Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Fevered words:

This is what happens when you write when you are mad.

Someone sent me this article by John Coleman, founder of the Weather Channel, and noted climate change skeptic. This will make more sense if you read Coleman's piece first. No, really - go read it, then come back here. I'll wait.

The question from the sender was: who is Coleman, and what are his credentials?

Well, reading Coleman's article got me wound up, and I decided to write a piece in the voice of an angry conservative (which I am, but not to this extent: I let my emotions take control). See if you can spot the devilish details that _I_ embellished or ignored to make my points, or juxtaposed simply for effect. The same type of techniques so well employed by Coleman in his piece. I was hoping this might make it onto some of the lists that circulate this type of vitriol.

But I'm sure this will bite me in my employment ass later, or be paraded in front of me at some Senate Confirmation hearing or other, along with trivial details from my tax returns from beyond the statute of limitations ... (look out, libertarian diatribe building!)

John Coleman is the founder of the Weather Channel, so he does have good credentials. I do not know if he has a science background, but he may well have training in meteorology. He is a good contrarian and a worthy curmudgeon.

So, a comparison based on something I recently heard on the radio. A doctor tells you you have a rare form of cancer called "testaloma," and tells you you can only eat lettuce from now on, and then refers you to the Mayo Clinic. The Clinic concurs, and they convene a world-wide conference to discuss your symptoms, and several thousand of the world's leading experts in cancer agree that you have testaloma, and that lettuce is really the only thing they can think of. Do you take their advice?

In fact, they write a report that is reviewed by ten thousand more doctors, and all the NIH's in the world, and they agree you have testaloma as well, and that perhaps Bibb, Boston and Iceberg lettuce are all acceptable, but lettuce is all you get. Do you take their advice now?

But wait - there's a reporter in the crowd at the conference, who has been taught that she must give equal weight to opposing sides in order to be a good reporter. So she seeks out contrarian views, does her due diligence, and devotes an equal number of column inches to the few non-doctors who object and to the many non-doctors who are suspicious that doctors are all feathering their nests (some of them receive money from ChavezCorp lettuce harvesters), and other assorted anti-lettuce kooks. Her editor is delighted, because this is a "fight," and fight sells copy. Now who do you trust?

...and so it goes on and on.

Come on people! I'm a conservative somewhat to the right of Genghis Khan, have never voted for a pinko Democrat, but I KNOW MY SCIENCE. I have my doctorate in Geoscience, and I manage a large part of this great nation's investment in climate change science. I tell 90% of scientists asking me for money to go away, and some of them get fired because I said "no." Too bad. This is real, and we are avoiding this as assiduously as we are avoiding the fact that we have maxed out the national credit card, and no stupid "Stimulus Package" is going to address that. We all spend too much on consumer products instead of building value in our society and capital in our industries, and we spend far too much energy getting from here to there, and running all our little gadgets. I'm not concerned about the warming here, just the fact that we are exponentially increasing the use of a resource that is finite.

Whether the world is warming or not I will leave until later. The scary part is that we will be in dire straits if our energy sources are restricted. This is fear that I sympathize with in the diatribe by Coleman and his conspiracy-mongering cadre. Our alternatives are very limited - most technologies are really in their infancy, and not ready to mainstream. The only thing on deck is coal, and my bet is that we and the Chinese will burn every ounce of coal we can dig up (and the two of us have the largest coal deposits on Earth). When that runs out, look out. Time to send the Marines to get it. Our societies can't change directions on a dime, and THAT is what concerns any President - Dubya or the current occupant, Obamarama. We are currently pouring our wealth into lovely places like the Middle East and Venezuela. Billions. Trillions. Folks who I am convinced will one day suffer regime change to even more virulent rulers, and who will gladly and blindly kill their golden-egg laying goose, and set off a nuclear weapon in the USA. THAT is what concerns the President, as he slowly absorbs his daily security briefs.

So, who paid for all this 'science' that tells us about the climate? Well, actually it is the Republican administrations, mostly. Strangely, science generally does better under the GOP. Democratic administrations love social issues, but social issues are expensive, so there's usually not much left when they get to science's level in the Federal money-barrel. Republicans like science, but for a very Washingtonian reason: it allows delay on difficult issues while "more study is done." Who put together the U.S. Global Change Research Program? George H.W. Bush. Who flattened the USGCRP budget? Clinton. Subsequent occupants had other things in the money barrel that were quite expensive, so neither social issues nor science stood much of a chance during the budget-sausage-making - it ended up being a wash. I'll be interested to see what the current President does.

Do scientists like money? Wait, wait... Do bears s#!t in the forest? Are they desperate for it? Of course. Say for instance that for your job, your career, you had to write about ten major essays every year and submit them to the government, manage an office, and continually hire employees. Your boss keeps yelling at you to sell product, which actually means writing several extra essays and sending them to magazines. Most of your essays get rejected. About 90% of them. But that's your only product, so you are desperate. Every two years or so, your boss puts you in front of a committee, and you are told you are not working hard enough, and are not smart enough to work at your company, so you have to resign and go find a lesser-ranked company that does not push so hard, and has lower quality employees. Welcome to academia for the vast majority of scientists. That's why they accept money from industry, and from people who have vested interests in the outcomes of their research, which can potentially later ruin their careers. Of course the smart ones build empires - they are ambitious as well as smart. It's the American thing to do.

