Monday, March 11, 2013

5 Reasons We'll Never Agree on Global Warming

We humans are a funny lot.  We like to think that we’ve evolved beyond the animals around us – and in large part, we have.  However, it never ceases to amuse me how we can all be so quick to fall back into tribalist mindsets and start flinging poo at each other over things in which we disagree.  It is even funnier when you consider that half the time, we are arguing past each other, and aren't even bothering to understand what the guy we're arguing with is actually trying to say.. 

One of the more polarized poo-flinging contests of late has been the debate over global warming.  This one, too, causes me to laugh quite often.  These are the 5 reasons that we will never be able to have a constructive discussion about global warming.

#1: We don’t actually have a good way of measuring what the climate was beyond about 75 years ago, and the ways that we have to measure now aren’t that good

The data that we have available shows that it is very slightly warming, and has been for about 150 years.  Some folks have questioned that data, showing that the measurement data is being collected from sites that would give results that are biased towards warming, such as being strategically located in the middle of a black asphalt parking lot, or right next to the hot air exhaust ofan air conditioning unit.  They argue that the people who installed these weather stations 30 years ago weren’t total fucking idiots (and in most cases, they weren’t) and installed the station somewhere where these biases would not effect the station.  It’s just that 30 years can change a lot of things, and the stations stay in the same spot and get built around, leading to that station showing a net warming effect that may be exaggerated or not actually there at all because it was created by heat islands or outside sources.    

The other thing that is happening is that the global network of temperature measurement sites sucks.  80 some percent are in the northern hemisphere.  Most of those are in the western part of the northern hemisphere.  There are places in the world where the distance between two sites is greater than the distance between New York City and Los Angeles, and because there is a lack of data, the scientists are just making the assumption that the data is uniform between those sites, and that the temperatures average between them.  Imagine the temps in New York and LA on any given winter day.  It’s going to be colder in New York than LA, right?  So, in this situation, the scientists would assume that as you leave New York, it starts getting warmer, and continues to get incrementally warmer as you head towards LA. 

Of course we know that this is almost certainly not true.  In the winter time, it is almost certainly colder in Iowa than New York, not warmer!  How about the Rocky Mountains?

Rocky Mountains: Generally colder than New York City

#2: They actually agree on more things than either side would care to admit.

Want to know something that I’ll bet you didn’t know?  This may come as a shock, but most people who have been branded “global warming skeptics” actually agree with the global warming consensus that the world’s climate is warming.

How about another one?  Most folks who are riding the global warming consensus train agree that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, by itself, is getting very close to doing just about as much damage as it is going to be able to do. 

Wait, what?

Reasonable global warming skeptics are not arguing that the world isn’t warming up.  As described above, they may be saying that the sites are biased and so forth, but nearly all of them agree that we are going through a period of warming.  The disagreement hinges on their contention on a couple points that the consensus crowd uses to forward their argument:

The first point that the consensus crowd believes that the skeptics refute is that the warming will be a runaway event that cannot be stopped.  You’ve probably heard Al Gore talk about the “tipping point” after which nothing we do will stop the run-away freight train of global warming.  This belief hinges on something called the “feedback effect” and whether it even exists.  You see, the consensus crowd and the skeptic crowd actually agree on something here, as mentioned above, and that is that carbon dioxide, by itself, has done about as much damage as it can possibly do. 

 I agree with everything you’re saying!

Think of it this way.  There is a window in an otherwise unlit room, allowing sunlight to come in.  You put a mini blind over the window.  It stops some of the light, but not all of it.  So you add another mini blind, which stops more light, but some still gets through.  So you keep adding mini blinds until you get to a point where no light at all is getting in, and the room is totally dark.  At this point, you can add as many more mini blinds as you want and it will make no further difference because no light is getting through anymore.  That is more or less like carbon dioxide’s greenhouse effect.  You see, carbon dioxide can only slow down energy within a certain bandwidth.  That bandwidth is almost maxed out by what CO2 is already in the atmosphere, and other greenhouse gasses there that occur naturally.  So the heat that CO2 can stop is already all being stopped now, anyway.  Add more CO2, and all you get is another mini blind trying to stop light that has already been stopped. 

The point of contention is the above mentioned tipping point.  You see, another powerful greenhouse gas is water vapor.  The slight warming caused by CO2, they argue, will allow more water vapor into the air, increasing the warming, which will allow more water vapor into the air, increasing the warming even more, and so forth in an endless cycle.  This will then warm the earth enough that permafrost will start to melt, which releases methane, which is – you guessed it – another very powerful greenhouse gas, which will make the problem even worse, and the whole mess will spiral out of control and we will all die horrible, super-heated deaths.

 Like this.  Just exactly like this.

