Play it safe on the environment

December 12, 2009


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?

Melott is a professor of physics and astronomy at Kansas University.


Dan Eyler 8 years, 6 months ago

This article speaks volumes to the environmental movement to remove the decisions from the individual and to empower the government to take total control over your lives. The professor of physics doesn't see the solution in the people but in the government through indoctrination by the University and the public schools. There is no discussion about the cost to the individual. He pretends that there will be no impact to our lives. The cost will be staggering to the average middle class individual and the poor. The global energy solution will be in the hands of the government and not the individual. If this technology is real and we can move away from our current energy sources than we as individuals should be able to go out and buy it. The solar panels should be affordable. I should be able to purchase one as easy as I can buy a water heater. It should be as easy to install as a microwave or a refrigerator. I should be able to install a wind mill in my back yard. It should be as easy as installing a clothesline. But is isn't because there is no government funded technology that allows this. So these brain storming physicists and scientists who stand on the roof tops screaming the earth is coming to an end really have no solution except controlling the individual, taxing them into submission and depleting their ability to control their own lives. The physicist needs to put his brains where his mouth is. There is no technology that government wants to develop that allows you as in individual to make control of your own energy needs. If this were to happen than the flow of money to the physicist and his environmental friends would dry up. If you think our government is going to fix our energy issues simply ask them why it doesn't involve you. The only way it can involve you is if the government stops focusing on windmills and solar panels covering our beautiful Kansas landscape and start putting the development and energy solution for the individual. I have a dishwasher, a microwave, a TV, and computer. I have a refrigerator and a stove. I have the sun and the wind but the physicist and all his wisdom doesn't want me to have the individual control over my energy needs because that will take away from the environmental agenda that doesn't include individual freedom.

George Lippencott 8 years, 6 months ago


I think you as a man of sciemce owe it to the policemakers to establish return on different remedial actions. We can not do it all and we will revolt if the cost is too high. What steps produce the most bang?

jafs 8 years, 6 months ago


You have the freedom to buy and install a solar-powered electrical system on your home right now.

The government offers rebates to help offset the costs.

How is this not helping the individual be more free?

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 8 years, 6 months ago

"There is no discussion about the cost to the individual. He pretends that there will be no impact to our lives."

To the contrary-- he quite clearly points out that the costs to the individual of unchecked global climate change will be enormous-- much greater than the costs of reducing our use of highly polluting fossil fuels which are being rapidly depleted any way.

Flap Doodle 8 years, 6 months ago

You may be willing to go back to pre-industrial times to satisfy the wild-eyed demands of the Goreacle. I'm not.

Chris Golledge 8 years, 6 months ago

Thank you Adrian.

Kansas, you and a lot of other people talk about the costs of emissions reduction, and use that as a reason not to do it. It would be better for us all if you considered the costs of not reducing emissions. It is all about risk assessment and risk management.

I've seen no one use this line of argument and, at the same time, demonstrate a good understanding of the science. It is OK to not understand the science; there aren't that many people who do. Most of us don't have an in depth understanding of the laws discovered by Faraday and Ohm either, but if 99 out 100 electricians determined that some wiring in our house was likely to cause a fire in the near future, we'd pay to have it fixed. It's not OK to ignore the risk and hope the problem never materializes; that's just childish.

tangential_reasoners_anonymous 8 years, 6 months ago

Ah, carbon-based life, in a carbon-rich environment...

Some like it HOT!

melott 8 years, 6 months ago

Just a few details: 1. Right now, the quickest and most cost-effective way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is conservation. You all know some of the steps: insulate your house, don't drive so much, eat less beef, recycle.... 2. The price of solar power is dropping slowly. There is research going on in our department which might make i t cheaper, but we have to try lots of different approaches, because in real research you don't know the answer until you do it. 3. If you worry about the independence of the USA, just wait till our foreign oil dependence gets worse.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 8 years, 6 months ago

Ah Oh-- You've gone and done it now. Pilgrim has pulled out his ultimate weapon-- his John Wayne impersonation.

You know, Pil, in the movies, they could edit out John's horse's manure. But when you go all John Wayne, it's all manure, all the time.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 8 years, 6 months ago

"Well, let's all defer to boohoozo, the resident expert on horse manure."

Whatever expertise I have, I owe to you, Pil.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 8 years, 6 months ago

"I don't trust some clown in Copenhagen to tell us what those alternatives have to be."

With that, you have clearly demonstrated that you have no idea what the purpose of those meetings is.

Richard Heckler 8 years, 6 months ago

Debunking Misinformation About Stolen Climate Emails

The manufactured controversy over emails stolen from the University of East Anglia's Climatic Research Unit has generated a lot more heat than light over the past two weeks.

Experts at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) have concluded that while the emails "do raise some valid concerns about scientific integrity, they do not indicate that climate data and research have been compromised."

UCS's analysis of the emails and the debate surrounding them aims to correct popular misconceptions about what the emails say, put them in scientific context and explain the importance of scientific integrity.