OK, now that I have outgassed, on to global warming.

The main "greenhouse gases" water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide are present in the atmosphere in very small amounts (0.4% H2O, 0.035% CO2, 0.0001745% CH4, 0.00003% NO2). Yes, that's very small. So who says something has to be big to have an effect? If you don't believe it, I have a very small amount of Plutonium for you. Go on, swallow! It's less than 0.00003% of your weight!

We know these gases are increasing in concentration. We know they have been high in the past (much higher, in fact than they are now). However, from the isotope signatures in the current atmosphere, we can tell that this latest increase is in large part due to our activities (transport, construction and electric power generation are the main sources). If there are any left, any elementary school science teacher can give you a kindergarten-level demonstration involving breathing into empty 2 liter coke bottles, thermometers and a lightbulb that will show that CO2 absorbs more energy. The same experiment with CH4 and NO2 we leave for slightly higher levels of education. So, the sad truth is that most of this might actually be of our making. But is it bad? Can't we plant more stuff in Canada now? Yes, of course, there will be some winners in all of this. And some losers, like the American southwest, which is in for a drought that may last several centuries. We will have to adapt, because there is no other choice. Some adaptations will actually increase our wealth. That will be an interesting game which I am all for, because America is very good at that kind of game once we get in gear. The bad thing is that this is all very positive for the first few decades, even perhaps a century. After that, things look like they are really different. Different enough that we do not understand the fundamentals of the system.

Do you remember doing titrations in high-school chemistry? Waiting for that very last drop to change the color of the solution? Do you remember that the pH changed very suddenly when you reached that last drop? Do you remember that this was actually an experiment in a 'buffered system' where you could add a lot of acid to the solution and not really affect the pH very much? Most of the Earth's chemical cycles are buffered, and they can take a lot of change before 'changing color.' Thank goodness, because we keep getting hit by meteors, volcanoes pour out magma and all sorts of gases, and oceans keep getting created and closed by plate tectonics. This means that all the inputs and drains for the various chemicals in the system keep getting turned on or off, and the system still stays relatively stable, most of the time. The problem occurs when you get to that last drop, that tipping point. Then you get a shift to some other semi-stable configuration, and it might or might not be friendly to trilobites, to dinosaurs, or... to society as it runs today. We simply do not know what kind of system will result. Worse, we have no idea where that point is. It could be 500 years from now. It could be a within our lifetime. This is typical behavior for a chaotic system. I am fully confident that humans will survive, but just as certain that it will not be all of us, and we will not be able to live the way we do today.

I knew Roger Revelle, and I have met David Keeling, Hans Dieter Suess, Fred Singer, and Maurice Strong. I have no desire to meet Gore, and I don't know Chauncey Starr. I do not get invited to the Bohemian Grove gatherings, and I am a proud member of the hoi-pelloi. Coleman's logic is a personal insult to all of them, and could be compared to a childish attack on Coleman for daring to have such a blatantly pro-energy surname.

My conclusion: Coleman is an ostrich. A respected ostrich.

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3 Comments:

At 3:26 PM, Blogger Matthew said...

That hole in our office wall makes a lot more sense now. ;-)

 
At 7:10 AM, Anonymous heirloom seeds catalog said...

It was a good post.

 
At 3:30 PM, Blogger rdholder said...

This was a very interesting article to me! I too am a conservative, and have remained skeptical about CO2 etc. caused global warming. I have a bachelor of science degree in computer science, but I am a layman when it comes to physics and chemistry and so on. However, as a programmer, I understand that computer models can be made to produce whatever results the author wants, so I was always skeptical when I hear "computer models indicate that..." about global warming.

I have been assuming that solar output is a much bigger input to our planetary temperature than the concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere must be. And while I have heard the argument that CO2 (if I recall correctly) is a primary cause of the high temperatures on Venus, I also know that the orbit of Venus is a lot closer to the Sun that we are at. I always took Sagan's nuclear winter and greenhouse gas ideas with a grain of salt.

However, I must say, hearing someone who identifies as a conservative take this man-caused greenhouse gas warming idea seriously is causing me to open my mind to the idea that maybe there is something to it. To be honest, I am much more concerned with the social and engineering implications of increasing energy costs than I am about human-caused temperature increase... maybe that is short-sighted of me. But I have to live on this world, and the implications of $20 or $50/gallon gasoline on my life are what worry me more than global warming.

I do not have the answers to this problem, but at least I know that. It is reassuring to me that there is someone like you in science and academia who is able to speak honestly and directly about the issues involved here, and I enjoyed reading your post. I hope the general discussion of this subject can enjoy the candor I read in your article.

Regards,
Robert Holder

 

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