Tuesday, March 13, 2007

H is for HUMANS who made things too warm

To keep the attention of those readers who might disdain college basketball but have a jones for the potential extinction of humankind, let's switch gears. I was interested to see this piece in the Times today about scientists who are trying to temper some of Al Gore's rhetoric about global warming, though they believe his broader concern is warranted.
Criticisms of Mr. Gore have come not only from conservative groups and prominent skeptics of catastrophic warming, but also from rank-and-file scientists like Dr. Easterbook, who told his peers that he had no political ax to grind. A few see natural variation as more central to global warming than heat-trapping gases. Many appear to occupy a middle ground in the climate debate, seeing human activity as a serious threat but challenging what they call the extremism of both skeptics and zealots.

Kevin Vranes, a climatologist at the Center for Science and Technology Policy Research at the University of Colorado, said he sensed a growing backlash against exaggeration. While praising Mr. Gore for "getting the message out," Dr. Vranes questioned whether his presentations were "overselling our certainty about knowing the future."
That "natural variation" remark grabbed my interest, because I've always wondered about the role it plays, which would seem potentially significant and almost impossible to untangle from our own influence. The article picks up the same thread later on:
"Hardly a week goes by," Dr. Peiser said, "without a new research paper that questions part or even some basics of climate change theory," including some reports that offer alternatives to human activity for global warming.

Geologists have documented age upon age of climate swings, and some charge Mr. Gore with ignoring such rhythms.

“Nowhere does Mr. Gore tell his audience that all of the phenomena that he describes fall within the natural range of environmental change on our planet,” Robert M. Carter, a marine geologist at James Cook University in Australia, said in a September blog. "Nor does he present any evidence that climate during the 20th century departed discernibly from its historical pattern of constant change."

In October, Dr. Easterbrook made similar points at the geological society meeting in Philadelphia. He hotly disputed Mr. Gore’s claim that "our civilization has never experienced any environmental shift remotely similar to this" threatened change.

Nonsense, Dr. Easterbrook told the crowded session. He flashed a slide that showed temperature trends for the past 15,000 years. It highlighted 10 large swings, including the medieval warm period. These shifts, he said, were up to "20 times greater than the warming in the past century."

Getting personal, he mocked Mr. Gore’s assertion that scientists agreed on global warming except those industry had corrupted. "I've never been paid a nickel by an oil company," Dr. Easterbrook told the group. "And I'm not a Republican."
This has always been my feeling about this issue: The planet might be clearly warming. And we clearly play a role. But when the "medieval warm period," which ended around 1600, is described as "20 times greater" than the current warming problem, it becomes pretty clear that nature is capable of wild swings that have little or nothing to do with us. In a best-case scenario (read: impossible scenario) in which we eliminated human pollution entirely, there still might come a time when we started baking like pigs in a blanket. That's not a more comforting thought, of course, and I still don't think it means we should be stinking up the place, but a little open-mindedness when it comes to fatalism might be a good thing. As Edward Gorey knew, there are many ways for us to perish -- let's not be rash about which one we choose to envision.

17 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting take, however, one should note that the quotes prsented seem very one sided at best. I would direct your attention to the recent coverage of the report soon to be released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. There are heavyweight scientists included within this group as well. While your historical sites from the 1600's may comfort you for the time being, there is much to be concerned about in the future even among those who are not particularly alarmist. By the way, one wonders from your one-sided commentary whether you have actually taken the time to view the movie which you so eagerly dismiss.

9:15 PM  
Anonymous JB said...

Rone - I work at the manufacturing level for a major global oil company and the following two things are certain.

1. We pollute the atmosphere every day - NOX, CO2, H2S you name it. We have signed a consent decree by goodness admitting the damage caused in the past and are obligated by law to improve our stewardship of the enviroment. If we ignore that obligation people literally start going to jail.

2. We spend BILLIONS worldwide on programs designed to protect the atmosphere and focused on sustainable development. We do not so much as blink without first reporting or validating environmental issues, changes or concerns with the EPA and Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

In short I agree with the general theme of the post - we negatively impact the environment in a major way, but the answer to the riddle behind global warming, as it so often is, is in all likelihood somewhere in the middle - a result of both natural and manmade influences.

I leave you now as I must go fill up my SUV and purchase a large soft-drink a a styrofoam cup.

9:27 PM  
Blogger JMW said...

