Feb 28, 2007

Global Warming Goes To Washington

(This is a historical piece from February 2007)
I have done a bit of investigation into the Global Warming issue. I studied Physics as an undergrad, and since have avidly followed new scientific discoveries and issues. As I only have a Bachelors degree I should never be confused with a 'real' scientist, but I am sufficiently familiar with the methodology and nomenclature of scientific issues to usually make sense of the arguments and concepts. When the issue of Global Warming first presented itself several years ago, I thought that it was simply another interesting scientific debate. When the 'Blame-it-on-America' doomsayers started crowing it a couple of years ago, I just shook my head in disgust. When the typical political panderers in Washington picked it up, I still though it was nothing to be overly concerned about. But when our President mentioned it in his State Of The Union Address, and new Speaker of the House embraced it last month, that REALLY scared me. It is one thing when competing scientific hypotheses are being debated and potential theories which may address the resultant issues are proposed; but it is an entirely different case when we are debating implementing radical solutions to purely hypothetical problems. It scares me to think that we could have the government trying to fix' it via law-with unanticipated consequences galore.
Remember Global Cooling back in the 1970's? I do. Remember how it was going to require spreading coal dust on the polar ice caps and other extreme--and very, very expensive--solutions just to keep an Ice Age away? Thankfully, we never did any of them. Now, 30 years later, we have Global Warming. I guess all the pundits back then were wrong. Imagine if we had been arrogant enough to take the drastic measures that were recommended at the time? We would now be further destroying our environment and our economy trying to 'fix' our attempts to stop Global Cooling! Do you think they could be wrong again this time with Global Warming? I would say the odds are better than 50/50.
A more realistic view of the current Global Warming argument revolves around the root causes of this particular instance of warming. As you may or may not know, the world temperature is always either going up over time or going down over time. These cycles are spread out over tens, hundreds, sometimes thousands of years. In an entire lifetime, one would hardly notice the changes in the average global temperature. There is no 'right' temperature; no steady-state. The only real distinction for this particular warming trend, is to answer the question of whether it is part of the natural cycle, or has it been caused or exacerbated by changes in the CO2 level as a direct result of recent human activities. Right now, there is an ongoing debate in the scientific community if this period of warming is any different than the hundreds of other warming periods in the earth's geological and climatological history. This question has not yet been answered definitively, and the scientific community is in no way even near consensus.
Even if, however, this question was resolved in favor of the argument for man-made global warming, there are still very serious questions about two aspects of any proposed solutions:
First, do we know enough to implement methods to control the warming without doing potentially catastrophic harm to the earth? The earth is a massively complex interrelated system. It is both delicate and resilient. The system is so complex however, that even in this age of super-computers we cannot build an accurate model, both from a lack of knowledge and a lack of computing power. Could the methods we use to control warming actually cause a massive cooling such as was predicted in the 197's? The general scientific consensus is that, no, we do not yet know enough one way or the other. In other words, we do not yet know enough to make a rational decision; all we can do is guess. The computer models we have and the ones that had to be manipulated to achieve the results in support of any man-made global warming are not accurate enough to predict what is going to happen, much less what will happen from any intervention. It would be nearly criminally irresponsible to start trying to manipulate the delicate climatological balance when we cannot even generate a reliable model of what the impacts would be. We take a--not nominal--chance of upsetting the natural balance and turning the Earth into something like Venus. I personally would not like that, how about you?
Second, since we do not know what will be required to reduce warming without upsetting this delicate balance, we also do not know enough to judge effectively the economic versus environmental tradeoffs that would be required. For example, if the consequences of doing nothing are environmentally near zero, would we want to pay an economic cost of a global depression? We cannot judge the worth of a solution without first having at least some idea of the costs, benefits, and risks. Again, we just don't know enough, and good decisions cannot be made with incomplete, doctored, or faulty data; even if one lives in D.C.!
So far as the Kyoto Agreement is concerned, the best estimates I have seen predict a potential reduction of the global average temperature by 0.04 degrees will have little to no real effect, and will likely cost some trillions of dollars. That minuscule predicted reduction is assuming the signatory countries actually fully implement the required economic modifications. To date, the vast majority have not: Britain, for instance, was targeted to decrease  CO2 emissions by 12%. To date Britain actually increased emissions by 9%. In only the first couple of years, the economic costs have already become much more onerous than anyone initially anticipated. A large group of Canadian climatologists are already petitioning the Canadian government to revoke its agreement to Kyoto.
If this warming trend is not natural and was totally caused by man-made CO2 output increases, or our CO2 production has simply made it worse, we need to look seriously at the issue. Once we know the causes, we can then focus on how to fix it. As is so often being preached, the environmental balance is delicate. It is not something we should attempt to manipulate without knowing exactly what we are doing, and without a good idea of the consequences, both climatologically and economically. Then we can accurately evaluate the tradeoff's required. We need to wait until at the very minimum a preponderance of the experts concur on both the cause(s) and the solution(s) before acting. When we know what we are doing, then we should act resolutely.
Man-made global warming is not a proven fact, and it is far too early to make laws based on guesses which can too easily have unintended and possibly catastrophic consequences. The majority of scientists in applicable fields agree on this much, at least. Global Warming is a serious issue, still deeply entrenched in debate. Doing too much too soon can easily be worse than too little too late.

No comments:

Post a Comment