Saturday, May 4, 2013

Bad arguments about global warming

In the interest of having an open mind, I've been putting some research into global warming.  But it is much more difficult than I expected.  Not sure what I was hoping for -- perhaps a formal, written debate where the two sides took turns refuting each other's conclusions?  Instead I'm finding that no one appears to be even using the same data.  I have read just today that the past decade has been extremely hot, that it's been cooler than average, and that it started warmer and got cooler.  The actual numbers that I saw looked like mostly hot with two cold years.  But what do I know?  The science is awfully complex, and I'm still struggling to learn enough to even understand the conversation.

But in my small amount of research, I've stumbled on some laughably bad arguments on either side.  I'll throw them out there, with my answers, in the hopes that maybe we can move on to arguments that actually further the conversation.

1.  "95% of climate scientists believe in global warming."
I'm surprised it's not 100%.  Groupthink in specialized disciplines can be seriously problematic.  I have read study after study proving that eating fat won't give you a heart attack, but try to find ONE dietician who will tell you that.  It's easy enough to show that the risk of hepatitis B exposure in an average child under ten is vanishingly small, but show me ONE pediatrician who doesn't insist it's necessary at birth.  I can't imagine, in our current climate (har har) how a skeptical climatologist is supposed to get published.

2.  "First they called it global warming.  Now they're calling it climate change.  I smell a rat."
I think these people must not speak to anyone who believes in global warming.  They all seem to use both terms.  "Climate change" doesn't mean it's not getting warmer.  I think maybe it was intended to convey that it's a bit more complex than "more beach days each year" and that it wasn't a good thing.  I really couldn't say, but I haven't run across anyone avoiding the term global warming.  They still say the world is getting warmer.

3.  "Follow the money."
Well, obviously, right?  Okay, so I did.  Turns out there's money to be made in alternate energy, AND there's money to be kept in fossil fuels.  There is lots of money to be made on cap and trade schemes, and there's lots of money to be lost by businesses who would have to pay for their emissions.  There's money flying everywhere.  It doesn't help.

4.  "People who talk about climate change are using it as a reason to push population control."
This is entirely true.  And I don't believe in population control, at least not the kinds we're talking about here, like sterilizing poor people in third world countries or forcing women in China to abort their second babies.  If population growth were really at a point where it was dangerous, though, we really would have to reduce population growth.  As Catholics, this could mean more people choosing the single life or marrying late in life -- or even having celibate marriages.  That's no fun, but I'd do it for the good of the planet, if it required it.

However, I don't think the planet will be helped by people in first world countries having few or no children.  Instead, that trend is crashing our population faster than we can adjust, leading to a rapidly aging population.  In America this is offset by immigration--and more open immigration would help even more.  Global population is expected to peak and decrease soon, and I'm not terribly concerned about it.

BUT, whether or not population control is a good thing is independent of whether global warming is happening.  If it's happening, it's happening, no matter how much you disagree about the solution.  This goes along with the argument "but people who believe in climate change are liberals."  Well, for the most part, yes.  But that has a lot more to do with people adopting the opinions of those they like and trust, and not much to do with how trustworthy those opinions are in the first place.  And you can find people who are pro-life and believe in climate change.  They aren't talking about population control, but about reducing each person's carbon footprint.  So believing in global warming isn't going to suddenly transform you into a baby-killer.  Promise.

5.  "Global warming is a good thing anyway."
I was thinking along those lines in 2011.  I know a bit about the havoc wreaked by global cooling in history, and it seems a warming phase would be a lot more harmless.  Wouldn't we just get a longer growing season?

Then we had the summer of 2012.  It was hot.  And I was trying to grow things, very optimistic about it because there was all this hot weather.  I didn't follow my planting charts (which can be risky because unusual weather is unpredictable), but that worked fine.  And yet my garden suffered.  I planted peas in February and they were still killed by the heat before I could harvest them.  My lettuce turned bitter and bolted.  Beans and brassicas were completely eaten by bugs.  My tomatoes got a fungus and rotted on the vine.  Cucumbers turned yellow and died from some disease.  Only peppers and pumpkins were more or less unscathed.

We also had a flea epidemic of Biblical proportions, which I didn't even mention here because I was afraid you'd all judge me.  I don't even want to talk about it.  It was awful.  There was no winter to kill the fleas from the year before, and fleas boom in hot weather.  So do mosquitoes, and flies, and aphids.  Diseases, from tomato fungus to malaria, are rampant when the weather is hot, even in areas that have never seen them before.  Pests spread north into places they've never been before, infecting hosts that have zero resistance.

