Play it safe on the environment

As the Journal-World has seen fit to print two extended pieces by non-scientists on global climate change recently (George Gurley and George Will), it seems reasonable to have a reply from a scientist, even if not a climate scientist. The Gurley piece contains some entertaining sarcasm, but no substance, so I won’t bother to reply except that he makes the usual mistake of confusing short-term weather variation with climate change.

I will try to address the arguments of George Will in order. Note that it is always harder to explain science than to express doubts.

He says we can’t reduce our per-person carbon emissions to a much lower level. My great-grandfather dug coal in Scranton, Kansas. Everyone needed coal. We have a chance to live much more efficiently, and develop new energy sources by advancing technology. Does anyone over 30 doubt the possibility of great technological change in their own lifetime?

Will, of course, uses the current flap over stolen e-mails in Britain. I remind the readers that there are many, many separate lines of evidence for upcoming intense human-caused global warming. Scientists feel under siege and unable to compete with politicized, coal-oil funded attacks. Although some people overreacted, all the evidence stands.

He says that scientists have never before been in such lockstep about things. Sure we have been: about the Earth orbiting the Sun, about its cause in gravity, about things around us being made of atoms, about evolution as the mode of development of life, and many other things. Most of these don’t get attacked publicly — except sometimes evolution, usually for religious rather than economic reasons. It is sad that “conservatives” have aligned themselves with the anti-science forces on two of these things, which tends to give them a bad name by association, and obscures those good points they may otherwise make.

He alludes to, without bringing out fully, the 1975 era fear of an ice age. What was it really? It turns out to be a creature of Newsweek and other mass media. The scientists of the time, in a NAS/NRC report, listed a number of possible future sudden changes including ice ages and global warming, but concluded that they didn’t know enough to make any reliable predictions. How refreshingly honest this is. And, as sometimes happens, we know a lot more now. Will does not understand that we actually increase our knowledge in the natural sciences.

The next decade will be a challenge. Carbon emissions need to drop at a time when countries with large populations are trying to develop. It is likely that an 80-year cycle in solar activity will contribute a temporary cooling effect via a reduction in sunspot activity, which may level off the warming trend for a decade or so, giving the deniers more ammunition to confuse the issue.

Many discussions make the mistake of trying to explain it all with statistics. There is physics here. Greenhouse gases act like the non-tinted window glass in your car. They let the heat and light radiation go in, but the different form of radiation that might cool the car can’t get out. Your car interior roasts. This is a fundamental mechanism which comes from carbon dioxide and methane, and can be calculated. Long-term global warming was predicted more than 100 years ago by a chemist.

If we proceed with carbon reduction, we may be able to stave off the worst effects of climate change, which I won’t list here. If we proceed and the climate scientists were wrong, we leave a world that is cleaner and in which our coal, oil and gas resources will be able to last for hundreds of years.

If we don’t proceed and the climate scientists are wrong, the climate should be OK, but supply won’t let us fuel gasoline-powered cars much longer. Lots of countries will burn coal. I remember soot and coal smoke from my childhood, and it’s not nice. If we don’t proceed and the scientists are right, we get a double disaster — all the dirt with disastrous climate change in many locations, and even death for some.

I think of it as rather like us having a revolver pointed at our heads with some full and empty chambers. Ignoring the consensus of climate science is rather like pulling the trigger. In my estimation, this is like playing Russian Roulette with five chambers loaded.

Suppose the climate deniers are right? Now there’s only a small chance the climate scientists are right, say one chamber in six loaded. Would you pull the trigger?