Sunday, April 23, 2006

Steyn on Climate Change

Basically the same article that George Will wrote a couple weeks back, only way more entertaining:

Here's an inconvenient truth for "An Inconvenient Truth": Remember what they used to call "climate change"? "Global warming." And what did they call it before that? "Global cooling." That was the big worry in the '70s: the forthcoming ice age. Back then, Lowell Ponte had a huge best seller called The Cooling: Has the new ice age already begun? Can we survive?

The answer to the first question was: Yes, it had begun. From 1940 to 1970, there was very slight global cooling. That's why the doom-mongers decided the big bucks were in the new-ice-age blockbusters.

And yet, amazingly, we've survived. Why? Because in 1970 the planet stopped its very slight global cooling and began to undergo very slight global warming. So in the '80s, the doom-mongers cast off their thermal underwear, climbed into the leopardskin thongs, slathered themselves in sun cream and wired their publishers to change all references to "cooling" to "warming" for the paperback edition. That's why, if you notice, the global-warming crowd begin their scare statistics with "since 1970," an unlikely Year Zero which would not otherwise merit the significance the eco-crowd invest in it.

But then in 1998 the planet stopped its very slight global warming and began to resume very slight global cooling. And this time the doom-mongers said, "Look, do we really want to rewrite the bumper stickers every 30 years? Let's just call it 'climate change.' That pretty much covers it."
Last October, I quoted Robert Harris from his novel Pompeii. It seems relevant to repeat that quotation here:

Men mistook measurement for understanding. And they always had to put themselves at the center of everything. That was their greatest conceit. The earth is becoming warmer--it must be our fault! The mountain is destroying us--we have not propitiated the gods! It rains too much, it rains too little--a comfort to think that these things are somehow connected to our behavior, that if only we lived a little better, a little more frugally, our virtue would be rewarded. But here was nature, sweeping toward him--unknowable, all-conquering, indifferent--and he saw in her fires the futility of human pretensions. (p. 272)

28 comments:

dcat said...

None of which, of course, addresses the fact that scientists almost en masse think that these trends are cause for concern. Mark Steyn and George Will are probably not the places to go for analysis of science or its consequences.

dcat

Tom said...

Yes, but the same scientists almost en masse thought that the cooling trends were cause for concern. We are all would like to keep developing cleaner and more efficient energy, but that doesn't mean we need to get in an Al Gore-stampeding panic about it.

Anonymous said...

Yes, I agree that all alarmist, leftist, scientists agree that we need to fund their research at high levels....

The problem is that we just don't understand what is going on, but that doesn't stop the funding hogs from demanding, guess what, more funding....

What is really scary is the level to which they will make political statements to get their money...

greg said...

I think the environmental community (whatever the hell that means) should be very proud of its accomplishments. In the 40 years since Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, concern for fuel efficiency, pesticide use, oil comsumption, water conservation and so on, has risen so much to the point that a republican president is now touting he benefits of hydrogen fuel cells and energy conservation. Instead the "Al Gore Environmantalists" continue to spew doomsday messages that scare away reasonable people who would otherwise be open to common sense talk about conservation. We should celebrate how far we've come in the last 100 years since the days of TR and Gifford Pinchot instead of refusing to admit that we're doing better.

Jeff said...

It seems that the posts are offering a false choice---either you opt for "scare tactics" or George Bush his policies. I don't know whether or not the science behind climate change is correct. I also realize that past forecasts of environmental doom have been extraordinarily wrong. It does seem that the prudent choice---is to assume that the scientists are on to something.

If they are right (and we all hope they are not), then voluntary actions will not be enough. With gas prices soaring and the situation in Iran being what it is--doesn't it make geo-political and environmental sense for the federal government to heavil invest in developing alternative energies?

Al Gore might annoy you and his documentary might be alarmist---but don't let the messenger and his logic undermine what should make good sense---we need to find different sources of energy and the sooner the better. This is a case where tree huggers and geo-political strategists can agree.

greg said...

