I'm James Maxey, the author of numerous novels of fantasy and science fiction. I use this site to discuss a wide range of topics, with a heavy emphasis on cranky, uninformed rants about politics and religion and other topics that polite people attempt to avoid. For anyone just wanting to read about my books, I maintain a second blog, The Prophet and the Dragon, where I keep the focus solely on my fiction. I also have a webpage where both blogs stream, with more information about all my books, at jamesmaxey.net.


Wednesday, July 04, 2012

Has Global Warming been Debunked?

I've long been skeptical of the theory that global warming is man-made. More accurately, I've long been skeptical of the evidence. The theory itself seems reasonable. We live in what is essentially a very, very big greenhouse. The temperature of the air we breathe is determined in part by the mix of gasses present in our atmosphere. Water vapor traps a lot of heat, as does methane, and, to a much smaller degree, carbon dioxide. We live in an era when modern life is changing the ratio of all of these gasses. We are liberating carbon that has long been trapped beneath the surface. Our modern agriculture has specialized in producing animals that produce a lot of methane. And even water vapor has new outlets into the atmosphere thanks to human activity, as anyone who has ever driven past a factory belching steam must surely have noticed. A lot of that water is taken from ancient aquifers far below ground, with molecules that haven't had a shot at the sky for millions of years,

But, of course, nothing is simple. Sure, our livestock farts out a lot of methane, but so did bisons and passenger pigeons, and we turned off those spigots. We may pull a lot of carbon out of the ground as coal and oil, but we take a lot of carbon out of the atmosphere by cutting down forests to build houses and print books. The new forests that grow in the wake of our activities pull a lot of carbon out of the air. As for water vapor, there is so much water in the atmosphere that human actions can barely be measured.

As for whether the world is getting warmer, I think that's pretty well established. There's a long set of non-biased data that point to a fairly consistent warming trend, at least in the northern hemisphere, dating back to the 1850s. But, of course, this follows a centuries long cooling trend known as the "Little Ice Age." The problem with figuring out if human actions lead to climate change is that there is no such thing as climate stability. Our present warming trend could just be part of the background variation inherent in our climate.

But, perhaps because some global warming proponents are seizing on our current heat wave as evidence of man made climate change, I've noticed some skeptics adopting some of the same religious ferver they denounce in their opponents. The other day, I read an article talking about how all the various climate models on computers had been debunked. If the computers got it wrong, there's no man-made climate change! None! But, that argument is a false one if you give it even half a moments thought. The reality of changing climate has nothing at all to do with the existence of good computer models. The mastodons didn't look once at a chart showing the ice age might be coming to an end, but it ended anyway. Just because we can't model the effects of human activity upon the atmosphere isn't evidence that there aren't any such effects.

I think skepticism is healthy. Being skeptical of your own skepticism isn't a bad thing either. It's easy to argue against man-made global warming just for the satisfaction of poking holes in the near religious certainty of the proponents. The sky-is-falling doomsday predictions are fun to shoot down. But, don't lose sight of a simple truth: Natural variation might explain all the climate change we've experienced in recent centuries. But, it's also just as valid to argue that natural variation might mask genuine long term harm we're inflicting upon the earth by tweaking the atmosphere a little more each year. Cool-headed, reasoned certainty that man isn't causing long term climate change seems to me to be just as foolish a position as feverish certainty that we are.

If I may use a few analogies, climate change alarmists may be Chicken-Littles, panicking over a random string of hot days. But climate change skeptics might be the proverbial frog in the pot of water, never taking action to save themselves as the temp climbs slowly to boiling.


Gray Rinehart said...

Nice post, James! I appreciate it any time someone recognizes there is such a thing as natural variation.


James Maxey said...

Yes, but the existence of natural variation doesn't negate the possible existence of artificially induced variation.

The question I would ask of skeptics (which I often ask of myself) is, what would convince me? How could I tease out a man made climate signal from the background noise? I think, over a time scale of centuries, it would be possible to use satellite data comparing Mars and Earth. Presumably, climate on Mars is driven purely by the sun without any human interference. If we found Mars on a century long cooling trend while Earth was on a century long warming trend, I would be much closer to being convinced, assuming I was still alive.

This is, of course, one problem with trying to figure out climate change. Within the span of a human life, most variability is weather. Climate change occurs over longer time scales than are useful for responding if we are, in fact, changing the climate.

Mr. Cavin said...

I find that the ice core data that has been gathered, assuming we are reading it correctly, convinces me of the steady warming trend, but at present I am unclear whether they can measure a time when the world was not warming. Fifty thousand years ago is not far enough back for gathering anything like control data.