Meanwhile the Midwest suffered severe drought, something home gardeners can't really appreciate because we can water our gardens.  It's pretty difficult and hugely expensive to water a whole cornfield.  A few more years like that, and you can expect to see more farmers going out of business, more consolidation, and prices going up.  Or, worst case scenario, another Dust Bowl.  It could be very bad.

Here in America, with our heat and air and very little contact with agriculture, we think of weather as a nuisance and nothing else.  But weather affects every part of the world.  Global cooling in the 5th century drove barbarians south to conquer Rome, sent the plague of Justinian to decimate the Britons, drove Anglo-Saxons across the sea, and is the reason you speak English today.  Funny how that works.  In the large scale of history, that doesn't sound like a big deal.  But it felt like a very big deal to the Britons, who suffered an entire century of utter chaos and then mostly died.  Global warming could result in drought, plague, crop failure, erosion, freak storms, floods, and war.  I don't really see a part of that that is good.  The faster the change happens, the less time there is to adapt and the worse it will be.

So if global warming is real, you kind of have to admit it's time to panic now.

5.  "But it's sweltering/snowing out right now!"
Uh-huh.  So the global average temperature trend over decades can be adequately predicted by today's unusually hot or cold weather.  Moving on.

6.  And my all-around favorite: "Why would God give us all those fossil fuels if it would be a bad thing to use them?"
You can replace this with anything you like.  "Why did God give Adam and Eve that tree if they weren't supposed to eat them?"  Or, "Why did God give us sugar if we weren't supposed to gorge on it?"  Or, "Why did God give us sun if we were going to get a sunburn?"

Maybe ask this question, "Why did God give you a brain, if not to figure out what uses of his creation are dangerous, so that you can avoid them?"

I'm going to keep researching and see what I find out.  But I'd be happy if I never saw these six arguments again.  Lately I haven't found any skeptics who actually seem to know what they are talking about, or who aren't really noticeably cherry-picking data.  But they may be out there.  In the meantime, I did find one site that actually addressed some of the arguments of the other side -- this one.  I would love to see a comparable site from the other side.

Meanwhile, I can tell you one thing: being sparing of energy use, buying a car with good mileage, fixing what you have instead of buying new things, and growing your own food are things that have no downside.  I do them anyway because electricity and gas cost money, and because I believe in frugality and independence.  But if the earth really is warming and affected by my actions -- well, I think I'm doing pretty okay.


Anonymous said...

It's tough to unravel - climate change is happening, but the cause is arguable. Correlation, no matter how strong, is not causation and we don't have the option of setting up a control planet.

SO here's my take on it -
Say it's real (it is) AND humans are causing it (don't know)...and we can do something to stop it and do so -HOORAY.

If we caused it and can stop it and do not try - then we are voluntarily murdering our grandchildren.

If humans did not cause it and cannot stop it, polluting less is STILL the "right thing to do."

If we caused it and it's too late to stop it, we still should try...maybe we'll find a solution in the effort. And doing wrong because the end game is the same either way is *never* the right choice. And I believe continuing to produce excess carbon emissions - simply because I can - is wrong.

So, my religion, my ethics, and a cost-benefit analysis leads me to believe the adage of my profession (environmental science)applies here: "Always err on the side of caution."

And I agree, you are doing OK (better than OK, actually).

Sheila said...

Yes, the whole thing is rather like Pascal's wager: you have nothing to lose by assuming it's true, and much to gain.

I think, global warming or not, humans need to stop thinking of the earth as an infinite, all-you-can eat buffet, and start realizing it as a finite set of resources. That doesn't mean refusing to use ANY resources, but just pacing ourselves so there's enough for everyone, including our kids. If everyone in the world lived like Americans do, we'd need two extra Earths to supply all that was needed. So perhaps the solution is to live simply so that others may simply live.

There's one argument I saw the other day that just blew my mind: "I'd turn the world into a parking lot if it meant being able to feed everyone."

Well, perhaps, but don't you realize that parking lots are not particularly productive of food? I get the point -- pristine wilderness and endangered species don't have the intrinsic value humans do -- but our survival relies on a complex web of natural processes, and we shouldn't trash the whole thing just because we don't completely understand it.

Respect for human life requires some degree of respect for the habitat where humans live -- the earth.

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