Jeff, I definitely agree with you that the choices we have are not limited to Bush or Gore's interpretation of the problem or lack thereof. I just think that if the president, and a republican one at that, is mentioning environmental issues then we have come a long way and that is ground for some encouragement.

dcat said...

I agree with Jeff -- and have to wonder about people who are judgiing a documentary they have not seen. I am more than willing to go even further and say that while it might be convenient to couch Al Gore as some sort of extremist, that in fact he is not, and that in years past he has been both among the most respected environmentalist voices in the senate, and that he has been right far more than wrong. It has become popular to tout Gore as somehow representing a fringe in recent years by certain aspects of the right. But in terms of any actual tangible measurement such depictions are simply not true. More to the point, they are a lie.

Further, is it actually true that the bulk of scientists in previous decades saw cooling as the biggest problem? Not if yesterday's Times is any indication, in which in the Week in Review they went back and showed that global warming has been a concern since the 1930s. That someone made a ton of money off of a book does not mean that that view was the overwhelmingly held mainstream view. This strikes me as a case of really bad use of anecdotal evidence. using disaster films as evidence of scientific trends is, well, stupid. I hope we are all aware that the people who make disaster movies and the people who engage in science are not the same people.

Beyond that, I'm just zany enough to take a Whiggish view of science -- if the contest is between science now and science, let's say in the 1970s, I'm going to assert that given the nature of scientific knowledge, we know more now.

dcat

dcat said...

By the way, I'd be willing to bet vast sums of money that it is false that "the same scientists almost en masse" advocated cooling trends. I would instead believe that they were different scientists. I doubt that global warming scientists now are all 70 year olds wqho in 1976 were writing articles advocating precisely the opposite of what we now argue. I'd be willing to see evidence to the contrary in the form of, say, the name of two names.

dcat

Tom said...

Jeff,

Not a single person here set up the scare tactics vs. George W. Bush's environmental policies choice you mention. Greg's point was only that Bush's enviromental policies have been part of a long line of improving efforts in American history. We are all suporters of continuing that effort.

The problem is that the radical environmentalists who occupy the same sandbox that Al Gore is playing in right now do not believe in being responsible with resources. They do not believe in conservation so that we have resources for a long, long time. They are a mob that buys into every theory, crackpot or not, about humans (particularly the United States) damaging the environment. Too many of them think the existence of humans is the problem. These screaming lunatics have taken over high profile positions in the environmentalist movement and are impossible to work with in any constructive way.

Don't worry, responsible people will continue to develop ways to improve conservation efforts and alternative energy sources (I'm a supporter of nuclear energy, among a lot of other things). But Al Gore, The Day After Tomorrow, and all the other crazies most assuredly will not be the reason why.

Tom said...

How much money Derek?

Remember, all I said is that scientists thought cooling trends were a cause for concern because the temperature of the Earth decreased from 1945 to 1970. Two main theories were put out about the coolint, and scientists were interested in their intersection. One focused on the tilt of the Earth; the other looked at the human-created emission of aerosols and other particularates in the atmosphere blocking sun rays and cooling the earth. At the same time, they wondered what CO2 emmissions and the greenhouse effect would do.

As far as names being concerned with cooling trends and then turning their focus toward warming, try Cesare Emiliani, Stephen H. Schneider, and the entire National Science Foundation. Look it up.

montana urban legend said...

Any cooling that could have come about from thick smokestack emissions dark enough to block out substantial amounts of sunlight were since reduced substantially. On purpose. By direct, massive environmental action. So the "alarmist" label doesn't fly. Man did intervene in the course of his own activities and the results of doing so can't be chalked up to an "unknowable" nature knowing best.

Try again maybe?

The concern over CFC-containing aerosols was in their propensity to eat up ozone, which again - was an activity that has also since been successfully phased out. If that's what you're referring to, any charges of alarmism would have to be balanced against skin cancer rates only now having reached their zenith as a result. Sorry if that's not you meant, since it's just confusing to read as aerosols and particulates are two entirely different things.

montana urban legend said...

