Beaton: Fear, loathing and global warming
January 6, 2015
Here's what a global warming "denier" said recently in the Wall Street Journal:
"The idea that 'climate science is settled' runs through today's popular and policy discussions. Unfortunately, that claim is misguided. It has not only distorted our public and policy debates on issues related to energy, greenhouse-gas emissions and the environment. But it also has inhibited the scientific and policy discussions that we need to have about our climate future."
Except he isn't a "denier." He's President Obama's former undersecretary for science, Steve Koonin. He's also a former professor of theoretical physics and a provost at Cal Tech, and holds a Ph.D. from MIT. His piece is titled "Climate Science is Not Settled," published Sept. 19 on the Wall Street Journal's website.
Koonin explained that global warming exists, or doesn't, depending entirely on the time period you're referencing. Dinosaurs thrived on an Earth that was much hotter than it is now. (In fact, there were no polar ice caps at all for the great majority of Earth's history.) Mammoths romped on a colder Earth. Romans ruled one a little warmer. Columbus sailed in one a little cooler. President Bill Clinton held office in one that was slightly warmer than it is now.
So next time people ask if you "believe in" global warming, answer yes — and no.
Notwithstanding all those natural climate variations, serious scientists such as Koonin do say this:
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Part of the slight warming over the past few hundred years was probably human-caused. We don't know how much.
It's not factual that 97 percent of scientists believe that global warming is a crisis. What those 97 percent actually believe is the first point — that some part of that slight warming over the past few hundred years was human-caused.
Scientists are roughly split on whether it's a crisis. Some think it's a good thing because it may save us from the next ice age.
The recent warming peaked about 18 years ago. The computer models didn't predict that. We still don't know why it happened. We don't know if the warming will resume or reverse and, if it does resume or reverse, we don't know at what rate or whether it will stop or start again.
Extreme weather events are no more frequent now than in the past. In fact, there are fewer hurricanes, tornadoes, droughts, floods and wildfires. We don't know why.
If global warming resumes, it will produce winners and losers. It is hard to predict which will be which. The warm climate when dinosaurs ruled suited them well and suits a lot of other life well. Much of human evolution occurred during warm periods in warm places (and much did not). And longer growing seasons would alleviate hunger by increasing crop yields.
To the extent you think skiing will be supremely important to your great-grandchildren, be advised that in places with the latitude of Washington, D.C., such as Aspen, it might not be as good. So skiing might be a loser. On the other hand, an Environmental Protection Agency study suggests that skiing might be a winner because the warmer temperatures might be offset by more snowfall because more water would evaporate from the oceans into the atmosphere.
On balance, there would be greater biomass. That is to say, there would be more life on Earth as there was when dinosaurs thrived. Compare the quantity and diversity of life in the tropics with, say, Antarctica.
If we decide to prevent global warming from recurring, we're not sure how. Reducing carbon emissions would help, but we aren't able to say how much because we don't know how much of it is caused by those emissions. Stated another way, we don't know how much warming-reduction bang we get for our carbon-reduction buck. Nor do we know how much we need (if any).
So what should we do?
First, take the issue seriously. We should continue to test, probe, measure, analyze, model and debate.
Let's use but not waste the resources of this unique planet and let's look for ones that are renewable. Whether you're from the political side that calls this "environmentalism" or the side that calls it "conservation," we can agree that conserving our resources is a good thing.
Here's what not to do:
Don't fear-monger by contending that a particular heat spell or a snowstorm proves or disproves global warming. Scientists don't rely on a single data point.
Don't loath those who disagree with you. Children censor, shout and name-call; scientists consider, analyze and, only then, rebut. And friends and other persons in a civil society simply respectfully disagree. Persons with one set of views are not "deniers" and persons with another are not afflicted with "hysteria."
In any event, censorship, shouting and name-calling are counter-persuasive. They say, "I'm not smart enough to rebut you, so I'll instead silence you."
Don't take scientific advice from politicians and celebrities, and don't take a position because it's fashionable or because that's the position dictated by your liberal or conservative tribe. Think for yourself.
Finally, unless you've stopped traveling by planes, trains and automobiles — and ski lifts — don't get too sanctimonious. We're all in this together.
Glenn is a former aerospace engineer for Boeing, and can be reached at theAspenbeat@gmail.com.