March 29, 2011

Global Warming Reheated

The public wrangling over global warming reveals more about human nature than it does about the physics of the atmosphere. A scientific proposition with such enormous negative social consequences was bound to produce an active and not-particularly-scientific opposition. Likewise, the creation of an active opposition to the global warming hypothesis has itself produced a counter-reaction of activist supporters. Between the two camps – conservatives on one hand and liberals on the other – a great deal of hot air has definitely been produced, and a wholly scientific question has been obscured with ideology. Worse still, this ideological bickering has seized the public’s attention, masking a more immediate fossil fuel crisis that is likely to make the global warming debate seem painfully na├»ve.

Let’s start with what passes for “debate.” In brief, the common conservative position is that global warming is a hoax. This is really quite a claim. To believe global warming is a hoax, you have to assume that a very large number of the world’s scientists are willing participants in a conspiracy. You have to believe they all got together in secret and agreed to just dispense with the core scientific principle of fidelity to the data, and proceeded to cook the books in a way which might wreck havoc on the world’s economy but offer no obvious benefit to themselves. As I said, it’s quite a claim.

Those of us who remember the beginnings of the global warming debate, back in the 1970’s or before, remember a scientific community that was very reluctant to commit itself. “It might be happening,” they said, “but let’s wait for more data.” It took an enormous amount of data and a great deal of time, often decades, to convince the great majority of the world’s scientists that the global warming hypothesis was a fact. The hoax position, which implies that the world’s climate scientists coalesced enthusiastically around a handful of prominent activists, is not only contrary to the discipline of science itself, but is contrary to the actual history of the global warming hypothesis.

The counter argument of many conservatives, from commentators on Fox News to many ordinary mortals that I work with, tends to take the following form: “Look at all the snow and cold weather we’ve had this year – you call that global warming!?” It is as if these people envision the Earth’s atmosphere as a bathtub full of hot water. Pour a little hot water in, and pretty soon the bath water will be at the more-or-less the same temperature from end to end. When scientists say the world is getting warmer, they mean that the average world temperature is on the increase – not that it is getting warmer at each and every location on the world’s surface. Thinking global warming means that it gets warmer everywhere is like thinking your car’s air conditioner will work better if you dump a bag of ice in your gas tank. Climate, in reality, is an extremely complex thing -- much more complex than the energy ecology of an automobile. It may, in fact, be so complex that we will never be able to predict its changes except in crude generalizations. This is one of the reasons why scientists don’t agree about just how much global warming we can expect. This lack of certainty about the future, however, does not mean we know nothing about the present.

The global warming problem has two aspects. One of these aspects, prediction, presents an extremely difficult problem scientifically. The other aspect, measurement, is far more straightforward. We know how to measure air temperature with great precision from a location on the ground. Our measurements from space are less precise, but the method is more than accurate enough to detect substantial change. Decade by decade, if not always year by year, these measurements show that the average overall world temperature is increasing.1 Yes, it might get really cold in Pennsylvania now and then, but this is more than offset by warm temperatures in oceans, in Siberia, etc. Unless the data itself is being fabricated, the assertion that Earth has consistently gotten warmer for the last few decades is not a theory, but a brute and simple fact. Any scientist worth the name would welcome as many honest reviews of their data and their methods as anyone would care to make. The whole purpose of science, after all, is to uncover facts in nature. If the data were fraudulent, any decent scientist would want to know.

The anti-global-warming people do point to frauds and conflicts of interest. I have no doubt that there are a few unscrupulous scientists out there, who take positions for reasons other than the scientific rigor. I have even less doubt that there are liberal activists who would happily bend the facts to match their particular agendas. What many people do not seem to understand, however, is that in matters of physics motivations are not determinants of fact. The question of whether the world is round or not really never hinged on whether Christopher Columbus was going to make a profit by getting his backers to believe it was. It just is round. Even if you could prove that Columbus himself was a malicious con artist, whose real goal was to make the Spanish crown look silly by going out and sailing off the edge – it would not make the world flat. In exactly the same way, Al Gore’s personality and motives do say something about whether or not you can trust him as a human being, but they neither prove nor disprove assertions he promotes about the physical world. In the end, only measurement, reason and time can actually resolve these questions.

