Global Warming Primer, Solutions and Complications, and My Position.
I haven’t been too vocal on my opinions on Global Warming and the politics surrounding it but I’ve been watching some excellent videos from Berkeley professor Richard Muller on the topic and find them one of the best all around rational primers on the topic I’ve yet seen. A brilliant professor, Muller’s “Physics for Future Presidents” lectures have been skyrocketing in popularity even leading to the publication of a mainstream book. Those who are admirers of Richard Feynman, Freeman Dyson, Isaac Asimov, or Carl Sagan would find a kindred spirit in Muller where his brilliant conceptual presentations of complex topics and routine reduction into concrete examples are on par with those great popularizes of science.
You can download his full course, which I highly recommend, at Berkeley’s web cast site http://webcast.berkeley.edu/course_details.php?seriesid=1906978373
With my near lifelong affair with science, philosophy, and skepticism I think I’ve come to a peculiar opinion on Global Warming. Muller makes every explicit effort to avoid directing your conclusions or barraging you with appeals to authority and instead takes great pains in clearly showing the science and physics and allowing you to form your own informed opinions on the matter, exposing misconceptions and lies from both sides of the debate. Muller’s credentials are impeccable, and his explicit desire to weed through the vagarious interpretations and try to pull out the real, accurate understanding of exactly what’s going on in the world is admirable and precisely what resonates most with me.
I urge everyone to watch through Muller’s videos, which are recorded presentations from his Berkeley class. They are engaging, entertaining, and extremely informative and will give you a great deal of confidence when forming your judgments on such a complex topic.
Part 1 of 12 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vyuKOtIryis
With that, there is a great deal of skewing on all sides of this issue. The stop global warming advocacy groups have committed their fair share of moral frauds. They have routinely exaggerated temperature increase as explicitly outlined by the IPCC reports and exaggerated the certainty of those reports. Activists routinely cherry pick data, selecting isolated data points that support their hypothesis but ignoring numerous ones that do not, a tactic not readily identifiable to non scientifically trained persons. Egregiously mainstream science has now more than ever come to accept anecdotal evidence in support of a tentative conclusion. We are routinely barraged with observations that there seem to be more armadillos this far north than ever before or there are fewer salmon then in the last 30 years as actual evidence proving drastic climatic consequences, even though the consensus agrees to only a 1 degree Fahrenheit temperature difference which is only discernable from exhaustive statistical studies. A definite publication bias has arisen exploiting the public concern about global warming, publishing a paper on the mating habits of ground squirrels is iffy, but link it to global warming and you get published. The original hockey stick graph which most modern concern about global warming was build on was not just flawed but fraudulent and has exposed the terrible weakness that reliance on computer models brought about. Too often models are used AS evidence, not as tools to find evidence in the real world, the height of hubris. Historically, CO2 increases tend to follow temperature increases, so the global correlation to CO2 and temperature rise is not so clear cut, even though CO2 is a green house gas, it also promotes plant growth and cloud formation, as the entire climate and life cycles are complex enough that centuries more of study will be required to understand it. The presumption that there is ‘state’ which the planet should be in as optimal temperature is ludicrous, and to think that we humans know and can choose what that state ought to be (especially given our terrible track record managing wildlife preserves) is frightening. Give someone a computer and a physics book and he thinks he has the entire world and every complex interaction in it all ready figured out.
Conversely though, the global warming skeptics or deniers (as a skeptic, which merely means a reliance on clear objective data before embracing an interpretation, I am hesitant to use it in this way) have had their fair share of disingenuous or fraudulent assertions. Suggesting that solar output is the sole mechanism for temperature changes is overly simplistic. Suggesting that methane is 25x more potent than co2 ignores the fact that methane cycles through the atmosphere in a few years before it is removed, while CO2 remains virtually indefinitely. Similarly, while ater vapor is some 100 times more effective as a greenhouse gas than CO2, it cycles through the atmosphere in a few weeks and it is only an increase in average air temperatures that could sustain an increase in both H20 and Methane over the long run. The deniers asserting that change is natural and temperatures fluctuate all the time ignore the difference between fluctuations over geographical time scales (thousands of years) and fluctuations over human times scales, and whether it is ultimately a good idea to be creating such fluctuations over short time periods.
With that acknowledgement of issues on both sides (I am sure there are many more) I’d like to point to some of the complexities that arise.
There is a great deal of difficulty weeding out variables in science. The “factoring out variables” stage is complex and factoring has it’s own succession of controversy surrounding it. Consider as an example (there are thousands) that many temperature readings have come from population centers, and these suffer from a natural ‘heat island’ effect, where sunlight heats man made structures more so than the average surrounding area. Scientists try to make reasonable adjustments for these kinds of factors, making educated guesses about what the data would be if it could have been collected in a perfect setting. The problem with this is that even the degree to which variables should be factored out is highly contentious. In a situation like the heat island effect, because of the small real increase in temperatures, different interpretations of factoring can basically make that temperature change disappear and global warming a non-issue. Most papers and graphs presented have already has this ‘factoring’ done on it, a unfair representation at it’s onset.
