Being not so skeptical of global warming.

Of all politically charged scientific issues, none is as hot as man-made global warming. For years many scientists have been warning that our fossil fuel economy is producing copious amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other trace greenhouse gases, altering the composition of our atmosphere. Greenhouse gases trap heat from the sun, warming the earth’s surface. Without them, the earth’s average temperature would be a frigid zero degrees Fahrenheit, instead of the balmy 57 degrees it is today. The problem, environmentalists say, is not with the greenhouse effect, which we need, but that our SUVs and factories are pouring CO2 into the atmosphere, increasing the greenhouse effect and raising the earth’s average temperature, an effect that could melt polar ice, raise ocean levels, alter weather, and even (paradoxically) throw us into another ice age. Some even speculate that Hurricane Katrina’s power was in part due to global warming.

But this idea has its critics. Bjorn Lomborg attacks the idea of global warming, and other environmentalist claims, in his book The Skeptical Environmentalist. Steven Milloy from the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, argues that global warming is pure pseudoscience, used by those with a socialist/anti-corporate world agenda. Republicans, with notable exceptions, are accused of having largely minimized the threat the global warming.

My own current synthesis of this debate is that the theoretical underpinnings of the environmentalists’ global warming argument, mainly dealing with greenhouse gases, are sound. There also appears to be a rather solid scientific consensus that man-made global warming is a real phenomenon, a consensus that cannot, and should not, be casually dismissed. Every relevant scientific organization that has reviewed the issue has formally endorsed the notion of man-made global warming, while at the same time emphasizing that there are still big questions remaining and we cannot confidently predict the future.

Like all scientific issues that have immense practical implications, the global warming debate has been highly politicized. Both sides agree that the stakes are high. Environmentalists argue that if we ignore warnings of global warming, we could pay an extremely high price: Climate change can threaten the world’s food production, displace populations, flood coastal cities, and worse. But skeptics argue that the cost of unwarranted hysteria is also high and should not be ignored. Steve Malloy has a counter,  currently at over $115 billion, estimating the cost of the Kyoto Protocol, an international treaty designed to limit greenhouse gas production (but not signed by the three largest producers: America, China, and India).

Both sides are correct. If even the conservative predictions of man-made global warming proponents turns out to be right, we can ill afford to wait until it is too late. But neither can we afford to spend billions of dollars on measures that are not effective, may harm global economies, and may not even be necessary.

There is no clear consensus that I can see on what the best current course of action should be, beyond that it would be a good idea to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Our energy infrastructure is built upon fossil fuels, the burning of which is the biggest man-made producer of carbon dioxide, the major greenhouse gas. There are some gains to be made through efficiency and conservation, but real reductions will require sacrifice. For Americans, sacrifice means a reduction in luxuries, but for the majority of the world energy sacrifice means a real reduction in quality of life.

Current technologies are not up to the task of rescuing us from this dilemma. Nuclear power, perhaps the best choice overall, is still politically unpopular, largely over the issue of waste disposal. Switching to a hydrogen economy would be impossible, since there is no free hydrogen on the earth. We have to make hydrogen from water, fossil fuels, or other sources. Burning coal to make hydrogen to use in your fuel cell car will not reduce overall CO2 emissions. Solar, wind, hydroelectric, geothermal, and other exotic sources of energy are not yet cost effective or productive enough to take over.

I do predict that technological advances will ultimately resolve the issue of global warming, but no one can currently say if it will be in time to prevent significant climactic change. What is clear is that the best scientific information available, evaluated in a politically insulated and objective environment, should inform the political process on this issue. Politics should not dictate the science. Political decisions, however, also involve value judgments, how the burden of sacrifice will be distributed, for example, so governments, and not scientific institutions, will be deciding what to do about man-made global warming. But science should be at the shoulder (not the feet) of politics every step of the way.

Posted in CO2

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