Many conservatives do now take the position that climate change is actually happening – but that no one can prove that human activity is the cause. They are correct. Causality is difficult, perhaps impossible, to prove. The principle article of evidence that human beings are causing global warming is the correlation between rising carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere and rising global temperatures. The two graphs look very similar, so a causal relationship is implied but still not proven. We do know from actual experiments, however, that carbon dioxide really is a greenhouse gas – which is to say, it is more opaque to heat than ordinary air. It would be ridiculous to say that atmospheric carbon dioxide doesn’t produce any global warming, and it would be equally ridiculous to say that human activity does not produce substantial amounts of carbon dioxide. The burning of fossil fuels undoubtedly contributes to climate change, but it is true that we cannot say for certain that it constitutes the dominant cause. There may be something else going on – again, the climate is a very complex thing.

So, conservatives that believe in climate change tend to argue that it’s probably not our fault, we probably can’t prevent it from getting worse, and we will just have to deal with its consequences as they come. Most climate scientists believe that human activity probably is the principle cause, but they admit that they cannot predict either the magnitude or the detailed consequences of the change. Liberal activists take the worst case scenario, which we will get to shortly.

A final argument some conservatives make, usually quietly – though I have heard Rush Limbaugh actually express this on the air – is that God just wouldn’t allow a thing like global warming to happen. From my perspective, this is seeking reassurance in the land of make-believe, but let’s grant them God’s existence for the sake of argument. Even if there is a God, the historical record, let alone the scriptural one, doesn’t show him coming to humanity’s rescue very often. Civilizations rise and fall. We are not spared plagues, earthquakes, floods, or bad cable TV shows. We have no reliable evidence that God bends the rules of nature in sudden and surprising ways to solve our problems, and certainly no non-scriptural evidence that he spares us the consequences of our collective actions. Further, if there is a God, I don’t see any obvious patterns in his behavior that would lead me to believe that anyone can predict his actions. Perhaps Mr. Limbaugh hears the voice of God inside his head. It is more likely, though, that the voice inside his head is actually his own.

Having scrutinized the deniers, let us turn our scrutiny on the activists. Science aside, the conservatives have assessed the cultural dynamics correctly. Whether it turns out turns out to be scientifically demonstrable or not, anthropogenic global warming is the perfect liberal cause celeb. What could fit the liberal narrative better? Global warming is the ultimate white industrial mea culpa. We wicked, nasty Europeans are ruining the entire Earth! More delicious still, the most obvious culprits are big corporations, who pollute the air then force us to buy their wicked products, big cars, gasoline, etc. The contemporary liberal mind is drawn to such a proposition like a fruit fly to a pile of old bananas.

The problem with activists, as opposed to scientists, is that they tend to measure ideas against their existing narrative, not against the empirical data. In this deprecation of reality, they are much like conservatives. Conservatives don’t want anthropogenic global warming to exist, not merely because it would have unpleasant physical consequences, but because it would repudiate some key features of their worldview. They want to believe that more and more is better and better, that the physical world itself will never change, and that if grandpa had a two-ton vehicle then they shouldn’t have to settle for anything smaller. Liberals also have an emotional stake in anthropogenic global warming. They want it to exist. It not only reinforces their worldview, it offers all sorts of petty conservational measures they can take – measures which chiefly function to make them feel better about themselves.

Consider the high-efficiency light bulb. A nice device. It uses less energy – at the socket. Of course, it requires a good deal more energy to make than a conventional bulb. It also contains more toxic substances, and is therefore a much nastier thing to toss in the garbage. Don’t think about those things, though, and you can pat yourself on the back for making a difference. Ethanol is an even better example. What could be better than running your car on the wholesome goodness of corn? The problem, fortunately, is that by the time you work out all the fuel costs of growing corn, fertilizing it, spraying pesticides on it, transporting it, and processing it – you use more energy making ethanol than you get out of it. The ethanol scam is on the decline now, but it served its real purpose while it lasted. It made many people feel they were being ecologically responsible – and no doubt made a fortune for others. Hybrid cars are certainly a nice idea too. Like the high-efficiency light bulbs they are costlier in energy to manufacture and full of toxic substances, particularly in their batteries. They might be a net success, as far as carbon dioxide emissions go, but they are hardly an unmitigated advance. The most telling invention of recent years is probably the hybrid SUV. They burn about as much gas as a conventional mid-sized car, but some are nearly as big as a Suburban. Here we see the truth about what the average liberally inclined American really wants. It is to live a lifestyle of excess with the smug satisfaction of not noticing. To put some high efficiency light bulbs in the living room, then burn several hundred gallons of aviation fuel to fly somewhere interesting on vacation. In short, to push the conscience just a little beyond where the intellect might go looking for it.