When we start talking about ways to mitigate CO2 emissions, things are not clear cut at all. For example, most recycling is actually WORSE from a global warming perspective because recycling focuses on conserving material resources, NOT Energy. With the possible exception of aluminum (whose processing is extremely energy intensive) it usually takes more energy re collect material resources like paper and glass, re process them, and then redistribute them then it does to collect them from a centralized location and manufacture / process them in a large centralized plant. In manufacturing, scale typically associates with efficiency, the more you make of something the more efficiently each individual component was made. This is borne out in the fact that most recycling programs are huge money pits and must be subsidized. The utilization of material resources (other than fossil fuels) is an entirely different use than creating greenhouse gases yet they are routinely lumped together.
Further, building more dams for instance actually creates a very large short term increase in the green house effect, because submerged vegetation decays quickly into methane, the long term reduction in CO2 emissions from hydroelectric power might never offset the short term increase because of the methane emissions from decaying vegetation.
Counter intuitively, a large increase in coal burning plants will actually delay the increase in global warming in the near term because of the reflective and cloud precipitating nature of the particulate matter, possibly giving us a chance to implement newer better technologies before those particulates precipitate out. Some scientist have proposed seeding the upper atmosphere with harmless nano particles to precipitate more cloud cover to reflect more incoming lite which will stay suspended indefinitely, putting us on the road to literal climate control.
Environmental Scientists David Keith presents this in his TED Lecture “A surprising idea for "solving" climate change” - http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/david_keith_s_surprising_ideas_on_climate_change.html
The bigger question which arises is that if global warming is occurring and is anthropogenic, what should be done about it and how much should we spend doing it.
In that, a person I admire greatly Bjorn Lomborg (a gay atheist vegetarian and so certainly no right wing flunky) assembled a conference of economists to weight this question. Climatologists are appropriate people to appeal to when trying to ascertain a scientific understanding of the climate and where it’s going, but they are not the people who ought to decide how much is spent and on what. You can watch his presentation on the Copenhagen conference at TED here http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/bjorn_lomborg_sets_global_priorities.html where he asks us to rationally prioritize the threats to the world and what should be done about them, and even by the worst IPCC estimates, global warming will be inconvenient and expensive, but pales in comparison to the damage done by malaria or dysentery.
Beyond that though, Lomborg and the Copenhagen conference stopped short of actually identifying existential threats to humanity, civilization, and indeed all life on Earth and instead focused on the general well fare of humanity.
For a summary of all the threats we face see Discover Magazine’s managing editor Stephen Petranek TED Conference presentation on “10 ways the world could end” http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/stephen_petranek_counts_down_to_armageddon.html
Those of you familiar with me know I am intimately involved with the Lifeboat Foundation, as one of it’s earliest members and current staff member, I spoke on their behalf in front of the Navy War College’s Strategic Studies group. The Lifeboat Foundation seeks to identify, prioritize, and work to mitigate all the existential threats we face. Cumulatively, global warming, even if anthropogenic, barely makes the radar. Yet global warming is almost exclusively the existential threat people are concerned about, and virtually everything proposed to combat global warming will make mitigating all of the other existential threats we face fare more difficult, and expending tremendous resources combating a not so serious problem might very well doom us to a sudden catastrophe from something that was not political expedient to parade around and had no vice presidential candidate building his reputation on scaring people about it. It is my firm opinion that if you are not explicitly aware of the most commonly identified existential threats we face, and make a compelling case as to how they should be prioritized and mitigated; you have no business holding such a series of opinions about global warming.
With all that, my opinion on global warming is currently as follows:
I am no fan of ‘consensus’ science, historically, some of the worst things in the world have come from appeals to a consensus, science is not something which progresses by a popular vote or a consensus. Almost all great scientific and technological advancements have come specifically from disregarding the consensus. When an issue is complex enough that it requires appeals to consensus, then the data is not clear enough to make policy pronouncements on. Conversely, a reasonable scientific investigation does seem to suggest that the Earth has warmed, on average, globally, about 1 degree Fahrenheit in the last 30 years. What’s not clear is that this is explicitly anthropogenic in nature, BUT, we certainly are producing a large quantity of CO2 from previously sequestered sources and CO2 IS a greenhouse gas, so it is reasonable to suspect that if such a warming is occurring, and a large quantity of a gas known to be responsible for a warming like that has been released, that they could be casually related. The reliance however on computer models, the lack of peer review of the data and the programs, and the track record of forgery from these within the advocates of anthropogenic global warming, are something that should cause concern in any rationally minded person and skepticism toward their results.
The solutions usually proposed to alleviate global warming and cut CO2 emissions almost always deal with a curtailment of industrial and economic growth. Global warming, even by it the worst estimates of the IPCC, does not pose a threat to life on earth or human civilization, but the expensive current solutions proposed to delay it (which ultimately will have little effect) might very well doom us to one of the other numerous existential threats we face, which most people are neither aware of nor care to learn about. That asteroid heading toward Earth ready to extinguish all life won’t give a damn what your ‘carbon footprint’ was.