Your touting of nuclear as an "alternative" is interesting. Since it's already competitive with fossil fuels the issue has more to do with the waste than its utility. Have you seriously thought about what people might want to do with 100,000 years-worth of radioactive sludge? I gather the responsible people might see more profit in making renewables more widespread and competitive, as demonstrated by the already competitive marginal rates of wind-produced energy.

Tom said...

I'm a little confused about why anyone is getting worked up about Greg, me, and others saying that we want to continue to take responsible steps to conserve resources and have clean air and water independent of doomsday scenarios and other scare-mongering.

In any case, you might want to save the smug 'try again maybes?', unless you are prepared to argue that the global cooling trend that stopped before we cleaned up emissions was reversed by us cleaning up emissions.

Also, we've been over this territory before, I'm no scientist, but CFCs are just one form of aerosols, and not the form that scientists were concerned about when it came to global cooling. See S. Ichtiaque Rasool and Stephen H. Schneider, "Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide and Aerosols: Effects of Large Increases on Global Climate," Science, July 1971. According to Wikipedia, the authors wrote that increased aerosols "could decrease the mean surface temperature (of Earth) by as much as 3.5 C. If sustained over a period of several years, such a temperature decrease could be sufficient to trigger an ice age!"

Tom said...

Let me clarify: I'm a supporter of a renewing the effort to see if we can develop a form of nuclear energy that creates less waste. I'm just saying it shouldn't be taken off the table, that's all. Since the sun powers pretty much everything else on the planet, I think we ought to be able to figure out a cheaper way to make use of solar energy, too. Wind? That too. Geo-thermal, tidal, hydrogen, ethanol? Yes, yes, yes, yes.

I'm for it all, unfortunately the ability to develop such technologies is well beyond my finger-counting math and high school chemistry. But I'll buy the stuff when it becomes affordable, I promise that much.

greg said...

One of the most important things I have learned is that aside from all the talk of nuclear, tidal, solar, wind etc., and waiting for the government to do something is to do it ourselves. Turn off your water heater when it's not in use. Insulate your water heater. Line dry your clothes when possible. I've started driving slower...about 60 mph and I get better gas mileage and the stress level while driving has gone way down (I don't care when people are passing me, I only get ticked when I'm trying to pass people). Buy some solar panels for your house or a wind turbine if you have the room and it's efficient to do so (i.e. you get a significant about of wind). These things are not expensive or hard to do and by doing them you will save not only energy but money and set an example.

montana urban legend said...

I guess I'm not sure what counts as alarmism. It is certainly harder to argue what is an appropriate level of emotional response, than it is to talk about the facts, policies and trends that trigger them.

I think Derek's point about improvements in science is important. So as long as Steyn's and Harris' admonishment against what they consider to be excessive reactions doesn't mean it was any more wrong to clean up emissions than it was for 2 scientists to publish what I see as a single paper you've cited from 1971, then I can see where you're coming from. I certainly don't think it's wrong to be concerned about carbon emissions and reverse the trend if possible.

I think one criticism - if you don't mind - is that I'm seeing as much lumping here as one could surmise that environmentalists may promote in the criticism cited in the original post. That is to say, wind, solar, tidal, nuclear, hydrogen and ethanol can't be lumped together as being singularly better than the current mix; it's important to consider that they all have implications that are worth considering individually. Or less broadly, at least, into renewables and non-renewables. I don't think anything should be taken off the table - so to speak - and certainly the private sector can stand as much encouragement (through trading permits, etc.) But when it comes to how the government prioritizes initiatives, it's important subsidize the research of technologies that are likely to be much more productive in the near future - promoting wind for instance, than approaches that would be much more theoretical - such as somehow reducing the amount of waste produced from nuclear energy.