An interesting aspect of the liberal perception of global warming is that they leap not merely to the worse predicted case, but to the worst imaginable case. After watching An Inconvenient Truth, my stepdaughter walked away with the impression that life of earth itself was at stake. If she did not altogether grasp the science, she did at least grasp the film’s core message – we bad Americans are destroying the Earth. Without the science to mark out its natural limits, the famous hockey stick temperature curve implies a rapid temperature increase that will burn the Earth to a cinder – unless, of course, we all pitch in right now with those high efficiency light bulbs and those hybrid cars.

I used to believe that liberals, on average, were a more rational, better educated group of people than conservatives. I now think the two groups have approximate parity as far as education and rationality are concerned. They just have different delusions that they live by.

All of the actual climate change predictions that I am aware of are based on computer models. Their margins of error are immense by scientific standards, simply because the complexity of making such predictions is immense. At worst, not including certain speculative complications like the total demise of the deep ocean currents, these predictions call for a few degrees of temperature rise over the course of the century, accompanied by perhaps a few feet of sea level rise. This would not be insignificant. I would not recommend buying beach front property in the next hundred years, nor even a condominium in a low lying coastal city. If there is more heat in the atmosphere, we will have more hurricanes and other extreme weather. Changes of local climate can be expected to force populations to move in some places, which will cause political tensions and provoke some wars. Some species of animals will become extinct, some will decline, and others will flourish. Despite all of these changes, however, I see nothing in the climate models that is likely to exterminate us as a species, nor utterly change the trajectory of civilization. Forces and conditions that could produce such crushing outcomes do exist in nature, but I think the threat of global warming is an inconvenient pressure rather than a catastrophic blow.

We stand on the brink of a far more immediate, far more certain disaster, one that only a few of us seem willing to even recognize. Typically, this disaster is labeled peak oil, but it is really whole collection of shortages that either will occur or are already occurring as the demand for global resources outpaces the declining supply. Others have articulated the nature of this problem better than I can hope to, but for those who are unfamiliar with the idea I will do my best to lay it out in brief.

All of our major energy resources are essentially non-renewable. There may be new coal, oil, and natural gas in Earth’s future, but it will not be created on anything like a human time scale. Fossil fuels are a limited pool of stored energy that we are rapidly burning up. We have been consuming oil for about a hundred years. We have been consuming significant quantities of coal about twice that long, and natural gas for slightly less time. Almost all the evidence indicates that we have now consumed a little more than half the oil that exists on Earth. Statistical evidence indicates that once you have extracted half of any non-renewable resource like oil, annual production will decline inexorably until it is either all gone or what remains is not worth the cost of extracting. This has been clearly demonstrated in countless individual oil fields, in dozens of whole nations, and is inevitably true of the world in general as well. We face a future of not merely increasing oil prices, but actual shortages. This is simply what happens when an inelastic, exponentiating demand exceeds a declining supply. Natural Gas reserves are threatening to peak soon too, even with improved extraction technology. Coal reserves, which we are used to being told are practically infinite, may also peak in twenty years or so. The usual optimistic estimates include a great deal of coal that would cost more energy to extract than could be gotten from it, and are also based on rates of consumption that are decades out of date. What seemed like an unlimited resource two hundred years ago, when the world had a little more than a billion people, is now looking very limited when the world has nearly seven billion and a much greater energy demand per capita.

Again, this is merely a brief sketch of the problem. I would encourage anyone who reads this to look at the evidence others have put forth. I have included a number of reasonably concise video links below.2
If the anthropogenic global warming theories are correct to any degree, there can be no doubt that burning fossil fuels has caused some amount of climate change. However, most of the climate models global warming experts are basing their predictions on assume a rate of fossil fuel consumption that may simply not be possible. To get the grand catastrophes the global warming activists are worried about would probably require the burning of more fossil fuels than we have left, or at least more than we will be plausibly able to extract. In essence, they are urgently advocating that we avoid a future that real circumstances make highly unlikely anyway.