My philosophy of science skepticism and libertarian streaks find many disturbing trends in the modern stop global warming advocacy groups. Global warming is simultaneously tapping into our penchant for original sin, environmentalist scare mongering and an almost religious indoctrination and devotion to some profound ‘purpose’ in life so many people strive for, (especially in the purpose vacuum of modern secular materialistic determinism) all in the name of the ‘greater good’ and for functionally promulgating the centralization of power. This original sin is the nagging guilt many people feel for existing on the planet and consuming resources. Moral parasites are drawn to this penchant ready to try to alleviate you of that guilt by convincing you to do things to ‘earn’ the right to exist, either by giving them money or working toward ‘their’ case, and people are all too ready to expend a little bit of effort in something someone has convinced them will make them feel really good. Often no care is paid to whether they actually DO any good, it is only the intention and attempt that matters. The scare mongering of environmentalist is simply atrocious, from banning effective safe pesticides like DDT, and scaring everyone about nuclear power, their atrocious track record should hang like an ominous black cloud over everything they say, far overshadowing the slight objective good that has come from environmentalism. People in rich western nations, especially ‘educated’ ones, have moved beyond the explicit recognition of classical religious doctrines they consider low brow, but still contain the strong psychological compulsion to adopt a religious form of thought which grants an easy moral righteousness to them, gives them a clear and easily understandable ‘purpose’ in life, promises a heaven for them (or their children - sustainability) and allows them to atone for the guilt of existing which comes from having no clear objective standard of assessing their own self worth. Those moral parasites are all too familiar with these and the modern environmentalism movement has gone through great pains to essentially establish itself as a modern religion filling that vacuum of the educated secular westerner.
The accumulation of power for the greater good that environmentalist so strongly advocate has historically killed almost ten times as many people this century as all wars this century combined. Everyone is well aware that Hitler killed 6 million Jews and probably about 10 – 12 million Germans total. Few know that Stalin intentionally starved to death more than 60 million people, almost 10 times the number of Jews that Hitler killed. The murderously disastrous policies of Mao in China killed nearly 35 million Chinese peasants, forcing most of them to work themselves to death, starving, on their own farms. Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos killed nearly 5 million people intentionally. All of these deaths came at the hands of government officials who had centralized power, removed the liberties of their subjects, and did so in the name of the ‘greater good’. Don’t appeal to global warming skeptics or deniers being stooges of the ‘big energy’ without acknowledging that politicians vying for controls and regulations will put hundreds of billions of dollars into the pockets of regulators and those politicians and pass arbitrary whims as laws which effect the livelihood, and lives, of untold millions. People who, like Ralph Nader, get to be rich and famous not from inventing great new power generating technologies or efficient safe transportations systems, but merely by attacking everything else productive and good and becoming famous by scaring everyone.
Any centralization of power is dangerous, centralizing control and regulation over all industry is just about the most dangerous thing we can do. The disastrous ethanol subsidies policies all ready fore shadow this in the US, where half of the worlds food supply is produced but industry is forced to use food as fuel which has subsequently raised global food prices and probably caused many hundreds of thousands of people to starve to death. The nations which are freest, both economically and politically, are the ones with the best environmental track records. Yet environmentalist and advocates for acting to stop global warming almost unanimously propose government intervention as the solution. Riding to power on scaring people and a superficial religious like moral certainty, for ‘their own good’ has never turned out well. Where there are those demanding sacrifice, there are always other standing by to collect the proceeds of that sacrifice, be it labor, wealth, or spiritual servitude. These people come off to me as fustrated social tyrants riding on the coat tails of environmentalism, the secular remnants of original sin, and the drive for purpose in all to stagger around clamoring for power any power they can reach.
If Global Warming is a problem, and if it is indeed caused by human activities, then it was caused by environmentalist scare mongering which hijacked that natural technological energy progression trend away from cleaner fuels and ultimately nuclear power and forced societies to rely on coal plants. Many prominent members of the environmental community are now major advocates of Nuclear Power. The only nation which produces less CO2 today than it did 30 years ago is France, and only because 80% of their power is generated by Nuclear Power. Global Warming debates have been hijacked for political purposes by people clamoring for control and power over other people under the most superficial guises. Worldwide focus on it has come only at the expense of ignorance of all other threats we face and solutions proposed for it put us in much more dangerous situations with regard to those threats.
Without an exhaustive study I can’t say for sure that the Earth’s temperature has increased 1 degree Fahrenheit and that this increase was caused by our industries burning fossil fuels but I do think it pretty likely to be the case. Ultimately, it may just have to be the price we pay for industrial civilization until wide scale nuclear or solar power is available. However, global warming is a minor issue on the list of existential threats to humanity and life on earth, and the irrational single minded focus on it at the expense off all other real threats is dangerous and misguided, the proposed solutions are borne not from deep rational investigation but appeals to feelings of guilt and fear in the cowardly populace, and will drive the wealth and power of the world into an ever smaller portion of people who ultimately have control over men’s lives and property and create a dangerous recipe for cataclysmic incompetence. The problem of global warming is best left to the greatest problem solver of all time, the free minds and free exchanges of free people.
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