The skeptics say that there is no recorded evidence of this ever having happened before, and that the earth’s climate has to be self-regulating enough to stop this sort of feedback effect or else we’d be constantly seeing unanticipated massive, drastic climate shifts all the damn time in the climate record.  They say that there is no evidence of these unanticipated shifts, and that all the climate shifts that we’ve seen in history and pre-history have been routine, normal, and a result of rotational axis changes and earth’s orbit, and that any effort we expend trying to solve this problem will be wasted – and that the effort we’re talking about is not a small undertaking to be considered lightly.

The consensus is not so sure, and thinks that we should err on the side of caution. 

The second point is that the consensus crowd believes that global warming will be catastrophic to humans and life on Earth, in general.  Global warming skeptics are not convinced by this, and in fact, there is a lot of data that shows that the most prosperous periods for humanity have occurred during times when it was actually a bit warmer than it is today.  Skeptics, in the other hand, tend to concentrate on the negatives that will surely come with that change.  An increased hydrologic cycle will surely lead to increased rainfall and flooding in some areas, while in others, the increased heat could lead to desertification.  Some say that the warming could result in more and stronger storms in some areas, while others say that they will be reduced in other areas.  The net effect of reading all of this is that there will be change.  Some of it for the better, some of it for the worse. 

There are actually three sides to this debate: 

  1. Those who think that the worse will offset the better; 
  2. Those who think the better will offset the worse; 
  3. And those who don’t know, and don’t put much thought to it because they think there isn’t much we can do about it anyway, so why worry?  
So why do we only hear about the bad?  I must admit that articles talking about the effects of global warming tend to be a little biased.  Here is a link to an article that sprang from the fact that a warmer Earth with more CO2 in the air (read, gaseous fertilizer) will result in longer, more productive growing seasons for plant life.  Reading the results of that study, the people who wrote this article said “Wait a goddamned minute, we can’t write an article about a positive effect of global warming, or we’ll be branded “deniers” and marginalized as being non-scientific douche-nozzles!” so they worked long and hard to find a way to make longer, more productive growing seasons for plants a bad thing.  The result?  An article about how global warming will result in more poison ivy

Truth – not necessarily the result of politicizing science

The second point that the participants disagree on is that humans are causing the warming (or enough warming to be statistically significant).  Again, this all hinges on the feedback effect of CO2 in the atmosphere, because the CO2, itself, isn’t causing all of the problems that the consensus is warning us about.  Yes, we are adding CO2 to the atmosphere.  Yes, that is not natural.  The question is, what will that do?  Many argue that the warming that is occurring was happening before mankind started contributing meaningfully to the CO2 level in the air.  Many argue that the speed of the warming ramped up after we did start contributing.  Both have valid arguments, but those arguments will never be debated, because: 

#3: They are talking past each other, and exaggerating the other side’s actual position.

Simple human nature does not deal well with understanding that that other guy who you disagree with might have a valid point that needs to be discussed further.  It all boils down to the fact that we are, at our very core and nature, simple poo-flinging monkeys. 

"This offends me!"

So the skeptics don’t want to discuss the changes caused by global warming from the viewpoint that we should maybe do something about it, like cut back on using so much coal and replace it with something more sustainable, without accusing the consensus folks of wanting to return us to a Hobbesian, hand-to-mouth existence where we live in caves, which isn’t what they are advocating at all.  The consensus don’t want to discuss the fact that the skeptics might have a valid point about the warming being natural, because there really is very little science that has been (or even can be) done to show what is causing the warming, leaving them in a more difficult to defend position.  Therefore, they just accuse them of denying the warming altogether (which they don’t), brand them deniers, and refuse to talk about it any further, which is a lot easier position to defend, and is easier than debating reasonably from even starting points. 

You’ll see this all the time anytime these debates happen.  The discussion eventually degrades into the skeptics being branded a “denier” that doesn’t think the world is warming, and that wants to watch the world burn so the oil companies can make a profit. The consensus will typically then be accused of wanting to turn back the clock on hundreds of years of human innovation and make children starve because they are scaredy-pants.  Neither one of these arguments is true or valid, and neither one springs from the actual stance that most of the participants on either side are taking in the debate.  It is just too damned satisfying to fling poo when things like this get politicized.

 Although, I do find myself in agreement with that final statement

#4: The effects of trying to stop global warming could  suck just as much as the warming, itself.

Much like the more hardcore people in the Society for Creative Anachronism who actually go around telling people that they’d rather live in the medieval times than today, the consensus folks have no idea what it is that they are actually asking for. 

 Seriously, I would be so much more successful if I lived in a time where hard, physical labor, rampant disease, imminent starvation, and widespread physical violence were more common!