Anonymous, I didn't eagerly dismiss the movie (which I haven't seen, because I do read about these issues and I'd much rather do that then watch a giant-sized Al Gore for 90 minutes). The Times article notes that these scientists are NOT denying the human influence on global warming OR the reality of that warming. So, why so defensive? I don't think my commentary was particularly one-sided, unless that "side" is the "middle" -- the problem's real, let's do something about it, but let's not think we've "figured out" climate change, which predates us by many millions of years.

But I take particular umbrage with your comment that the numbers from 1600 "may comfort" me. Nothing comforts me. About anything.

9:41 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You should check out this Media Matters piece on the Times article.
The scientists the Times cherry-picked have problematic records.

http://mediamatters.org/items/200703130003

Enjoyed your review of Wild Hogs, which is how I arrived here.

10:17 PM  
Blogger JMW said...

Thanks, most recent Anonymous. And welcome. I hope you find reasons to stick around.

Thanks for the link you provide, too. I figured as much, to some degree. (I knew about Lomborg going into it.) The only two things I would say in response -- while maintaining that I am the furthest thing from a scientist, that I have absolutely no horse in this race, and that I figure we humans make global warming the problem that it is -- are: 1. It does seem like SOME of the discrediting of these scientists is along the lines of "These scientists have different opinions than the establishment's majority." Well, that's not discrediting to me. It's clear they do -- that's why the article exists -- and I'm ok with that. If they're wrong, they're wrong, but science should have room for doubters (within reason). It's not religion, after all. There shouldn't be cries of heresy if the truth is going to win out anyway, which I'm sure it will. And 2. This still doesn't tackle what I think is the most important point in terms of maintaining some humility about the issue -- you could have 110% of scientists on the same exact page, and it would still do nothing to explain how much more severe and catastrophic warming patterns occurred many thousands, if not millions, of years before we were here. I just find this strange, and would think it means that we can never be ENTIRELY sure of our role in any given weather pattern -- but I don't think it means our pollution isn't making things, whatever they may be, worse. I'm sure it is. I'm not a nut. I promise.

11:21 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"So eagerly dismiss"? I thought the post was eminently fair, and it certainly didn't dismiss anything. Nor, for that matter, did the NYT article dismiss the idea of man-made global warming, or even catastrophic global warming (as espoused by Gore). Rather, it just highlighted the fact that many people don't agree that it's quite as bad or progressing as quickly as Gore says.

Moreover, the scientists' "problematic records" highlighted in your Media Matters article appear to be that the scientists have espoused the same views previously. I'm not sure how that undermines their credibility. If Media Matters thinks it does, then I think that shows that Media Matters is less interested in finding out the truth than advancing their agenda.

Keep in mind that neither the article nor the post took a stand on the issue one way or the other. Rather, both just aired the fact that there are opposing viewpoints. And surely scientists have at least as much credibility, and thus as much right to speak on the issue, as Al Gore and Media Matters. Surely we're not so invested in the idea of catastrophic global warming that any suggestion that the road to catastrophe is longer than anticipated by a non-scientists amounts to apostasy.

-- Comish

11:30 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

PS -- Welcome, anonymous. Hope you stick around and enjoy the other posts here at ASWOBA.

-- Comish

11:31 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow, it seems as though anonymous has touched off a lively debate as well as hitting on a nerve with aswoba. While I agree that there should be continued research and analysis of the issues, I also detect an unwarranted anger and hostility towards Al Gore in the phrases "a giant sized Al Gore" and "Al Gore's rhetoric about global warming." While we all agree that climate change and global warming should not be partisan issues, it is no coincidence that those opposed to the recognition of the human contribution fall on the same side as big business, creationism, and those historically against civil rights, etc. The concern is that if we attribute global warming and climate change to random patterns, then, hey, why should we bothering altering our lifestyles or attitude. Although, ultimately, we all seek to find common ground wouldn't it be more prudent in this instance to "err" on the side of caution with such a potentionally catastrophic problem. I also agree that aswoba continues to risk credibility with his personal attacks on Al Gore, while stubbornly refusing to see the film. I would hope that your film reviews for Pajiba are written after you have taken the opportunity to see the movie, but hey, I guess Al Gore's efforts are too self-serving for you and too "giant sized" to take on directly.

9:59 AM  
Blogger JMW said...