Also, the environmentalists have a damn good point in that carbon dioxide is not seen as a pollutant, or "dirty," and therefore - in the public's mind - not seen as a reason to be concerned about its continually increasing concentration in the atmosphere. Scientists need to look at trends as much as they do snapshot pictures of data. And in this case, it's fair to say that our energy markets are too dependent on producing it to avoid a scenario where the amount of carbon could be problematic. Will it be a "doomsday" scenario? It's hard to say, of course, but at that point it would probably be much too late to reverse the giant science experiment we subjected the earth to. I think people need to see things to understand this, and if it takes Greenland melting first, then oh well - but by such a time no one would be complaining that scientists were overly alarmist. They would be saying just the opposite. I think that's the balance the public needs to appreciate, rather than focusing on whether possible scenarios are too "scary." Science needs to consider every possibility of a situation regardless of whatever emotional reactions it might produce while considering those possibilities.

Anonymous said...

I think we are losing sight of the fact that anyone who says "if you love your children, you must see this movie" in order to keep himself a political entity....can, as Tom showed recently, quite easily be called an alarmist!!!

montana urban legend said...

Of course, such a person could also just be acting out of nothing more than an appeal to his own personal ambition.

montana urban legend said...

Also, at least one of the excerpts specifically put forward the idea that it was hubris for people to believe that they could have so significant an effect on the planet as to warrant concern over natural cycles we take for granted, or that such concerns were borne out of an inflated sense of self-importance. I certainly find this idea at least as outlandish or impractical as any promotional slogans Al Gore has stated about the movie or even by the release of his movie itself - or the dramatizations depicted therein.

Individual efforts noted to reduce non-renewable energy consumption are laudable, but they all go back to whether or not enormous rates of carbon production are worth taking seriously. Climatologists consider this an issue distinct from other indicators of environmental quality, and individual efforts alone won't come near reversing the trend at current rates. If it's important enough to be considered by governments, there's a reason why, and it seems the debate here is whether or not those reasons are overblown. In considering whether or not those reasons are overblown, I think the analogy to any "global cooling" phenomenon is not particularly apt.

greg said...

I'd like to see the label "environmentalist" carry less baggage with it. It scares people away from trying to do their part. They think that if they do anything that would label them an environmentalist they will be seen as a (OK Montana, I won't use Al Gore as an example) Julia Roberts-type gasbag, a Druid, or David Brower. That need not be the case. We need to get to the point where consciously reducing wasteful consumption is no longer seen as "whacko" but rather, simply good sense.

montana urban legend said...

That would certainly be nice, but the problem is that it was the political right in the 1980's that slowly started escalating this demonization of environmental concerns and they continue it today for obvious reasons. There is a financial stake in carbon-production industries, one that the rest of our current economy is dependent on as well. So with the support that's built in the scientific community for various kinds of data showing how destructive these trends could be (and ultimately to the economy as well, mind you), the right resorted to a tactic they're trying elsewhere: debating the perception of science as an institution or the public's confidence therein as opposed to actually debating the science itself. The original posting exemplifies that.

If I thought individual self-sacrifice and financial incentives alone would make a dent in the problem (which I'm all for, BTW - as well as consumer initiatives), I wouldn't have put up the last 5 posts. But the problem is, they currently can't. At this point it would take massive government intervention to do much about what's happening and that's what ruffles so many feathers.

If labels have become pejorative then the right needs to be taken to task for changing the tactics to one of semantics and perception. I think former head of the EPA Christine Todd Whitman would agree.

Tom said...

Thank you for proving the point about the lack of humility in the face of nature and the difficulty of enacting or even discussing reasonable, gradual, economically feasible, and effective environmental actions and policies.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go cash my checks from BP and Shell.

montana urban legend said...

We did discuss them. We discussed how these straightjacket parameters you've arbitrarily slapped on them wouldn't do much to reduce carbon levels. As usual your easily moved emotions got in the way of explaining why you didn't like that.

And if you'll excuse me, I'll go watch nature "intelligently design" someone whose humility extends to not taking the terms of every discussion personally. Or humbly invite Greenland's glaciers to pretty please not melt with sugar on top. Or something.

What's to get offended about anyway? Do you actually admire the administration's approach? If so, why not address why Whitman, Schwarzenegger, et al, don't. Take up your one-paper citation with them. Or humbly admit that you can't much advance your own arguments on this. Mother Nature, (to whom I can equally and just as meaninglessly appeal) awaits.

greg said...

