Monday, March 1, 2010

Conveniently, I think Al Gore should go away but leave his message on the table.

Al Gore has an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times this morning. I saw that and I laughed a little inside. Al Gore's public history is mostly hilarious. I think people on both sides of the aisle laugh at Al Gore, if for different reasons. That being said, he made some salient points about climate change, addressing two of the most glaringly inaccurate public assumptions of late: 1. that the controversy over the data of one specific study somehow disproves 150 years of science pointing towards anthropogenic climate change, and 2. that two weeks of snowstorms in the Northeastern U.S. are enough evidence for conservative pundits to declare climate change a hoax.

He basically goes with, a let's calm down and go back to actual facts people argument. But as I got to the end of the rather lengthy piece and found myself nodding along with the points he was making (until he made some allusionary statement about the truth being inconvenient, at which time I simply buried my head in the crook of my arm and groaned), I began to question the effect of this article. In recent weeks, after feeling assaulted by the misinformed media questioning climate change, I welcome a well-reasoned Op-Ed piece on this issue. It was definitely needed. But in the Times coming from Al Gore? There is too much political controversy surrounding his political persona for anyone to take him seriously. He made his point in An Inconvenient Truth. After that, you are either for him or against him. He has political credentials, not academic or scientific ones. Therefore, if you are politically against him you are automatically going to be inclined to be against all of his ideas. That's just the way that the political system works here in the United States. So the argument becomes political fluff, making the Times' readership (most of whom I'm going to guess don't have much trouble buying the climate change argument anyway) feel better about themselves without actually making any moves towards reaching the people who could use convincing.

Climate change is an issue that really gets to me. I mean, it really gets my panties in a bunch. I spend a substantial amount of my time studying it. The science behind it, its effects on world weather patterns, the potential global economic problems that it could cause, the different ways of predicting what is going to happen, and how to deal with what is happening.

The first thing that sends me into a tizzy is when people refer to it as "global warming." As in, "Gosh, it's snowing outside, this must be proof that global warming is a myth made up by Al Gore." [It's funny because I started writing this post before Gore's Op-Ed showed up in the Times.] One, this is a logical fallacy. Two, just because Al Gore made a movie about it doesn't mean that he was the first one to believe in anthropogenic climate change. Three, the term global "warming" comes from the fact that there is an observed (very real and not debated at all) warming of the AVERAGE temperature of the earth. The question is why it is warming, not whether it is warming. And AVERAGE means over the whole earth, over the whole year. One snowstorm in Washington, D.C. does not a colder Earth make. But anyway, the term "global warming" was acknowledged as a misnomer quite a few years ago. It's climate change. Because there is a lot of climate changing going on that goes beyond you feeling like this summer was warmer than last. Changes in rainfall patterns are much more worrisome than two or three more super hot days in the summer (not really an indicator of climate change, that's regular weather patterns people).

In the words of this morning's piece:
The heavy snowfalls this month have been used as fodder for ridicule by those who argue that global warming is a myth, yet scientists have long pointed out that warmer global temperatures have been increasing the rate of evaporation from the oceans, putting significantly more moisture into the atmosphere — thus causing heavier downfalls of both rain and snow in particular regions, including the Northeastern United States. Just as it’s important not to miss the forest for the trees, neither should we miss the climate for the snowstorm.

You would think that basic high school math and/or common sense would be a prerequisite for getting a job sharing your opinion with the world. For example, let's take some of my favorite people, Bill O'Reilly and Sarah Palin. O'Reilly recently sat down with once-governor of Alaska Palin and discussed her exercise routine, terrible taste in movies, and a recent vacation that her family took to Hawaii (real policy concerns, ya know?). The discussed how terrible it was to go on vacation because they are so famous. And he suggested that next time she book a private Caribbean island, or go to Botswana. From that conversation I might assume that both understand the basic concept that there are places in the world that are on the whole warmer and more pleasant than say Washington, D.C. or Alaska. They are generally further towards the equator than we are here in the northern part of the country. What I don't understand is how one could reasonably make a conclusion about global temperature from one snowstorm in the winter (snow is normal!) in Washington, D.C. when one clearly understands that there are many different places in the world, and they all have weather too.