Also, I am uncomfortable with how the data, while indeed showing the occasional acceleration of the warming trend, in no way matches up with known acceleration in industrialization and amounts of greenhouse matter being put into the sky. Seems like we've been steadily warming since two thousand years ago, and two hundred years ago, and twenty years ago.

Also, I don't care. I can't imagine a scenario in which human growth has not had an impact on the environment in which that growth has happened. Hell, I can sense our impact in billowing fumes and thousands of square miles of heat-reflecting concrete and the loss of unimaginable acres of oxygen-spewing forests and blah blah blah. I cannot imagine why it would not be helpful to limit our negative fallout, whether that is endangering the planet or not. Right? What's the punchline? "Aw crap, we made the world a better place for no reason."

James Maxey said...

Well said, Mr. Cavin. We don't need the threat of catastrophe to make the choice to better manage our waste, be it waste gasses, waste chemistry (like the fertilizers, mercury, and hormones we introduce into our water cycles), or wasted wilderness (even if you sail to the furthest spot you can reach away from fellow men, you find plastic trash floating in the waves).

I feel like global warming alarmists tried to use the threat of crisis to change human behavior, but wound up desensitising the public with too many false claims for the short scale. We shouldn't need the threat of doomsday to persuade us to live more responsibly.

Jasmine Lindros said...

Climate science is not a well-developed science - its predictive models depend on computers, which are WAY too recent - so what climatologists did was cobble together a bunch of once-unrelated facts into a single coherent (mostly) theory. Global warming is basically just statistical correlation, with a little science thrown in. Unfortunately, so is the link between smoking and lung cancer - just as no one has ever built a factory, and watched local temperatures skyrocket as a result, no one has ever bathed healthy lung tissue in Marlboro smoke and watched the cells turn cancerous. The methodology and linkage are the same, and if you believe smoking causes lung cancer you can't NOT believe in global warming. I recommend everyone watch "An Inconvenient Truth" and try to understand that climate scientists generally agree Gore is about 85% right. This is a stunning achievement among politicians, who normally get about 30% right, try to spin another 40%, and hope the remaining 30% is forgotten.

I disagree that global warming is alarmist. I was "alarmed" that Reagan would include hopelessly unrealistic estimates and outright fabrications to achieve his laughably "balanced" budgets, but the rest of the country didn't care. Thirty years later, we STILL haven't paid off Reagan's debts - was it alarmist, or merely prudent, to wish to avoid increasing the national debt? Was it alarmist to wish to avoid structural defects in our appropriations process that enshrine a propensity for deficit spending decades into the future? Thirty years from now, will our kids consider global warming fears "alarmist" or merely objective evaluations of developing climatic trends? Is it alarmist, or merely prudent, to object to well-established behavior patterns that continue to produce more greenhouse gasses than our planet consumes, thereby establishing an ever-steepening warming trend? Please try to educate yourself further, Mr. Maxey - skepticism and education both improve in the presence of the other.

James Maxey said...

"Please try to educate yourself further, Mr. Maxey - skepticism and education both improve in the presence of the other."

Jasmine, I can assure you that I will continue to educate myself. I just can't promise that further education will leave me more convinced that we are heading for a climate catastrophe, or less convinced.

So far, the more I've educated myself, the more I'm convinced the earth is in a long term warming period. In fact, I'm convinced the earth has warmed a lot since around 1850. I will even admit that human activity has lead to some horrible climate catastrophes, such as the dust bowl and the current atrocities inflicted on the Gulf of Mexico. Outside the US, just go look at the Aral Sea for a mind-boggling instance of climate change... oh, wait, you can't, because humans drained it in a matter of decades.

And yet, I'm not an alarmist because humanity lives among unfolding catastrophes daily and somehow manages to plug along. The coastlines will shift, and we'll move. Crops will stop growing in Texas, and suddenly Canada will double it's crop yields. We are stupid enough to spoil our environment on a daily basis, but clever enough to adapt and even thrive amid the ruins.

Right now, we are able to put a lot of CO2 into the air because coal, oil, and gas are relatively cheap. But, oil is already getting more expensive, and as we shift away from oil to coal and gas, we'll suck through those reserves and their prices will go up. This will occur against a backdrop where solar technology and battery development will continue to improve in performance and price. Completely without any government action (which plainly isn't going to occur on a global basis), fossil fuels will get more expensive and renewables will get cheaper. For the next few decades, fossil fuels will continue to dominate, because our infrastructure is built around them. But 30 years from now? 50? I suspect that burning rocks to heat water to make electricity will seem as odd as burning whale oil in lanterns seems to us.