Media outlets are getting the story wrong. These emails don't demonstrate anything wrong with global warming data.

Scientists didn't "trick" anyone or "hide" anything. Scientists are talking about understanding our climate, not hiding anything. Some emails raise valid scientific concerns, but don't undermine the science. Science must be viewed in context to be properly understood. Groups misrepresenting these emails are overplaying their hand, demonstrating their desperation. The timing of releasing the stolen emails is suspicious. *Scientists are as human as anybody else.

Some news organizations have misreported critical aspects of the stolen email story. There is no evidence scientists did anything with temperature data they weren't already doing openly in peer-reviewed papers.

At this time, there is no evidence that scientists "fudged," "manipulated" or "manufactured" data. These unsupported claims, based on taking the emails out of context, are being promoted by long-time anti-science opponents of climate change legislation.

The U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the University of East Anglia and Penn State University are separately looking into the contents of the stolen emails to assess these claims.

remember_username 8 years, 6 months ago

Professor Melott, thanks for taking the time to write such a rational response to George Will's recent editorial. Unfortunately, the question of climate change has moved beyond science into the realm of personal philosophy, political ideology, and nationalism. Human nature has taken over human reason and the resulting compromise will probably be far from sufficient.

Flap Doodle 8 years, 6 months ago

merrill, you're forgetting that attribution thing again. Or were you the author of this statement posted on ucsusa dot org? Even though you may have gotten all excited about having a new piece of text to copy/paste to your heart's content, you should still acknowledge the original source.

anon1958 8 years, 6 months ago

Pilgrim2 (Anonymous) says…

If I don't pay the price, that's my choice, and my choice of alternatives. If I do pay the price, that, too, is my choice, and my choice of alternatives on how to pay for it. Ultimately, either way, it's still MY choice. And my response to having some clown in Copehagen tell me or any other US citizen which choice to make, under threat of property confiscation, imprisonment, or both, is still not just no, but HELL no!

Pilgrim2 has expressed concern that a meeting in Copenhagen is somehow going to have a pernicious impact on his/her personal liberty. This is really delusional thinking not to mention extreme paranoia.

People that espouse views like those of Pilgrim2 and then pull the "US Citizen card" are extremely interesting to me because they completely fail to understand that citizenship encumbers limits to liberty in the same way that it insures the protection of certain other liberties.

If Pilgrim and Tom ever make a trip to one of those evil european countries whose citizens they believe want to shackle them in the slavery of socialism, here is what they could learn: no one in copenhagen really gives a damn what some nitwit is doing in Kansas and whether or not the state has its roads paved or schools open.

Centerville 8 years, 6 months ago

Why won't they share their data? Why won't they share their code? If they were serious, that there's a real theory to prove/disprove, they'd gladly allow others to try to duplicate or disprove their findings. Whining about the polar bears doesn't prove anything if the AGW people think their work should be kept secret.

kenos 8 years, 6 months ago

The leaked emails do dispute the theory of global warming because they clearly show the data was fudged. Why is that so hard to understand? Mr. Mellot seems to think you have to be a climate scientist in order to come to an intelligent conclusion regarding this issue, and yet it was a climate scientist who originally fudged the data in order to fit the model of global warming. Furthermore, this is the misinformation I'd expect from the university: that we are not experts, and that we must rely on experts, like Mr. Melott, to tell us what to believe. The unfudged facts show that the earth has been cooling for the last nine years. How do greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, that Mr. Melott says cause the earth to heat, now start causing the earth to cool? I guess I need to be a climate scientist to understand this.

Flap Doodle 8 years, 6 months ago

For old times sake: “ 28 March 2009 at 6:40 p.m. beobachter (Anonymous) says… Ok, I'm done, you don't need to ban my account, I won't be back.”

melott 8 years, 6 months ago

Kenos, a few things: 1. Even if the data in this case was fudged (which I do not think the record shows), there are many lines of evidence for global warming caused by humans, not this one set. 2. Worldwide, not US average: 2000's decade the warmest on record. 2009 the second warmest year on record. 9 of the 10 wamest years are in the last decade. The US and Canada did not share this global average behavior--fluctuations move around. 3. Short-term changes will happen, and we may get one in the next decade from changes in the Sun, which may affect cosmic rays and thereby cloud cover. There is an 80 year cycle in Solar activity which reaches bottom soon. So it could really cool off a little--for awhile. I mentioned this in my editorial. 4. You don't need to be a climate scientist, which I am not (again see the editorial). Common sense will do. There are a number of different effects which may drive climate change: greenhouse gases, dust and soot in the air, changes in the Sun, and on long timescales the movement of the continents. I am sure there are more. They add up to the result. Greenhouse gas effects are important--without them the Earth would be a frozen ball. Too much, and all the ice on Earth will melt and we will have sudden changes in sea level, storms, and desertification. It just happens that we are making big changes to greenhouse gas levels, very fast.

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