Sunday, November 22, 2009

Some idle thoughts on global warming

This is an odd time to be talking about global warming admittedly. National and global politics is primarily focused right now on the economy, our middle east wars, and the health care debate. But there is a cap and trade bill out there and it will eventually (sometime in 2010?) be considered. But mostly, I've had this interesting debate with some facebook friends who seem to be pretty steady in the camp of global warming deniers.

Really, Megan McArdle sums up pretty nicely my feelings of how most people see this issue in this blog post with this comment:

"Also in the WTF category, Pew says there was a fourteen point drop in the number of Americans who believe there is solid evidence that anthropogenic global warming is real. I mean, maybe 45 million Americans spent the last year reviewing the scientific evidence on Global Warming and changed their minds. Certainly, a lot of laid-off workers have some time on their hands. But this doesn't really seem a spectacularly likely explanation of the phenomenon.

I can only come up with two explanations for this phenomenon: one, that many Americans are happy to embrace a symbolic belief in global warming as long as there is no danger that anyone will do anything about it. The other is that Americans don't know what they want, and also, enjoy messing with pollster's minds."

Global warming is an incredibly complicated issue that aligns quite nicely within the natural boundaries of the cultural war this country has been fighting since the 1960's. The liberals are always looking for new ways to put the reigns on the excesses of the free market. And environmentalists have a deeply embedded agenda and, as such, have a deep interest in preserving the environment even when it takes some pretty significant market sacrifices to do it.

Of course the conservative agenda is quite opposed to both points of view, believing in the free market likes it is some kind of religion; that all of our problems can be attributed government regulation. Obviously, I'm simplifying the positions of both sides, and I know that folks in both camps have authentic and sophisticated points of view. But just go with me right now for the sake of discussion.

The science behind global warming is complicated. This article gives a very high level history of some of it and makes an interesting proposal on how to deal with its consequences. Obviously, written in 2000, its incredibly dated, but the points it makes are still valid today, I think.

I am not a climatologist (obviously) and I have only a very superficial view of the science of global warming. But I have read fairly extensively over the years on the subject, and my impressions are that the scientific evidence that CO2 emissions have caused and will continue to cause a warming of the earth's temperature is pretty overwhelming. I do get the impression that there are some significant and serious scientists dissenters to this point of view, but I don't have a good understanding of their exact position on the subject.

I also feel that though the earth seems to be warming because of human activity, the solutions on how to address this are politically difficult and mostly not feasible, at least right now in our current political climate.

The problem is that global warming is so subtle. Global temperatures vary from year to year and from region to region pretty randomly and for a large number of reasons. The slow upward trajectory the earth is currently on is completely unnoticeable so it has no impact on the average person's day to day life. You can say that the severe weather we are seeing is a result of warming, but this is difficult to prove. We have always had hurricanes on this good earth of ours, it's impossible to say that Hurricane Katrina, say, would not have happened if not for the Industrial Revolution.

Which leads to another point, cheap oil is at the foundation of our economy. Any attempts to make it more expensive will definitely be noticed and will have a deep global economic impact. Also, to really be serious about reducing carbon emissions, it requires global cooperation that is virtually impossible to get. Basically you are telling emerging economies to stop growing so fast. Because as these countries begin to prosper, there per capita carbon footprint will grow as well, more than negating any marginal efforts we make through cap and trade.

But still I'm in favor of cap and trade. Because I believe the answer to the global warming problem is innovation in both alternative energy sources and in energy conservation. I believe this innovation is well within our reach and adding a small amount of tax on carbon will help make those energy sources more competitive, spurring greater levels of venture capital money in that direction.

But why the fervor among the global warming deniers? I do believe those who are pushing for significant political solutions to solve the global warming problem are inclined to over-reach. I believe that they have been guilty of manipulating the data to make their case more appealing. I think this instance of over-reach have fueled the denier's conspiracy theory that the whole thing is a hoax designed to take away freedoms and to grow the government. This point of view, by the way, has some truth to it.

But as a caveat to this entire discussion, I am far from an expert on this issue, and am open to moving my opinions in any direction as I receive more information. I think this issue is both important enough and complex enough to warrant a bunch more humility from both sides.


Davey said...

Hi Scott, I wonder if you caught this article in the Times on Friday.

I thought it was interesting for a couple of reasons. Just reading the highlights of the leaked emails doesn't convince me that there is a conspiracy but it certainly raises questions about the reliability of the scientific consensus. I can't comment on global warming because I haven't ever read a single thing on it, so I rely on the scientific consensus but I also am interested in the politics behind "science" and academic journals and I think these emails highlight how unscientific science is in a lot of ways. The purists will argue that the scientific method is reliable even though system is full of imperfect people, I take the point of view that imperfect people create imperfect results especially in increasingly complex matters.

I heard an interview on NPR where the science guy (Neil Conan?) brought in a lady from an early reading program and a child development specialist from a university. He was surprised when they started yelling at each other. He criticized her for not having research that her program was effective and she countered that any research that she funded would have been automatically suspect. He responded that "science doesn't work that way" and that he would not criticize research just because the funding source was vested in the outcome. OF course the professor was crazy and was using "science" as a weapon against crazies. Research by pharmaceutical companies and tobacco companies and anywhere else always suspect, "science" is seems is not immune from greed.

The point is that I don't discount deniers for the same reason I believe the consensus, I just don't know and I'm not afraid to admit it. I neither "believe" not "disbelieve" in global warming, what I do know is that science is really good at correcting itself over time and that it has been a largely worthwhile effort despite the imperfection (read:humans) inherent in the system.

It comes as no surprise to me that some scientists are conspiring to block the publication of papers that challenge their own research, this is not new, all I'm saying is that as in your point when people are not willing to read research then they have to rely on political winds to make decisions, which is always bad.

tempe turley said...

Davey, I completely agree. Ironically, this is one of the articles my denier friend had posted which started the debate. I don't see how this article could convince anyone global warming is a hoax unless you came into it wanting to be convinced in that direction. But it does show how political this issue is and how even scientists are human just like the rest of us and subjected to those political winds.