Saturday, December 19, 2009

My Take on the "Whole AGW Scheme"

Recently I've been poking around on some political sites, looking for a lively debate (I'll post more on this adventure very soon). I wandered over to the forums on Politico where I was asked about my "opinion of the whole AGW scheme". I obliged. Here it is.

Regarding Anthropogenic Global Warming there are two main questions before us:

1. Are we human beings causing a rapid increase in global temperatures?

2. What, if anything, should we do about it?

In this post, I'll just look at question #1. This is not really a political question. Regardless of what I think, either all that carbon we're burning is causing the atmosphere to heat up or it isn't. Is this real or not? The honest answer is: How should I know? I don't spend my time examining polar ice cores or tracking ocean temperates.

There are a wide array of factors that have changed the earth's climate over the years. There were ice ages and warmer epochs long before humans were around. We are not the only agent of climate change. But we should take no comfort from this. The natural forces that have caused the earth's climate to change have occurred over a much longer span -- tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands or millions of years. On those occasions where the climate did change rapidly, the record suggests this was very bad news for the creatures who had the misfortune to be around at the time.

Let's just concern ourselves with the next 100 years or so, a blink in history, but it's our blink. Climate worrywarts estimate the average global temp will maybe increase around 5° F by 2100. That sounds like a small change. You'll never detect it standing in your yard. It's certainly not a threat to all human life. But still, if we believe the climatologists, even a 5° bump will trigger massive coastal flooding, crazy weather system, fresh water shortages, agricultural disruption and a host of other problems we might prefer to avoid.

A considerable majority of the people who spend their time on this issue are in agreement, and have been for years now. Global warming due to human activity is real. And it's going to cause some big, big problems for us humans if we don't do something about it. The question for us is, should we believe them?

Even if climate change is happening, it is happening at a pace that's hard for us as individuals to perceive. Gradual changes that happen over decades may trigger big environmental changes. But as we live day to day, we don't see it. We can't see it. But if we think about aggregate human activity, it's not that hard to imagine. For over a century now, we've been extracting oil and coal and other carbon-rich fuels from the ground, and burning them as fast we can. Currently, we burn about 85 million barrels of oil a day. We have massive operations going to pull these fuels out of the ground and we use them to run our cars, and heat our homes, and power our power plants. We've been doing this on massive scale for a while now and have every intention of continuing to do it. 85 million barrels. Every day.

Even if we don't know the exact net effect of releasing all these greenhouse gasses is, we know the basics of how these gasses trap solar radiation and keep the planet warm and habitable. We also know that we are extracting and burning fuels, creating more greenhouse gasses, as fast as we can. And that's pretty fast.

And why wouldn't we? Oil is great stuff. From the industrial revolution to the information age-- modernity, life as we know it, is made possible by energy. Power. Oil, and its carbon-rich fossil fuel friends, are the cheapest, most efficient, most scalable, most plentiful sources of energy we've got.

It is precisely because fossil fuels are so wonderful that we really don't want to hear about the nasty side-effects. It would be really, really swell if we could just burn all the oil we want as fast as want, for as long as we want and not ever have to worry about all that additional carbon in our atmosphere. That's a pleasant thought. But wishing won't make it so.

Wishful thinking will make us want to listen to those who tell us what we want to hear. As usual, there is no shortage of people willing to tell us there is a free lunch, that we don't have to sacrifice or work together. You can do what you want. Al Gore is a jerk, and bore, and Democrat. Don't trust him. Look, newly reveled emails show us that some scientists are cleaning up and spinning some of their data. Now we get to ignore everything they and their colleagues have ever done. And every other climate scientist is probably doing the same thing. Let's ignore them too. They can't even get each and every scientist, pundit, blogger and ex-vice-presidential candidate to agree there is problem! Clearly this is very controversial at best. We should probably just hold off and study the problem some more. Let's wait until everyone agrees. We'll do something then.

Unfortunately, the AGW deniers have a lot more media attention than scientific credibility. There are over 180 countries taking part in the Copenhagen conference. All of those countries are populated by citizens that don't want to be told to cut back, pay more, or use less. All of those countries have scientists who are telling their leaders that this is real, and we need to do something about it. I hope they are wrong. But I believe they are right.

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