree Celsius warmer than it was a century ago, the debate continues over the cause and consequences. We don't deny that carbon emissions may play a role, but we don't believe that the case is sufficiently proven to justify a revolution in global energy use. The economic dislocations of such an abrupt policy change could be far more severe than warming itself, especially if it reduces the growth and innovation that would help the world cope with, say, rising sea levels. There are also other problems--AIDS, malaria and clean drinking water, for example--whose claims on scarce resources are at least as urgent as climate change.

Now, it makes psychological sense to scream "Doom!" at the top of your lungs, if you earnestly believe that the world is coming to an end -- and that people should be doing something about it. And I do believe that most Global Warming advocates are sincere in their fears.

However, it's important to look at the other side too. If it turns out that your fears are not justified, then screaming "Doom!" amounts to the same as shouting "fire" in a crowded theater. It is the responsibility of someone crying "Doom!" to make sure they are right to do so -- and that the need is urgent enough to outweigh the very real possibility of panic.

Even if global warming is as bad as the truest of True Believers says it is, in other words, that's no reason to abandon civilized debate on the subject. Quite the opposite, in fact.

UPDATE: Orson Scott Card says it all a lot more eloquently, and a lot more forcefully, than I could. Check it out.

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