I love it! I hope the coming election inspires similarly heated (but essentially polite) conversation around here. Anonymous, I don't know if you're the same Anonymous as the author of the previous comments -- I'm not asking you to reveal yourself, I'm just saying. When you write, "wouldn't it be more prudent in this instance to 'err' on the side of caution with such a potentionally catastrophic problem," I'm hard-pressed to find anything in what I've written that would contradict this. In fact, it is my position exactly.

If I had written about Gore's movie for Pajiba, rest assured I would have seen it first. I reserve the right, though, in my non-reviewing life, to hold spirited opinions about politicians of both parties. You might think my hostility towards Gore is unwarranted, but I'll keep it, thanks. Just like I'll keep my anger about Cheney and Rumsfeld and Pelosi and many political animals of all shapes and sizes. After all, I'm fine with you writing, "it is no coincidence that those opposed to the recognition of the human contribution fall on the same side as big business, creationism, and those historically against civil rights, etc" even though it's an incredibly broad caricature of a situation and probably betrays a bit of your own anger and hostility. And I mean that with only a dash of sarcasm -- anger and hostility are fine with me.

10:33 AM  
Blogger Jen said...

10:17 Anonymous here again, the one who linked to the Media Matters article. I can relate to your curiosity about natural warming cycles, and I think it would be useful if the IPCC or a group of well-respected climatologists put forth a simple, definitive statement about what we know about these cycles, what we don't know, and why human-created warming is extra-problematic. My beef with the Times article is that it gives the minority of doubters (and dubious ones at that) way too much weight. It makes it sound like they are the cool-headed "centrists" while Gore and the overwhelming majority of the world's scientists, as evidenced by the recent IPCC report, represent some hype-filled "liberal" position. Science is not a political spectrum. And to frame it this way given the political context we live in, in which many well-funded right-wing groups are trying to sow seeds of doubt as a political strategy, is irresponsible. Yes, there may be uncertainties, but we have to act upon the best available information, and right now that information points to a need for us humans to change our behavior. The fact that a minority of climate scientists come to a different conclusion does not change this.

Here's another piece about the Times article worth reading:

http://gristmill.grist.org/story/2007/3/12/233737/021

I'll go ahead and post non-anonymously this time, since there seem to be quite a few anons around here.

12:12 PM  
Blogger Jen said...

Whoops, that link I posted above didn't get copied in its entirety. Try this:

Click here

12:17 PM  
Blogger JMW said...

Jen,

Thanks. I think almost the entire difference here is in how we're reading the Times article. To me, every scientist in that article would say that the human role in global warming exists and that we should do something about it. It just seems like they're saying we can do that without talking about 40-foot rises in sea level and other things that appear to be quite unrealistic. In other words, wonky discussions about reality should be front and center, for sure. Panic and scenarios for the next Hollywood disaster movie, not so much. That's just my take. I certainly don't think that global warming is a political issue -- and trust me, I greatly disdain the right-wingers who would deny it for political or economic gain, just like I disdain people who think creationism should be taught in science class.

12:38 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

it is no coincidence that those opposed to the recognition of the human contribution fall on the same side as big business, creationism, and those historically against civil rights

Why is this no coincidence? Why would pro-pollution be linked to creationism? Why would it be linked to civil rights?

And I'm not sure I agree with your historical interpretation anyway. Republicans were anti-slavery, anti-"separate but equal," and pro-integratation of public schools. Democrats took the opposite sides.

Sure, Republicans have recently opposed affirmative action, but on the big historical issues, they've done comparatively well.

I also detect an unwarranted anger and hostility towards Al Gore in the phrases "a giant sized Al Gore" and "Al Gore's rhetoric about global warming."

You detect unwarranted anger and hostility in the phrase "Al Gore's rhetoric about global warming"? Huh?

It's not exactly controversial that Al Gore has engaged in rhetoric on the issue. Such a statement isn't an opinion; it's a fact. (You may be confused about the definition of the word "rhetoric." It doesn't mean he's said anything false.)

Once again, it's silly that so many people seem to think that the words from Al Gore's mouth are gospel, and any challenge to them or acknowledgement that the guy may be fallible is treated as heresy. There's nothing unwarranted or hostile about saying Gore could be wrong. And it's a fact that the dude has gotten tubby.

wouldn't it be more prudent in this instance to "err" on the side of caution with such a potentionally catastrophic problem

But caution has its costs. For example, the Senate rejected the Kyoto Treaty in part because the only way the US could have met its requirements would be for the government to order the shut down of American factories for a significant part of the year. That would have put thousands of people out of work and severely hampered the economy.

