Monday, January 14, 2008

Skepticism about Global Warming

The world is facing some tough decisions on how to deal with the oncoming effects of global warming, so it's right and reasonable that people are looking at the subject closely to make sure we don't dislocate people's lives inappropriately.

In the past, this has led to some unfortunate situations. A few people claiming to have scientific qualifications have made arguments that are demonstrably false. It also led to an embarrassing TV presentation in the UK which claimed that global warming was a conspiracy authored by Prime Minister Thatcher in which scientists lied for pay. The presentation showed falsified solar data, claiming that it matched global temperature history, and warned that Africans would suffer severe deprivation if they were denied fossil-fueled electricity.

Among the skeptics, one of the most important is United States Senator James Inhofe, the ranking Republican member of the U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. One would predict that Senator Inhofe would examine the subject carefully. Representing an oil-producing state, and being a strong conservative with investments in aviation, the Senator also flies personal aircraft as an avocation. He and his staff have compiled an extraordinary treatise which must include just about every criticism aimed at the process by which the consensus on global warming was formed.

As we look through the arguments, some patterns emerge. The most substantive of the arguments assume that there can only be one cause of global temperature change; since solar activity was clearly the driving force before 1850, they conclude that it still is the sole driving force. This and the other scientific arguments repeat the false arguments mentioned before.

Of the remaining arguments, many contend simply that too much emphasis is put on dubious methodologies: proxy data and computer models. That's reasonable enough, but the compilation leaves out the fact that the proof of climate change doesn't depend on either of these, as shown in our last article.

Some of the critics don't challenge the science but complain about the management of the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. That's important to conspiracy believers but not to people more interested in the actualities.

The last group of critics don't challenge either the science or the politics, but warn that excessive alarmism could lead to mistaken decisions. Implicit in this argument is the contention that CO2's effects on the environment couldn't be very great.

The question here is, what is very great? We've only seen a temperature rise of 0.7°C (1.2°F) in over 150 years. Who cares? You can't even feel that! But mountain glaciers get a little less snow in the winter and melt a little faster in the summer. In time, the glaciers disappear and farmers who depend on snowmelt in the summer don't get it. Semi-arid parts of Africa that got just enough rain to grow some grass for cattle get less and tens of millions of people watch their livelihoods die. Beetles that never could get up a big population before because of winter-kill now can survive and increase gradually in numbers so they can destroy a forest. Cold-water fish don't tolerate temperature change and move to a different part of the ocean, disrupting their reproduction cycles. That's what we're seeing now: small temperature changes have big effects. What will happen as the temperature rises another degree? Or two degrees?

Maybe this is alarmism. If so, then alarmism isn't necessarily a bad thing.

Now that we've covered the evidence for global warming and the arguments against it, the next articles should cover our options for minimizing it.

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