A few wary, muddled thoughts on global warming

9 Sep

Just a quick post about something that’s often on my mind …

How much, if at all, do I want/need to write about global warming?

On one hand it’s unavoidably tied to any discussion of renewable energy, sustainability, green technology, conservation, etc.  If we don’t stop force feeding the atmosphere with CO2 and other heat-trapping gasses, we’re all doomed.  So we’d better get off our asses and develop renewable, non-fossil fuel burning energy technologies. So the argument goes.

But I’ve had way too many heated debates with people on this score that I can’t help but be a little wary of blithely taking sides in the book.  Because here’s the thing: global warming is a vastly complex phenomenon, and the truth, it seems to me, is that what we know about how climate works and changes over time, and to what degree human activity is responsible for recent warming trends, is dwarfed by what we don’t know, or only know a little bit about.

I want to be very clear: I am not arguing or claiming that global warming is a hoax or not happening or not worth caring about.  According to nearly everything I’ve read, a significant number of the world’s top climate scientists agree on two things: 1) global temperatures are rising on average, and 2) human activity, i.e. burning fossil fuels non-stop for the past century and change has almost certainly played a central role in our steadily climbing global thermostat.

Now, just because experts agree on something doesn’t mean it’s necessarily true.  There are certainly examples of widespread scientific consensus that turned out to be wrong.  For example, it was once widely accepted–by many scientists and by the general public–that “non-whites” were inherently inferior to Caucasians.  Today we know such views to be pernicious and based not on objective science but on deeply rooted myths about race.

So isn’t it possible, one line of thinking goes, that climate scientists are caught up in yet another cultural/political trend, that implicating human activity in global warming is little more than a way to get tenure and advance one’s career?

Yes, and no.  Scientists are not immune from political and cultural trends. And it’s entirely possible that in the coming years and decades we’ll learn things about climate and global warming that will steer scientific thinking in an unexpected direction.  Science–real, nuts and bolts science–is rarely about claims to absolute truth and unshakable faith in any one idea, theory or data set.  The beauty of the scientific method is that everything we know is always open to questioning and experimentation.

But just because science is built on questioning and disagreement and claims and counterclaims doesn’t mean that it’s impossible to know things and, over time, to come to fairly solid conclusions about how the world works.  Scientist have been studying global warming and CO2 emissions for at least 30 years, and over time the evidence has persuasively pointed in the general direction of human activity playing an important role in climate change.  There will always be naysayers and conspiracy theorists, but the fact that so many people who spend their lives studying climate have independently come to very similar conclusions is at the very least worth paying attention to.

What I meant to be a brief post has turned into a long, rambling screed.  So I’ll try to sum it up.  I’m no climate expert.  I’m just a guy writing about book about energy, trying to figure out how climate change fits into the story.  So here’s my take:

Ever since modern humans evolved to the point that we began running the show, we’ve been changing the planet in ways large and small.  Nobody can deny that human activity has wiped out entire animal species.  Nobody would argue against the fact that the way we grow food directly affects the quality of soil and has lead to a global crises in soil erosion.  There’s absolutely no doubt that we’ve fished many fish species to the brink of extinction and that the stuff we dump in the ocean–everything from fertilizer to plastic bags–has created huge dead zones where aquatic life simply vanishes.  We humans have had a huge, undeniable impact on land and sea.  So why is it such a leap to think that we’ve also had a significant hand in changing the atmosphere.  After more than a century of pumping greenhouse gasses into the air, like a massive volcano exploding nonstop decade after decade, how could we not have altered the atmosphere in some way?  Why is this so hard to grasp?

That’s my best argument.

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