Getting Warmer

For those of you avidly following the slugging match between myself and bullying science blogger Kate of The Anterior Commissure on the topic of global warming, I highly recommend reading New Scientist‘s “Climate Change: A guide for the perplexed.” This feature is billed as a debunking of climate change myths (perpetrated mostly by its deniers) so some of its tone is a little testy, but overall this is the most comprehensive and fair-minded analysis of climate change and its attendant controversies I’ve read, a welcome change from the usual alarmist and poorly contextualized coverage. I will say that perhaps too many counterarguments are rejected by referring to the IPCC report as holy writ, side-stepping the accusations of critics that the reports themselves are a product of an over-hyped and politicized point of view. Then again, the IPCC reports do seem to represent the current consensus of climate scientists and I’ve seen no particularly compelling critique that suggests they should simply be dismissed.

Overall, the picture that emerges is of a broad consensus among climate scientists that a significant process of climate change is occurring, caused in great part by the release of extra CO2 into the atmosphere from man-made sources. This theory is based on CO2’s properties as a “greenhouse gas,” which means that CO2, along with various other gases in the atmosphere, absorbs radiation from the sun and so causes the atmosphere to get warmer. This, coupled with a strong correlation between CO2 levels and global temperature observed far back into the past (by tapping into air bubbles trapped in polar ice and the like), leads to the conclusion that the extra CO2 produced by us naughty humans is causing and will cause global temperatures to rise. While short-term weather conditions are too chaotic to predict with great accuracy, aggregate climate conditions over much longer periods of time – decades or centuries say – can in fact be predicted with some accuracy, as the parameters within which the climate oscillates – such as absorption of the sun’s radiation – are far more stable.

The extent to which temperatures will rise and what the effect of those changes will be are a lot more unclear, however, with climate modelers conceding that major factors such as cloud cover and the release of sulphate aerosols* into the atmosphere – and the assumptions that they make about them – create a good deal of uncertainty about what’s in store. It is, for instance, rather unclear whether warming oceans will create ever more ferocious hurricanes or instead produce cuddly little kitten storms. And many of the drastic changes reported in the newspapers with such alarm are in fact forecast to occur only over the next 100 years.

None of this is to suggest that action isn’t warranted. Let me put it this way: rather than basing pretty much our entire civilizational prosperity on carbon-based fuel, wouldn’t it be better to try and find an alternative to carbon-based, non-renewable energy sources, stores of which may run out in the course of our lifetimes and reliance on which puts us at the mercy of psychotic fundamentalists, grotesque dictators and delusional butchers while their emissions make our climate radically unpredictable at best and intensely damaging to life, liberty and the energy-intensive pursuit of happiness at worst?

How’s that for some anthropocentric thinking, AC? (The rest of you Yanks could take some convincing.)

*A product of heavy industry whose concentration in the atmosphere is thought to have actually had a cooling effect from 1940 to 1970, and which ironically was eliminated by clean air legislation. The heavy use of sulphates by newly industrializing nations such as China and India may have a similar effect, although some aerosols warm the atmosphere rather than cooling it.

Explore posts in the same categories: Holy Flurking Shnit!

4 Comments on “Getting Warmer”

  1. kate Says:

    when i first saw this, my initial reaction was something to the effect of “put your anthropocentric science-blog-hating cards on the table ’cause i’m all in. BRING IT.”

    but i’m totally and completely with you on this one. incredibly well-written explanation, and very much non-anthropocentric at all. honorary PhD for you.

    you’re right – the NewSci information and its presentation both ROCK. and constitute one of the most rational, accessible means of parcing apart the complexy of a huge body of work on climate change out there. huge thanks for the link.

    to throw another, perhaps more controversial cog into the climate-change wheel, pick up the april 2007 issue of the Atlantic. gregg easterbrook presents one of the most horrifically anthropocentric spins on the future of a warmer world – i honestly thought it was a satire until halfway through it. while it’s undoubtably strategic to consider, designating “winners” and “losers” in a warmer world took things a little too far for my taste.

    in an interview associated with the article, easterbrook acknowledges that alarmism isn’t an effective means of conveying the message, as the real data has pretty frightening implications itself and pushing the extreme case only destroys credibility. which i think we both agree(d) with. with him so far.

    he also says the following:
    ” There will be change, yes. The traditional way of life will fade and be replaced with something else, maybe something zany, but change seems an inevitability of human experience. Really no society on earth…has been able to insulate itself from change. ”

    …with which i agree. we’ve been an adaptable species, and will continue to be. we also have means of adapting more rapidly that other species haven’t developed, which concerns me a lot. but i’ve already happily berated you on this point. still with him on all this.

    where he loses me is this: in attempting to reveal the “winners” of climate change, easterbrook actually damages his credibility by overlooking the overall context. sure, warming northern climates may hypothetically transform russia into a balmy hotspot for prime real estate and melting arctic ice may hypothetically open up a northwest passage. but again, with all due respect to our adaptability as humans, isn’t it a little bizarrely ignorant of us that we assume that other, incredibly detrimental world-wide changes may also occur but “winners” will remain blissfully unaffected? even if you’re happily sitting on acres of newly florida-esque land in northern quebec, you’re most likely going to be saddled with everything from fiscal support for flooded coastal areas/drought-ravaged countries to the economic and lifestyle choices produced by the inevitable resettlement of displaced peoples. you’re affected, whether you like it or not.

    it’s quite naive to think that there’ll be winners, even in a species that’s fortunately as adaptable as we are. so i’m not too much of a fan of the win/lose dissociation that he appears to be making.

    though he does do a bang-up job of speaking to all of the variables that could differentially affect his “spots to watch” regions.

  2. HW Says:

    The persistent invitations for me to “bring it” aside (bring what exactly? Tea? Cake? Death?), I think the A to the C is spot on here. I read Easterbrook’s article and it was certainly a thought-provoking piece, if a little glib. How global policy vis the world’s winners and losers will play out remains to be seen, though given that much of the developed world’s wealth – and by wealth I mean general standard of living, nice things and such – is based on a ready supply of carbon-based fuels one wonders how we’ll maintain our position as relative geopolitical “winners,” however f’d up the world becomes as a result of climate change, without a change in energy policy.

  3. kate Says:

    how about more thingamabobbercane?

    kinda like more cowbell, but all science-y.

    nothing like a funny word to get people interested in climate change, if you ask me.

  4. global warming is becoming such a obvious problem that someone somewhere other than Al Gore needs to step up to help drive the bus!

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