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Thursday, February 28, 2008

Deconstructing alarmism.

Back from a bit of a break.

There are a lot of articles, columns, blogs and editorials out there on the subject of AGW or CCC (catastrophic climate change). The challenge is separating fact from personal opinion and recognizing hyperbole, among other things. Since I've started researching the subject, deconstructing such things has become second nature - which has had the unfortunate side effect of increasing my cynicism. Ah, well.

Here's a typical example in David Suzuki's regular column posted at the cnews columnists section. You can read the whole thing here. I will quote portions of the article with my own commentary below.

Fixing the world's broken thermostat

The headline is a perfect place to start, I suppose. Right off the bat, it starts with a misleading concept - that the Earth actually has a thermostat. Like the "greenhouse effect," it's a metaphor that causes misunderstandings. As I write this, I can see the thermostat on my wall. It's the dial type. On the top, it shows me the temperature of the room - not the entire apartment, as the bedrooms are usually several degrees cooler. On the bottom is where I can adjust the thermostat to a set temperature for the heaters to turn on if the room temperature drops to that range. By using the term "thermostat," there is an implication of control - that by merely tweaking something, we can actually influence the earth's global temperature. Personally, I think we tend to mess with the earth too much almost by accident already. The idea that we should deliberately start tweaking away at something we don't even fully understand has great potential for disaster.

On to the first paragraph, and we've got more misinformation.

After all, since humans cause global warming by burning too much fossil fuels such as coal, oil and gas, as well as destroying natural ecosystems that absorb and store carbon, it's up to us to fix it.

If you've been reading this blog at all, it's pretty obvious I disagree with that statement that humans are causing global warming. While we can certainly influence regional climates, what we're doing simply isn't influential enough to effect the entire planet; certainly not its temperature. There are plenty of other things that *are* in our control, such as reducing real pollutants - something we in first world nations have the luxury to actually worry about.

The second claim is also misleading. The places that are destroying natural ecosystems the most aren't the ones with ready access to fossil fuels. They're the third world nations filled with people who, desperate just to survive, are causing damage to their environment by, for example, cutting down forest for fuel and to clear space for agriculture. First world nations have been able to increase forests by millions of acres, while at the same time producing more food on less land and sustain more people than ever before possible. We'll leave behind the discussion different eco-systems existing at the expense of others for another time.

The big concern I have with the quoted piece is with the statement of "it's up to us to fix it." He's not talking about eco-systems, here - he's talking about messing around with the earth's "thermostat."

But here's the good part: most of the technologies needed to usher in a clean and sustainable future are already available.

I've gone over this article several times, and haven't been able to find mention of even a single one of these technologies. I'd really like to know what he's talking about, because as far as I've been able to find, there isn't a single reliable alternative that exists right now, other than nuclear energy. Somehow, I don't think that's what he's recommending. Solar is expensive and unreliable, while solar panels are hardly environmentally friendly. Wind is also expensive and unreliable, plus there's the added damage to local bird populations. Both require large amounts of land - they can't be put just anywhere. Then there's biofuels, which I once thought would be an excellent boon but has turned out to be more destructive and polluting than using fossil fuels. What else is there, and readily available, too? I'd really like to know.

By supporting innovative solutions, we can phase out the older polluting forms of generating energy that contribute to global warming and thus create a cleaner world. These innovations will create new jobs and boost our economy.
I'm all for supporting innovative solutions and a cleaner world. What's misleading here is that connection between "polluting" and "contribute to global warming." Reducing pollutants - real pollutants - will lead to a cleaner world (as has already been amply demonstrated in the last 100-150 years). Pollutants - real pollutants - do not equate global warming. Some might, some might not. The term is just too generic and covers too many things.

As for innovations creating new jobs and boosting the economy, that all depends on how, what, when, where... Based on the proposals I've been seeing, including some from Suzuki and his foundation, I believe that opposite would result.

The article then gives "a little climate 101."

In order to put reasonable, practical solutions in place, we have to understand how global warming works.
I can agree with that statement.

Not all scientists agree on when certain things will happen, but most scientists agree on the basic mechanism that is warming our planet.
Hmm... warning bells start ringing when I read this statement. Shades of the "consensus" claim. What follows is a single paragraph describing the atmosphere as a "cozy blanket," with "certain gases," acting as "insulation." That's about as simple as it can get.

Then we this...

But, over the last several centuries, as the Industrial Revolution has taken place, humans are burning more and more fossil fuels to meet our energy needs.

True, except that the Industrial Revolution, at least on any global scale, is only about 150 years old, not "several centuries."

Thanks to our cars and factories, we've released more of these heat-trapping gases than the biosphere can reabsorb so they build up and thicken the heat-trapping blanket of insulation around the Earth.
An misleading statement. While we may be releasing more gases (which, at this point, aren't named), there's certainly debate as to whether or not we're releasing them faster than the "biosphere" can absorb. There are certainly natural events that release more gases than all human activity combined. A single large volcano can release in a day or two, more than humans release in a year. The earth is a lot more resilient (and volatile) than Suzuki is giving it credit.