Moreover, while temperatures rose about 0.6 degrees F over the last century, we also became more wealthy by about 1800%, our life expectancy grew by about 30 years, and we've had technological innovations that make our lives easier and more enjoyable (see, e.g., the Simpsons, Tivo, iPods). So the "cautious" route is going to be at the expense of a lot of people's well-being and happiness. And it's necessarily going to hurt technological innovation, which I think is the way out of this mess.

And keep in mind that even scientists who supported the Kyoto Treaty acknowledge that it would have very small effects on global warming: about one half of one degree F in the year 2100. It's a big price for very little payoff.

-- comish

2:47 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, it's about time some true opinions have been revealed. Heaven forbid anyone dare to disagree from aswoba and the usual parrots. Arguments have been picked apart piece by piece and underlying arrogance has been exposed. Why should th U.S. bother to be concerned about the effects of its actions on the rest of the world, when we cannot be bothered with New Orleans. After all, we have our ipods and the simpsons. But guess what, when the oceans rise, we will all pay a dear price for your attitude. And is Al Gore so terrible for attempting to educate some portion of America or is it better that most people remain apathetic and disinterested.

3:28 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree wholeheartedly. I suppose Spike Lee should be vilified as well for attemping to document New Orleans and the aftermath. Or would you argue that they both should not even be classified as documentary productions. And by the way, how can anyone expect to compete with The Simpsons and Tivo?

3:50 PM  
Blogger JMW said...

Huh? Wha? I don't get these anonymous reactions at all. I'm not talking about New Orleans. For that matter, I'm not defending Bush or the religious right or those who want to see our ipods washed out to sea. (In fact, I would strongly, strongly prefer that my ipod not get washed out to sea.) I'm losing the thread here, people. I haven't seen a single commenter, myself included, deny the problem. So why is everyone so agitated? What is everyone who's commented here doing to solve the problem? Do you not use energy? Comish might be more on the conservative side of things (which I like because of, you know, open debate and everything), but those on the other side (including me, at times) have to acknowledge his point -- if implementing the strictest plans to help ease global warming results in, say, loss of lots of jobs (which seems inevitable), then would we have to suffer through later finger-pointing that blames the bad economy on Big Brother? It's only fair to point out that real solutions to real problems have consequences.

That said, I thank you very much for "ASWOBA and the Usual Parrots." I feel like I have to start a band to make proper use of that name. (As I hope the responses to this post prove, I don't surround myself with parrots.)

3:58 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

After all, we have our ipods and the simpsons.

And our longer life expectancies. And jobs. And ability to eat. You forgot to mention those. But I guess those are more easily ignored than explained, eh?

Surely you're not suggesting that we should be forced to live without technological innovations because they hurt the earth. I mean, if the idea is to preserve the earth for our children, then I admit they're pretty eco-friendly in the Sudan, but I don't think our kids will be better off if we all adopt their way of life.

But guess what, when the oceans rise, we will all pay a dear price for your attitude.

What attitude is that? Failure to unquestioningly accept every word from Al Gore's holy font?

Here's what I do think: I think global warming is occurring, and that it's partly caused by man-made factors, and partly not (after all, Mars is warming, too, and I doubt we're causing that). I think we should take aim at reducing our greenhouse gasses, but we don't need to shut down our economy to do it. As I said, I think technological advances will end up solving this problem. And even if we don't fix the problem in the next 100 years, I think mankind will still be around.

And is Al Gore so terrible for attempting to educate some portion of America or is it better that most people remain apathetic and disinterested.

Nobody's saying Al Gore is terrible. Nobody's villifying him. Nobody's saying anything bad about the guy (except when I said he's tubby, but dangit, the guy's gotten tubby). People are just disagreeing with him. And they're not even strongly disagreeing; they're only disagreeing with the most extreme of his arguments. Why the religious fervor to shout those folks down?

And incidentally, the alternative to unquestioning acceptance of Al Gore's arguments isn't that "most people" remain apathetic and ignorant. It's reasoned and reasonable debate. I don't think that's too much to ask.

-- comish

6:35 PM  

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