One has to wonder why energy depletion and its multiplier, population growth, have received so little attention. Actually, I believe the lack of interest is not that difficult to understand. Neither people on the political right nor people on the political left really want to know about this problem.

All the right’s aversions to global warming apply with redoubled force to energy depletion. Global warming threatens worsening weather disasters and other consequences by late century, but energy depletion puts a stake through the heart of the myth of endless economic growth – right here, right now. It means that we are absolutely not the masters of the world, and that civilization will have to shrink and stabilize to survive. It is bad news for both wealth and freedom.

The people on the left, on the other hand, love their human tragedies to stay a nice safe distance in the future or in some suitably pathetic third world country. A sudden and permanent shortage of oil is not going to be a problem they can demonstrate against on the weekends. Energy depletion is an all-inclusive, omnipresent sort of problem, one for which our full participation won't be optional. The hybrid and the fancy light bulbs will not dispel the darkness anymore.

Scientists, with a few gleaming exceptions, have ignored the problem because it really doesn’t involve much science. Energy depletion does not require any science to prove – it is simply an accounting problem. It is a much duller issue than global warming, which offers many interesting scientific challenges. Proving that peak oil is happening is at best a job for an economist, most of whom, unfortunately, have an almost religious faith in unlimited economic growth. For most successful economists, market forces are more real than the limitations of the physical world. Most of the people who have raised the warning on this issue are geologists, with a few scientists from other disciplines, a scattering of journalists, and few oil men of unusual integrity.

For various reasons, the new renewables (wind, solar, and biofuels) cannot hope to make up for the loss of cheap oil and cheap gas. They may eventually keep us from a future without any electricity at all, but none of them will replace the liquid fuels used in transportation and agriculture, and none of them are ready to replace coal very quickly. People who are glib about solar and wind power tend not to do the math. Enough wind farms and solar collectors to produce even a significant fraction of our electricity would require an enormous investment in energy to produce, just at a time when energy is growing more expensive and more scarce. We are accustomed to thinking of such industrial production as something that just happens, as if by magic and a sprinkling of dollars, but the magician’s trick behind it all is the power of cheap energy.

1 There is also a huge body of circumstantial evidence. Glaciers are retreating in most places, from mountains in the tropics to the polar regions. The number and severity of storms is on the increase. Such things consistently point to a greater amount to energy in the atmosphere.

2 I strongly recommend the following videos:

Albert Bartlett is a physicist who has been following the problems of overpopulation and energy depletion since the 1960’s. This video (1 of 8) is the best-argued and most politically neutral presentation of the problem that I am aware of.

Richard Heinberg is a geologist and lecturer on the subject of peak oil. This video (1 of 5) is one of his lectures. There is much more Heinberg material online.

There are several full length documentaries on the topic of peak oil, but “A Crude Awakening” is, again, the most politically neutral.

1 comment:

  1. Mostly, I agree. However,

    They want it to exist.

    is unfair, even by your own analysis. The mere fact that liberals have attached their usual kabuki theater to a real problem does not mean they actually want a real problem; they would be happy enough with imagined ones (like Alar and apples).

    And this

    my stepdaughter walked away with the impression that life of earth itself was at stake

    is ironic, considering it's followed by this:

    We stand on the brink of a far more immediate, far more certain disaster

    Perhaps a little bit of panic is not unwarranted. :P

    Back during the Nuclear Winter era, I kept explaining to people that human beings did not have the power to destroy all life on Earth, or even all human life. All they could do was decide whether future generations would like like us, or live like Eskimos. These did not seem sufficient to either side, who wanted to frame the debate in terms of cosmic evil and supreme power.

    The same remains true: all we can do in this present crisis is choose how much misery the future holds, either a lot or a vastly lot more. Eschatological nonsense is nonsense, from either side. But is no exaggeration to say that a huge source of the problem is precisely the mind-set you outlined at the start: the idea that desires affect reality. This is an essentially religious view, and as Liberalism continues to become identified with atheism, it will continue to become the rational position.

    And all the religious crazies will flock to the Republican banner, because in a two-party system, that's what you do. I think is explains why the GOP is so chock full of nuts these days: it's been collecting them ever since Reagan promised "morning in America."