I disagree that personal self-sacrifice and financial incentives cannot make a dent in the problem. One, while I don't have any numbers to prove it, I doubt very highly that even a third of Americans consciously make an effort to reduce wasteful consumption, whether it be recycling or cutting personal energy consumption or buying locally grown produce. Two, once there is a majority of Americans doing so, collectively their voice will be heard by politicians and they will act and vote accordingly. Discounting personal responsibility and subsequent action as 'a nice gesture but useless so why bother?', does nothing. Taking my cloth bags to the supermarket with me does accomplish something, however little some may perceive it to be.

If the right is responsible for the stigma that has been attached to the environmentalist label (which I don't necessarily disagree with) then many on the left are responsible for exploiting the public's genuine concern for the quality of our environment for personal political gain. Do Al Gore and others really care about global warming? Probably. Are global warming and "environmentalism" empty rhetoric for many opportunistic politicians? I think so. I've seen both the right and the left undermine honest care and effort of concerned citizens.

Tom said...

Montana, I have no idea what you are talking about.

Greg, I agree wholeheartedly.

montana urban legend said...

People should feel good about their contributions, because - as I would offhandedly agree with you, consciousness is currently low and incentives could be much further internalized (decentralizing residential, renewable energy production, etc.) I'm all for it and do as much as I can in the ways you've mentioned.

I just think that there are so many other trends at work - longer commutes for your average worker and transportation being a large chunk of carbon emissions for one - that I can understand why cumulative carbon output continues to grow. I like what people do and the methods they continue to find at the individual and community level are encouraging. But my skepticism based on total national or global output is a different matter and ultimately, on a global analysis, what will count. I hope someday we will find a way; perhaps even through a series of smaller, decentralized initiatives. But we've been aware of how the trends were going and what problems they might present for at least a few decades now.

Tom's response doesn't surprise me as the original excerpts were not much more than an appeal to ignorance in the first place:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Appeal_to_ignorance

Tom said...

Readers,

While you are at Wikipedia, be sure to read the page on Global cooling. Also, I would recommend Michael Crichton's novel State of Fear. The novel itself is not very good, but the discussion of complex systems and the questions about the state of research on global warming are excellent (that's where a little humility is in order--in the face of the vast complexity of nature). Here is the webpage for the book, which unfortunately does not include the bibliography or other research that went into it. Crichton is a novelist first, but he is also a medical doctor and knows how to do scientific research, and he can present a very complex problem in more understandable terms. The biggest problem with the book is that it presents one side as universally rational and correct and the other as universally unhinged and wrong. Here is an overall unsympathetic review by an Earth Institute climate scientist that indicates that Crichton got some things wrong but did a pretty good job with presenting the scientific counterarguments to global warming (whether you think those arguments have any validity or not).

Keep in mind that throughout all of this no one has denied the existence of global warming, but only questioned the scare methods of people like Al Gore in discussing extremely complex issues. Everyone here has repeatedly advocated the continued development of cleaner and more efficient energy sources, including pointing out articles on flexible fuel vehicles, but some of us do not think the government of the United States can economically or effectively be the primary driving force to change global system trends. The government has to play a role, as it has, but people as consumers have to want change to make change happen--and they have to do so around the world.

I'll let you all decide if all that is confused, ignorant, and emotional.

montana urban legend said...

I think it's worth noting that the Wikipedia page on Crichton also had 8 critical links of his arguments, 5 specifically linked to the novel. The UCSUSA and Pew Center links were probably the most comprehensive links for refutations of his assertions, the former specifically critical of his "cherry-picking" of evidence that they note in the novel. This is an especially important point, given that, complex systems - as they have rightly been referred to above - need to be analyzed in their entirety in order to draw realistic conclusions.

I am glad that more direct source links were made available as they direct us to focusing on the actual evidence available. It's helpful to look at the documentation that's available as close as possible to the actual source of the research.

I'll refrain from excessive amusement over the irony of a science fiction writer - famous for such improbable thrillers as Jurassic Park and The Andromeda Strain - as a spokesperson for not using science as a form of scare tactics.