Wrong Referees

Posted: January 13, 2008 in Debate, Environment, Science

A recent report by an activist group asserts that 2007 was a year of record-breaking weather, which is evidence of global warming. Even though the measurements are impossible to rebuke, I’m not a scientist, so I’m not in a position to evaluate the science and make an even remotely informed decision whether anthropocentric global warming or climate change exist. But if asked whether I believe global warming exists, then yes, I do. Global warming is difficult to assess, considering that if it exists, it occurs within a fairly narrow temperature band and takes tens and hundreds of thousands of years to observe. That said, it’s much simpler to assess climate change, which can occur within a century’s time. Also, as websites denying global warming demonstrate (here and here and here), the nomenclature is problematical. The popularization of the concept of global warming has adopted a Science for Dummies approach that regrettably mixes terms and concepts rather liberally, enough that it’s pretty effective to dispel claims of global warming on semantics alone. So whether global warming — as popularly understood — exists is difficult to demonstrate for at least two reasons: window of observation and improper nomenclature.

The only field of study more complicated (with less predictable outcomes) than weather forecasting is seismic studies — predicting when and where an earthquake will occur or if a structure can withstand the maximum expected earthquake. The best prediction for an earthquake in San Francisco is 65% in the next 15 years, which isn’t very useful as a planning tool past keeping an earthquake kit in the backyard. Except for a relatively small number of scientists, we lack the expertise necessary to evaluate the impact of mankind on the climate. Determining whether global warming is a reality is being refereed by journalists, and to a lesser degree, politicians, neither of whom possess the expertise to do more than popularize and per force mischaracterize complex systems. In short, they’re the wrong referees; their analysis is inadequate and incomplete. Worse, they have different agendas for dealing with scientific evidence that skew their perspectives.

Whether we believe global warming or climate change exists, however, it’s worthwhile to point out that the Earth is a largely closed system. Consider energy. The sun’s energy has been captured and sequestered via photosynthesis in plants, which are consumed by animals, all of which die and decay. This captured energy takes millions of years to form coal and oil deposits. The process is so slow that the system is not renewable in any realistic human time scale, although it’s probably renewable in geological time. Yet we humans have been tapping this energy reserve for about 150 years and already used up more than half of it. That’s a process taking millions of years that will be undone in roughly 200, if projections on consumption are accurate. Oil reserves won’t last close to another 150 years, and perhaps not even another 50.

The same can be said of most other material processes. There is a fixed amount of precious metals, diamonds, uranium, etc. We’ve mined and consumed the portions that are easiest to get at, which means that the remaining portions are either more costly to recover (which becomes economically unfeasible at some point), more ecologically damaging to recover, or both. Even more so than with the energy cycle, the biosphere is a closed system. And we’re using it up at an alarming rate. Some scientists believe that the Earth’s long-term human carrying capacity will support a population less than half our current numbers. But we’re not thinking or behaving in terms of the long term, or sustainability, or permaculture (as it’s sometimes called). We’ve extended ourselves well past that point and are now running on momentum, sort of like Wiley E. Coyote powering past the edge of a precipice but not yet being pulled down by gravity to his ultimate demise. We’re like lemmings, except that we are aware of what we’re doing. See this website for an excellent explanation of the materials economy.

With these perspectives in mind, even if we don’t believe in global warming or materials depletion, it behooves us to act as though we do and (re)learn how to live within our means, which is to say, with a far lighter footprint than we currently have. The planet simply cannot sustain modern industrial civilization, and our current trajectory points toward an awful collapse, must like other civilizations experienced in antiquity.

  1. obie1993 says:

    “Global warming is difficult to assess.”

    no, global warming is not difficult to assess. scientific proof exists in the melted glaciers and loss of polar bear habitats. the question of whether global warming exists is a political one, not a scientific one.

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