Sunday, March 29, 2009

The Skeptics

According to a letter in this week's The Buckhead Reporter, our weekly neighborhood newspaper:

"The Second International Conference on Climate Change in New York concluded March 10, and a brief summary of the findings follows:
  • The current global temperature rise since the end of the Little Ice Age (1850) is normal and part of the natural cycles in global temperature that has occurred for thousands of years.
  • Carbon dioxide produced by human activity has negligible influence on climate or global warming.
  • Computer models for predicting future global warming are inaccurate and should not be used for decision-making.
  • Increased atmospheric carbon dioxide has beneficial effects on plant growth and food supply.
  • The greatest threat to humans is the attempt to control global temperatures by restricting the use of energy sources that produce carbon dioxide.
The last item deserves particular attention because programs to restrict the use of fossil fuels and tax production of carbon dioxide will have devastating effects on those with lower incomes in the United States and other industrialized nations. Residents of undeveloped nations, such as in sub-Saharan Africa, will be doomed to meager lifestyles because their only hope for improvement lies in the availability of abundant and economical energy resources."
- James H. Rust, professor of nuclear engineering, Georgia Tech

The Second International Conference on Climate Change, not to be confused with the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change, was put on by The Heartland Institute, a Chicago-based libertarian/ conservative think tank. In addition to their efforts concerning climate change, the Institute has been actively involved in opposing restrictions on smoking and has criticized science which documents the harms of secondhand smoke. In 2006, the Heartland Institute began a formal partnership with the National Organization of Tobacco Outlets to advocate for legislation favorable to the tobacco industry.

The Institute is a member organization of the Cooler Heads Coalition, an ad-hoc group focused on "dispelling the myths of global warming." In testimony before the Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight (House Science Committee), it was disclosed that ExxonMobil contributed a total of $560,000 to the Heartland Institute between 1998 and 2005. The board of directors for the Heartland Institute includes the Economic Policy Analysis Director for General Motors.

The Heartland Institute has not been without controversy. According to Wikipedia, their list of "500 Scientists with Documented Doubts of Man-Made Global Warming Scares" included at least 45 scientists who neither knew of their inclusion as "coauthors" of the article, nor agreed with its claims regarding global warming. Dozens of the scientists asked the Heartland Institute to remove their names from the list. Gregory Cutter of Old Dominion University wrote, "I have NO doubts . . . the recent changes in global climate ARE man-induced. I insist that you immediately remove my name from this list since I did not give you permission to put it there." Dr. Robert Whittaker, Professor of Biogeography, University of Oxford wrote "Please remove my name. What you have done is totally unethical!" The Heartland Institute refused to remove any names from the list, writing that "They [the scientists] have no right—legally or ethically—to demand that their names be removed from a bibliography." The Institute did rename the list from its original title (chosen by its public relations department) to "500 Scientists Whose Research Contradicts Man-Made Global Warming Scares," to clarify that the scientists in question do not doubt global warming.

The Heartland Institute called the Second International Conference on Climate Change "the largest-ever gathering of global warming skeptics" and billed itself under the subheading “Global warming: Was it ever really a crisis?” While skepticism is an important and even integral part of the scientific process, one must wonder whether the conference seriously debated the relative merits of climate change theory, or was merely a meeting of the converted preaching to the converted.

As for the findings of the conference, they are easily debunked as follows:

  • The argument that today's warming is just a recovery from the Little Ice Age relies on an implicit assumption that there is a particular climatic baseline to which the earth inexorably returns -- and thus that a period of globally lower temperatures will inevitably be followed by a rise in temperatures. There is no scientific basis for this assumption or evidence of such a baseline. Another problem is that temperature has now risen to levels higher than the assumed baseline. So even if some recovery were to be expected, why have we now exceeded it? Secondly, this argument does not explain why a 35% increase in CO2 would not affect global temperature. Basic physics predicts temperature will rise given increased CO2, so how or why is this not happening?

