Monday, March 27, 2006

Parsing global warming

Mike Silverman reviews Time magazine's article on Global warning and correctly identifies three issues at hand in discussing the issue:
1. Is global warming occurring? Is there a general global trend of increasing temperatures, and if so, how recent is it?

2. Is global warming caused by or influenced in any way by the activities of humankind or is it a purely natural phenomenon that is the latest in the planet's long history of climate shifts?

3. If global warming is caused by mankind (or even if it isn't) is there anything that we as a civilization can realistically do to arrest or reverse the current climactic trends on a worldwide basis?
The answer to 1 is yes, and that it dates roughly to the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. That alone suggests an answer to question 2, but extensive research has left no debate among climate scientists that the answer is yes, human actions are a driving force in climate change.

The answer to the third is also yes, though it hinges largely on what we mean by "realistically." But before we can adequately define what we can realistically do, it's important to address a fourth question: What do we care about?

Opponents of action (mostly people connected to Big Oil) tend to focus on attacking the evidence, which has proven to be a losing battle. They've had some success at convincing the public that there's uncertainty about questions 1 and 2 above, but the science is what it is, and it isn't getting any less certain. More data and better theoretical bases for climate modeling leaves less and less room for doubt.

The reason they attack the science is that it's fairly easy to go from recognizing that there's a problem to saying that we ought to solve it. The implicit step, one that no one seems to talk about, is saying that global warming is a problem that we care about. There are problems that we don't care about: marijuana, illegal immigration, illegal spying on American citizens or secret torture chambers run by our government are a few examples that at least some people don't seem too concerned about.

Global warming is a problem, and we should do something about it. How much we can realistically do is largely driven by how much we want to do – that is, how much we care. If we wanted to eradicate the use of marijuana, we could do so. We'd genetically engineer bacteria and viruses to destroy the plants, we'd execute anyone caught selling it, and use the entire Air Force to locate and destroy any field growing marijuana anywhere in the world. It'd be expensive, but if it were bad enough, we'd do it.

The real problem in talking about global warming is that it's hard to get people to act preemptively. It's easy to react to a problem once it's already established, but once the atmosphere is changed dramatically enough that people want to go back, it'll be much harder, if not impossible, to reverse the changes. But until things get that bad, it's hard to get anyone to accept any costs.

Global warming will probably cause shifts in where crops grow, increase the number or severity of tornadoes and hurricanes, flood coastal areas, etc. One response would be to simply mitigate the consequences – develop new strains of crop plants to handle new conditions, build and reinforce levees, improve weather warnings. The other approach is to confront the root problem – the excessive release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

The argument for the former approach is that it doesn't require me to do anything different. The bread will still be on store shelves, whether the wheat is grown in Kansas or Saskatchewan, and a tornado shelter is a tornado shelter, whether I have to use it once a year or more often.

Technology can help us toward a seamless transition away from carbon-releasing energy production, too. Wind, nuclear and solar power could be bigger parts of the energy pie, dramatically reducing carbon release with no impact on the consumer (as previously reported, wind power is now cheaper in some areas than coal power). More efficient cars and a transition to electric power for vehicle fleets would also offer simple transitions to a lower carbon profile, and wouldn't require that people give up their existing cars.

The advantage of tackling carbon release, rather than treating the symptoms, is two-fold. First, we'd be dealing with the devil we know. However careful our projections are, in the end we'll always be surprised, and no plan ever works perfectly. As Yogi Berra said, "It's tough to make predictions, especially about the future." Better to try to keep things the way they are.

The other reason was best expressed by Bill McKibben in The End of Nature. His argument there was that there's some value in preserving some parts of the world as beyond human control. When we change the climate, we've put ourselves in a bizarre situation, playing God on an unimaginable scale, and without the omniscience to make it work. There's a value in the humble contemplation of nature, a value lost to future generations if we remake the world to fit our short-term need to burn gasoline.

Remember too that the processes behind global warming will continue accelerating so long as we keep pumping up the carbon dioxide. There isn't some new balance that will arrive so long as we keep adding weight to the scale.

Global warming is happening and it's a problem that matters. That is why I'm bullish on serious progress toward a solution to the underlying causes, not just cosmetic fixes for the symptoms of climate change.