That point being made, there are veritable arguments against anthropogenic climate change; that being that it's not anthropogenic (doesn't stem from human industry). Well, that's pretty much the argument. Because doubting that the climate is changing is kind of like trying to argue that 2+2=5. You might be able to make some theoretical math argument for it, but in the real world, if you have two apple muffins and two blueberry muffins, you don't have 5 muffins. Thousands of years of climate data, plus basic physics, shows that the climate of the earth changes (remember Ice Ages?). This is a really cool map that shows a bunch of things, including changes in the orbit of the earth around the sun and the stages of glaciation (more or less ice in polar regions) over the last 1,000 years. All of these things vary. They go up and down. "Climate change" as such is not a new phenomenon (again, remember those things called Ice Ages?). So, therefore, there is an argument that climate change is not anthropogenic. But there isn't an argument that climate isn't changing.

Now, that's not to say that there is a strong argument that the climate change isn't anthropogenic. There just is one that can be made scientifically and intellectually. But the thing is, there is this thing called the greenhouse effect. It's not really new. We've known about it since the 19th century. We know basic physics. And basic physics tell us that if the radiation that gets to the earth from the sun were to be the only warming effect on the planet, California would feel more like Antarctica. So there has to be something else going on. That is where this nifty little map comes in. There are a bunch of gases in the atmosphere. Gases are made up of molecules. Molecules interact with energy (heat, radiation). So part of what the atmosphere does is reflect some of the energy coming in from the sun. Electromagnetic radiation, which is light, which is the energy coming from the sun, is emitted from the sun in different wavelengths. Some wavelengths get through the gases in the atmosphere without interacting with the gases. Some don't make it. The earth absorbs energy from the sun. Then it also emits radiation. The same thing happens going out. Some energy goes through the gases, some gets radiated back to earth, some get absorbed by the gases in the atmosphere. That extra radiation is what makes the earth a hospitable planet on which to live.

The problem comes with the exact count of molecules in the atmosphere. Each of the different kinds of gases (there are a lot of them: water vapor, methane, carbon dioxide, CFC's, ozone, etc.) have a different absorption rate of energy at different wavelengths. Carbon happens to absorb a lot of energy at the wavelength that the earth emits it. That's why we talk a lot about carbon in the atmosphere and not a lot about methane and water vapor (even though those are important, too). The general idea is that the more carbon that is in the atmosphere, the more of the earth's radiation will be absorbed, and the warmer the planet will get.

Two questions stem from this. The first is the carbon question(s): why is there so much carbon, isn't carbon good, aren't we made of carbon?

Carbon is good. If you think back to basic chemistry or biology, life is made of carbon. Carbon is the basic component of organic material. We definitely couldn't live without carbon. But we need water, too, and that isn't really relevant to whether we should be waterboarding people. Too much can be stifling.
Wikipedia has this great little diagram of the carbon cycle. I think the basic question, though, is where does all this carbon come from that we are talking about, and why do us libs get so excited about it and "green energy" and all that crap? A lot of the excess carbon in the atmosphere comes from burning fossil fuels: oil, coal, natural gas. They are called fossil fuels for a reason. They are made from dead plant and animal life. Compressed for hundreds of thousands of years. Yes, you do burn dead animals when you drive a car. So see the very bottom of the carbon cycle, where the carbon appears to be stored in the ground? We are digging that up and burning it, putting it directly into the atmosphere. So there is more than there would normally be in a regular cycle. Because we are burning fossil fuels faster than they were created.

So we know we are disrupting the carbon cycle. Not really disputable. We know that carbon molecules absorb a lot of radiation from the earth. More carbon + lots of absorption = more energy on the earth. Which, theoretically, will lead to warmer temperatures. That's when it gets tricky. The earth is not a regular kind of place. What happens at the equator is totally different than what is happening 30 or 60 degrees higher in latitude. There is still the question of how much warmer it is going to get. How is that warming going to affect water evaporation of the oceans, leading to more rainfall in certain places and potentially less in others? That's where the scientific debate is right now. That's where there are real questions. That's what we should be talking about rather than letting ignoramuses who never bothered to pay attention in high school science or, furthermore, simply google the greenhouse effect, sway our opinions.

Come on, America. We are supposed to be good at science.

For more on the climate debacle currently going on outside the mainstream American press (for fear of stirring up the ignoramuses, I suppose) see the extensive coverage by The Guardian in the UK. The homepage is here.

P.S. First image comes from a powerpoint by John Mutter for my Science of Sustainable Development class. The last two are wikimedia commons.

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