Some of them actually do advocate returning to a more pastoral, localized life less dependent on energy, sort of like the Amish.  Being an outdoorsman, I’ve lived like that before for short periods of time, and while it isn’t a big deal and can actually be enjoyable and novel for a week or two, if you were asked to do it for longer, or, say, for an entire winter, it would suck.  A lot.  Even most of the dedicated Amish cheat a little here and there.

But even those that say that we can cut greenhouse emissions without cutting back on our lifestyle at all don’t understand what they are really asking for.  The reason for this is technology.  Currently, there is only one way for us to provide all of the energy that we need and use on a daily basis without using CO2 emitting fossil fuels: Nuclear fission.  If you’re even vaguely familiar with nuclear power, you’ll know without following this link that it has its own set of serious downsides and side-effects. 

Other types of energy that are emission free, like hydroelectric and wind power, also have their downsides.  Both of them are ecologically devastating to the areas in which they are employed.  This, coupled with the fact that using current technology, there is no way in hell we could ever even get close to making enough energy using both of them combined to feed our need means that anyone saying that these are the answer is either anticipating some huge technological breakthrough or they are an uniformed idiot.  Also, I might note that removing fossil fuels from the repertoire of energy sources would leave us all driving electric vehicles, the very best of which can go a jaw-dropping 40 miles before needing to be charged for 5 to 6 hours at a special charging station.  So, yeah, really, really shitty. 

It is for these reasons that most skeptics demand a bit more proof before we take drastic steps to fundamentally change the way we live to avoid this looming calamity, because taking these steps will be a calamity in and of themselves.

#5 Efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions might be a good idea even if we find that global warming is not caused by humans

Some of the more reasoned consensus crowd know that removing fossil fuels altogether is not an option, but want to reduce the amount that we use by implementing as much alternative energy as possible.  This, in and of itself, is not a bad idea, and is really something we should all get behind, for one reason:  no matter which side of the debate you take, you have to admit that we don’t really know what all this CO2 is going to do when we put it into our atmosphere.  Since it is our only atmosphere, it may be a good idea to take steps to maybe stop fucking with it until we know what is going to happen when we’re through fucking with it. 

Also, the fuels that we burn that release CO2 also release other nasty shit into our air (which, I might add, is all the air we have) so cutting back on CO2 also cuts back on the release of these other types of pollution.  So I think we’ve found some more honest middle-ground here, which is to say that we should probably try to cut back a little and replace as much fossil-fuel energy with other types of non-pollution and CO2 creating energy as possible.  And yes, this probably means that nuclear energy is in all of our futures.  


  1. As to #5, we've already reduced out CO2 emissions by shifting some coal burning to natural gas. This is a very interesting way to tell if you're talking to someone with an open mind: ask if we should increase fracking to reduce our carbon emissions.

  2. My only Cee-Oh-Two problem is this - one volcano can throw the-equivalent-of 500 years of man-caused-COTwo into the atmosphere in two days. This I have had a problem with (as well as HTwoO being the prevalent GHG - that's HUMIDITY for Cry-Eye!!). Show me good stats and I can manipulate the data....

  3. Old Man;

    While I agree with what you said about relative quantities, the consensus crowd has long since clipped the wings of that particular argument so I didn't include it.

    Their response is that yes, the human amounts being created are tiny, but that they are damaging, nonetheless, because they are the only emissions that are unnatural. They claim that the Earth has developed the ability to deal with the large natural causes, but the tiny amount stacked on top by humans is enough to throw the whole mess out of balance.

    There really is no science to back up this claim, or to refute it, so to argue this point is sort of a dead end from either side. For that reason, I omitted it. It isn't that it is a bad argument, per se, just that there really isn't anything backing it up - its more of a "gut feel" thing from both sides, and as a result, either side could be right.

  4. Borepatch - interesting point on fracking. However, since I am trying to be as unbiased as possible here, there are issues with fracking that go beyond CO2 emissions which could cause a person to be against both fracking and coal use.

    That being said, that person, in order for me to listen to them without dismissing them as obstructionist, then really needs to table an idea of their own on how to fix the problem. That is the biggest problem with the consensus crowd that I see to date - they are mostly just obstructing, not providing any constructive input. Yes, they want to cut back on CO2, but none of them seem to have any ideas on how, without taking huge, gaping cuts at our energy use, which is just not going to happen. FOlks that are used to air conditioning aren't just going to give that up...

    That is why I would like to take some of the radical demagogery out of this debate and at least try to reset it to the parts where we actually agree with each other, and then try to come up with a solution from there.

    But this standing athwart progress and shouting "STOP!" that the consensus crowd, and progressives in general, seem to like to do is really obnoxious and contrary to human progress.

  5. I have come to the conclusion that we all have a little blame global warming and its consequences and guilt even more politicians who do not slow down.