  • It is true that carbon dioxide produced by human activity is much less than that from natural sources. But for roughly the last 10,000 years, until the industrial revolution, every gigaton of carbon going into the atmosphere was balanced by one coming out. What humans have done is alter one side of this cycle. We put approximately 6 gigatons of carbon into the air but, unlike nature, we are not taking any out. Thankfully, nature is compensating in part for our emissions, because only about half the CO2 we emit stays in the air. Nevertheless, since we began burning fossil fuels in earnest over 150 years ago, the atmospheric concentration that was relatively stable for the previous several thousand years has now risen by over 35%. So whatever the total amounts going in and out "naturally," humans have clearly upset the balance and significantly altered an important part of the climate system.

  • It is utterly untrue that the computer climate models are inaccurate. Many modeled predictions of global temperature have been validated. Every year of increasing global mean temperature is one more year of "success" for the climate models. The acceleration of the rise is also playing out as predicted, though to be fair, decades will need to pass before such confirmation is inarguable. Putting global surface temperatures aside, there are many other significant model predictions made and confirmed, too numerous to list here. It is only long-term predictions that need the passage of time to prove or disprove them, but we don't have that time at our disposal. Whether we take the many successes of climate models as strong validation for their long-term predictions is a legitimate policy question, but to deny the accuracy of the models in light of their demonstrated successes is not.

  • The argument that increased atmospheric CO2 has beneficial effects on plant growth and food supply sounds almost desperate, in that it implicitly accepts the argument that the skeptics are otherwise denying. While it may be true that some flora might flourish under increased CO2 conditions, others likely won't. Geologic history demonstrates that dramatic climate changes - up, down, or sideways - are a tremendous shock to the biosphere and usually cause mass extinctions. All in all, that is not likely to be a good thing.

  • Finally, to say that an attempt to control global temperatures by restricting the production of carbon dioxide is a greater threat to human well-being than climate change itself in no way implies that global warming is or is not occurring. One cannot come to a rational decision about the reality of a danger by considering how hard it might be to avoid. The corollary is to say that combating global terrorism is too difficult, so therefore there must not be such a thing as global terrorism. But even if mitigating global warming would be harmful, given that famine, droughts, disease, loss of major coastal cities, and a potential mass extinction event are on the table as possible consequences of doing nothing, it may well be we are faced with a choice between the lesser of two evils. I challenge anyone to conclusively demonstrate that such catastrophes as listed above await us if we try to reduce fossil fuel use.

The mainstream climate science community, as demonstrated by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (not the Heartland Institute's International Conference on Climate Change), has provided a well-developed, internally consistent theory that accounts for the climate effects we are now observing. It provides explanations and makes predictions. The skeptic community has not shown how CO2 would not affect temperature. They provide no evidence of other natural forcing, like the Milankovich cycles that controlled the Pleistocene Ice Ages.

In terms of conservation and a global switch to alternative fuels, the people who oppose doing this for climate change mitigation are forgetting something rather important. Fossil fuels are a non-renewable resource, and as such we have to make this global economic transformation regardless, whether we do it now or a bit later. Even if it turns out that climate mitigation was unnecessary, we would still be in a better place as a society by making the coming switch sooner rather than later.

I recognize that the latter argument does not itself prove or disprove climate-change theory, but there you have it anyway.

1 comment:

GreenSmile said...

The Heartland Institute is and long has been one of the sleaziest gaggle of paid liars for disgraced corporate causes...all of which happen to be right wing causes too. Global warming is just one of the inconvenient truths for which they will, for a few bucks, counter with any convenient lie.

Those too dependent on a narrow choice of media to know the difference between that barf you clipped from your paper and any semblance of what is actually happening to our world should be pitied but not allowed to vote.

What alarms me far more this week is the promotion of poor old Freeman Dyson's "climate heresy".
The slashdot thread commenting on the NY Times piece is more illustrative of how useless emotion is but how little else most people can employ in the debate that is already over for most leaders.