Human land use practices, such as the destruction of tropical rainforests,

Here's another area where I've learned things are not as they seem. First off, special interest groups have been claiming massive destruction of the rainforests, to the tune of some 10 million acres per year, for decades. Considering how long I've been hearing this, they should be pretty much gone by now (kind of like we should have already run out of oil 2 or 3 times just in my lifetime). I've also learned that there's satellite evidence of a net increase of total tropical rainforest coverage (sorry - I can't find the link for that report again). Areas that had been de-forested, farmed then abandoned, have slowly been naturally reclaimed. I've also learned that the tropical rainforests, to the extent the exist today, are relatively new. There have been periods in earth's history where the rainforests have been all but non- existent, without any of the devastating results being predicted if the "lungs of the earth" disappear. While I certainly don't say this to condone de-forestation, which I certainly don't, things aren't quite the way we are told.

also release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

And there we have it - the heat trapping gases have been reduced to just one. CO2. GHG's make up only about 1% of the total atmosphere. Of that 1%, up to 4% of it is water vapor. Only .035% of it is CO2. Of that .035%, humans contribute only about 2 -3%, depending on your source. Not only that, but the effect of CO2 on temperature is limited, reducing in effect as quantities increase.

The heat builds up, the globe warms,

Unfortunately - for Suzuki, that is - this isn't happening. Even though CO2 levels have continued to increase, the earth hasn't continued to warm. Evidence demonstrates that, for the most part, CO2 follows increased temperatures, not the other way around. Overall, the correlation between CO2 and temperature is very poor.

and the atmospheric balance that keeps the climate stable is disrupted.

An interesting claim - and one not backed by evidence.

Global warming is more about a mechanism that gets destabilized and broken, like a thermostat that goes haywire. It doesn't work the way it should,

Just what, exactly, does he mean by "should?" By what evidence is it getting "destabilized" and "broken?"

and this results in extreme weather effects around the globe.

Ah, yes. Extreme weather. This would be the claim that global warming = more extreme weather events.

As we now know, according to the UN's blue-ribbon panel of scientists who studied global warming, it's happening right now. Ten of the warmest years on record have occurred since 1980.
Interesting that he should use the that last sentence. It handily avoids the fact that, since 1998's El Nino, global average temperature changes have been either statistically insignificant, or showing a slight downward trend. It also avoids that fact that 2007 alone has shown a drop in average global temperature that erases that average gain in the previous 100 years. We'll leave debate over the accuracy of global average temperatures for elsewhere.

I like how he described the UN's panel as a "blue-ribbon panel of scientists." I'll assume he means the IPCC panel, since the UN has a number of panels.

Scientists have been closely observing the results of this thickening blanket and corresponding rise in global temperatures. The effects are impossible to ignore: rapidly melting glaciers and ice caps, warmer temperatures, stronger storms, and even the migration of tropical diseases, animals, and plants into temperate regions.
Let's see - how many places can he be wrong?

Rising temperatures? Only slightly - about .6C - and not at all unprecedented when compared to historical records, with a recent cooling trend that may or may not continue. We simply don't know yet.

Melting glaciers? Nope. Some are receding, some are growing, and some aren't doing much of anything at all. Among some that are receding, we are finding archaeological evidence of human activities, or even fossil forests, showing that their reduction is far from unprecedented.

ice caps? Nope. The south pole hasn't been melting at all, even with the one area on the peninsula that has seen an increase in temperature (possibly due to volcanoes) - it's been seeing an overall increase. The north pole's decrease was found to be the result of winds and current - in the Arctic summer, no less - and has already rebounded.

warmer temperature? Not if you were in the southern hemisphere, which has been seeing a cooling while the northern hemisphere has seen a slight increase.

stronger storms? Wrong again. There has been no increase in storms or storm strength in general, and nothing that can be attributed to warming (such as the recent spate of tornadoes being linked to the colder La Nina)

migration of diseases, animals and plants? With plants and animals, that's simply a matter of adaption. That's what nature does to survive. As for diseases, these can be attributed to such things as increased international travel, inadequate safe water supplies, poor sanitation, lack of adequate health care and poverty. It's too simple - and highly misleading - to blame the spread of disease on global warming!

The loss of Canada's boreal wilderness? The disappearance of Canadian icons such as the polar bear and caribou? Scientists tell us that this could very well happen if global warming continues unabated due to personal and political inaction to seriously tackle the problem.
Like other first world countries, Canada has seen a net increase of forest coverage. The polar bear populations have never been in better shape that we know of. Neither is in any danger from the slight increase we've seen in the past 100 years. But we can't let facts get in the way of a good guilt trip!

There is broad agreement that global warming results in more negative consequences than positive ones.
Really? That's news to me! Historically speaking warm eras have seen the most ideal conditions for the earth, including humans. It's cold, not warmth, that has more negative consequences - especially those extreme weather events mentioned earlier, but also in hardship to plants and animals, including humans. The winter we're in right now is demonstrating that most tragically.

The article ends in what is supposed to be a positive note about the things we can do.

For example, we could significantly increase the average fuel efficiency of today's automobiles,

I'm all for increasing fuel efficiency (though it's ironic that, the more efficient an engine burns its fuel, with the resulting reduction of pollutants, the more CO2 is emitted. Increased CO2 is a measurement of efficient combustion. The less CO2, the more real pollutants there are.)
one of the world's major sources of heat-trapping gases.

Cars are not the "world's major sources" (I notice he hasn't used the term "green house gases" at all, instead using "heat-trapping. Perhaps he's finally clued in to how bad the green house metaphor is). That would be things like the oceans, volcanoes and the like. Cars are not even necessarily the greatest source of anthropogenic gases. Some say airplanes are, while recently in the news, the shipping industry was given that dubious honour.

Well, this had gone on for way too long.

There was a time when I'd read an article like this and not automatically break it apart like this. I used to trust that the writers - especially an "expert" like Suzuki - would actually be factual and unbiased.

Not anymore.


1 comment:

  1. The reference to Industrial Revolution made me wonder: Should AGW be called the "Global Warming Revolution?"


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