Monday, September 17, 2007

Whither Global warming

Hollywood and the media tell us that global warming is a scientific certainty, caused by human activity, especially the emission of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. We must therefore substantially reduce our carbon footprint before it is too late, if it is not already.

As we ask a few, basic questions, we understand that what seems so obvious may not be the case, scientific or otherwise. These are the questions:

1) Does global warming exist?

2) If so, when did it start?

3) What are the causes:



We’re not quite sure?

All of the above?

4) What are the effects?

5) What can we do about it?

The first question is the easiest to answer. Yes, global warming exists, both globally and locally, but that doesn’t tell us much. Glaciers are melting and median temperatures rising, but that’s happened often in the past. Global warming is not a new experience for Planet Earth or even Homo Sapiens.

New York City provides an example of regional global warming. I flew one evening between Chicago and Hartford. As we were over Buffalo, the pilot pointed to an orange glow in the distance – the glow of the heat sink, better known as the New York Metropolitan area. The buildings, concrete, asphalt, lighting, power plants, auto exhaust, electric dryers, air conditioners, compressors, jack hammers, and everything else we do in such a large, urbanized area, had raised the temperature of the area by about 3 degrees. Now, I understand it’s up seven degrees.

The effects are partially theorized and partly known. For example, weather cycles, such as hurricanes and droughts, are attributed to global warming. Yet, so far all we are seeing are normal, cyclical fluctuations. Hurricanes were much more common in the early part of last century, and then became relatively quiescent in the last third of the Twentieth Century. Only now are they beginning to return to more normal levels. It’s been 70 years since a major hurricane struck the Northeast. A calamity worst than Katrina may result when the next one occurs.

Similarly, while California and parts of the Rockies are in drought conditions, history and science point to much longer, more severe droughts in the past.

Unless we know the causes, then we are simply treating the symptoms as blindly as doctors for centuries treated patients by bleeding them. If you have a cold and take an aspirin, you will recover as quickly as if you didn’t take the aspirin.

Yet, proposals are pending that will radically restructure the American lifestyle.

The reason we do not know the cause of the current global warming is that our scientific base is too small. We know, for example, that ice ages are cyclical, but not why they begin or end. Theories, Yes, but consensus, No!

Thus, when did global warming start?

Was it the end of the Huronian Ice Age 2.7-2.3 billion years ago?

Or was it after the ice age of 850-630 million years ago?

How about the Andean-Saharan Ice Age of 460-430 million years ago, or the more recent Karoo Ice Age of 350-260 million years ago?

Was it the ice age that ended about 10,000 years ago – the one that, as the glaciers retreated, left a flattened Midwest and cut off the land bridge that allowed the ancestors of America’s indigenous populations to cross the Bering Sound from Siberia to Alaska 20,000 -30,000 years ago?

Let us not forget the Little Ice Age that ran from the middle of the Thirteenth Century to around 1850.

The seven decades from about 1645 to 1715 were especially brutal with the temperatures dropping about 3 degrees Fahrenheit. This period, characterized by the munger minimum, was probably, possibly caused (once again, science is uncertain) by reduced sun spot activity on the sun.

The Fourteenth Century witnessed the end of the Vikings on Greenland, doomed by global freezing. It was devastating to Europe, destroying the existing agricultural economy. Famine and revolution followed. Napoleon’s Grand Army of 600,000 invaded Russia, and was destroyed by starvation and General Winter. Less than 10,000 returned to France.

Or did global warming begin in the spring of 1997, after the brutal winters of 1994 (“The Winter From Hell”) and 1996 on the eastern seaboard? 1996 was the winter that drove us from Massachusetts to California. (Thank you President Doti and Chapman University for starting a new Law School where it never snows.).

The United States is urged to join Europe in ratifying the Kyoto Agreement, which will result in a unilateral economic disarmament of the American economy. Kyoto will be a non-starter once the public feels the economic consequences.

Interestingly enough, in spite of their rhetoric, Europe is rapidly sliding away from implementing it. Kyoto will result in a substantial decline in the American economy while the two emerging economic powers, China and India, have not ratified Kyoto and will not implement any global warming initiatives that might thwart their rise to economic success. Just wait until the automobile is in widespread use in those countries. As it is now, China has one of the world’s worse pollution records and is only concerned because the summer Olympics will be in Beijing next year.

California, under the leadership of Governor Schwarzenegger, had adopted a global warming policy, but it will not in fact go into effect for years. The goal is a 25% reduction in global warming pollution by 2020, but so far, it’s smoke and mirrors.

A feel good response is carbon offsets. For example, rather than reduce a $500-1,000 electric bill by conservation, the consumer pays someone to plant trees in Siberia (or wherever), build wind turbines in Alaska, or windmills in Minnesota, or mine methane farms (cow manure) in Pennsylvania. Trees and forests are good, but all too often the planting of trees does not create a bio-diverse forest, but simply a tree farm, a mono-culture which consumes scarce water resources, reduces streamflow, and gobbles up fertilizer, insecticides and herbicides.

The reality is that if these alternatives are not otherwise economically feasible, only substantial tax credits will make them viable.

The notion of carbon offsets harkens back to the medieval days when the Catholic Church sold indulgences, whereby a “sinner” could pay the Church for absolution.

Another response being urged today is to enact carbon taxes, such as on power plants and gasoline consumption. We all know that taxes reduce or redirect consumption. Thus, a meaningful carbon tax should reduce to an unknown extent American consumption of carbon based fuels.

However, the real reason behind a carbon tax is to raise revenue that government can spend on other purposes. The carbon tax will neither reduce other taxes equally nor result in a substantial investment by government, as compared to the private sector, in non-carbon alternatives.

Alternative energy sources should be encouraged. Indeed, if global warming is a reality, then solar energy seems even more attractive. Wind is good, unless you are affluent and live on Martha’s Vineyard, in which case “good old Nimbyism” kicks in.

Driving a Prius seems like a green solution to reducing carbon fuels, but a recent study shows that the manufacture of a Prius actually consumes more energy that will be saved by its use.

The quickest way to substantially reduce the emission of methane gases would be to eliminate all cattle, and related species, but I don’t believe even vegans are advocating eliminating all hoofed animals around the world..

Several coastlines of America are at risk. To the extent that history provides lessons, then we will fill out and build up in selected affluent or historically significant coastal areas. Islands in Micronesia may disappear beneath the Pacific, but Manhattan will survive.

Nature, in a very perverse and often tragic way, has often lowered the global temperature through a series of catastrophic volcanic eruptions. The eruption of Tambora in Sumartra (Indonesia) in 1815 was 100 times greater than that of Mt. St. Helens in 1980. Volcanic eruptions send vast quantities of sulphur gasses, water vapor, particles and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere where it meets with water vapor and reflects the sun’s radiation back into space. 1816 became known as the “Year Without a Summer.” The famous Krakatoa eruption in 1883 was not as great, but still dimmed the temperature of the earth.

It’s also possible, again to an unknown extent, that the oceans will continue to serve as a carbon dioxide collector with the additional waters from the melting glaciers absorbing even more carbon dioxide. No one knows!

Part of the hubris of the human race is that we believe we can control the forces of nature and their consequences. To some extent we can, but we are extremely limited by our scientific knowledge, physical capabilities, engineering expertise, economic resources, and design limits. For example, even if Katrina had not leveled New Orleans, some other Category 5, or even 4, level hurricane would have. If “The Big One” strikes San Francisco or Los Angeles, the effects will be catastrophic.

Global warming is a reality, but a rush to judgment is no solution.

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