Sunday, February 14, 2010

A heated argument

I've just spent a rather masochistic hour reading stuff on the Internet that purports to be serious pieces on why we should withhold judgment on whether or not global warming is something we should quickly address with legislation that, admittedly, would have serious economic consequences. I'm no expert on economic consequences, and that pretty weather lady on the Weather Channel knows a lot more than I do about the science of studying climate change. But as a long-time journalist, I can spot empty blather from a mile away.

I'm not talking about the average Joes who can be counted on, every time a cold snap moves in, to smirkingly ask each other, "Where's the warming?" Instead, what about arguments that seem to have some substance?

For instance, some claim that warming over the past quarter century is just part of natural cycles, quite without understanding anything about such cycles. It is true, according to some theories, that a "snowball Earth" occurred perhaps two times a couple billion years ago, and it took millions of years for the planet's natural radiation of internal heat to break out of the monster ice age. (Think many, many years of volcanoes, etc, eventually ending the extreme cycles, with those persistent micro-organisms basically starting over.) (Thank you, micro-organisms.) Also, of course, there were the much more recent warming times that let many dinosaurs live at high latitudes some one or two hundred million years ago, even considering the movement of land masses. And don't forget all those still-more "recent" ices ages. But all those changes took place over geological time, certainly not over a single human generation. Today's climate models take account of recent small changes due to solar output, the El Nino sort of ocean circulation shifts, even the "heat island" effect of large cities. But current measures of warming blow away such influences. Over a tiny blink of geological time, during which energy use and carbon release has soared, the overall temperature change has overwhelmed any other possible causes.

Other arguments are just hand-waving, or worse. Do many scientists disagree? Nope. Peer-reviewed articles by dissenters are scarce, and not a one offers an alternative model to explain the data. Is more carbon dioxide good for plants? Sure, except that carbon dioxide's benefits would be far more than offset by killing temperatures and local droughts. What about those stolen emails from the British climate center? OK, some people wrote emails aimed at discouraging journals from printing anti-warming articles - who among us wouldn't regret some of our emails being made public? - but there's no evidence that anyone suppressed climate data. And even if someone did, that human failure would have no impact on the overwhelming data worldwide.

I'm not likely to be around to experience the most serious long-range impacts of warming. However, I care about our offspring and theirs, mostly a bunch of average Joes like me, who would suffer the consequences if remedial action isn't taken during a window of time in which such action still could do some good.

Whew. I think for a while, average Joe that I am, I'm just going to read stuff I agree with.

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