Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Questions About Global Warming

One of the problems in being a good citizen in the 21st century is that it’s more than a full-time job. Take global warming. If human industry is making the planet warmer, dangerously so, that demands toil, blood, sweat, and tears in volume unprecedented even in world War II. It raises cans of worms relating to problems of capital and ownership whose opening will, themselves, cause pain. If there is no real warming, or if there is warming that’s merely climatic noise, then arraying resources and labor, legislating and enforcing new customs, and negotiating the surrender of national sovereignties, may be better left undone. We can say much the same for any number of social challenges, and it’s enough to make you wish for monarchy.

For me, the greenhouse effect has been a “glass bead game,” an interesting intellectual puzzle, an idea-toy acquired from a magazine article in 1979. I’ve been a partisan of the environmentalist side, saying essentially, “It’s a reasonable hypothesis. Since the consequences of inaction (if we are truly warming the planet) are dire, and since I value conservation anyway, I favor acting as though it were a fact." I’m going through a kind of scared period in my life, and suddenly climate disruption seems too real.

Arguing in my mind for the fallacy of the climate change argument is S. Fred Singer, briefly, in of all places the Costco Connection, a magazine sent to members of the giant buying club. Singer does not say much: Earth’s climate fluctuates naturally, there was a period of warming which ended a decade ago, modern society requires a lot of power, and people speaking for conservation and change are “political.” To support this, in the brief magazine interview, Singer says, "Thirty years of comprehensive satellite observations show a warming in the northern part, little warming in the tropics and the southern portion -- and a distinct cooling in Antarctica." This led me to his website, sepp.org, where I found two items from January 26, 2002, referencing cooling in the Antarctic, including one which quotes two academics, Antarctic researchers writing in the January 18, 2002 Science, as saying that the Ross ice stream flows have halted or slowed, and the Western Antarctic Ice Sheet is thickening.

Singer has been an academic hired gun for a variety of energy lobbies, as well as the tobacco industry and Sun Myung Moon, but it would be a mistake to dismiss what he says because he says it for interested hardball players, or has been mistaken in the past. Here are the questions that the Costco interview raises for me:

What does Singer mean by “thirty years of comprehensive satellite observation”? Which thirty years does he mean? What do the satellites measure, and how? What does “comprehensive” mean  -- for instance could we look up the temperature 3700 feet above Fort Smith, Arkansas at 11:30 PM, June 17, 1993? Maybe I’m picking nits, but I honestly don’t know what this means, and I mean to find out.

Are Singer’s claims true? Are they interpretations of data that might have different meanings for someone else?

How much did the northern part (hemisphere?) warm? The tropics and southern part? How do these square with climate models that researchers have used to predict climate change?

The distinct Antarctic cooling Singer refers to a January 2002 article in the online version of the journal, Nature. The link is broken, but the SEPP website quotes it as saying that “Antarctica has cooled measurably during the last 35 years -- despite a global average increase in air temperature of 0.06 degrees centigrade during the 20th century (is this figure correct?) -- making it unique among Earth’s continental landmasses.” The SEPP website says that this cooling was measured in Antarctica’s interior, unlike earlier measurements, which were taken on the peninsula, which, of course, reaches toward the equator. The same article is quoted to say that Western Antarctic Ice Sheet is breaking up as part of an older, non-human-driven process. Stewart Brand, writing in 2008 and 2009 (seven years after the Science and Nature articles) says that Ross is breaking up, and West is breaking up. The 2002 Science article says that Ross’s flows have stopped or slowed, and West is thickening. How is Ross doing now? How is the West Antarctic Ice Sheet doing now? What was the case in 2002? Have these two ice sheets behaved consistently in the past seven years? Were the Antarctic temperatures inconsistent with 2002 climate models? If temperatures in Antarctica are not consistent with 2002 climate models, has theory developed in the intervening years to account for them.

Singer would, no doubt, be able to make any arguments I could in support of a belief in anthrogenic climate change, yet he is completely dismissive of the idea. When I list the anecdotes that tempt me to believe that human industry is disturbing the planet’s climate, it is much longer than his. In persuading Costco members against organizing around greenhouse gas reduction, is Singer representing the greater warming in the north, and the cooling in Antarctica as having more weight than arguments carbon-reduction advocates might make?


GooseBreeder said...

Monarchy usually makes it worse, I take it you jest?

Tom Roark said...

Definitely. But doesn't a jester imply as monarch?