Thursday, February 15, 2007

If you can't stand the heat

Well, the report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released earlier this month certainly was frightening. (A .pdf version is available here.)
The words of warning about global warming from the top panel of international scientists Friday were purposely blunt: "warming of the climate system is unequivocal," the cause is "very likely" man-made, and "would continue for centuries." ...

The report said man-made emissions of greenhouse gases can already be blamed for these current problems: fewer cold days, hotter nights, killer heat waves, floods and heavy rains, devastating droughts, and an increase in hurricane and tropical storm strength (particularly in the Atlantic Ocean). ...

And the report said no matter how much civilization slows or reduces its greenhouse gas emissions, global warming and sea level rise will continue on for centuries.
Impressive words. What made them even more impressive was that this was a conservative, a cautions, report, as the Christian Science Monitor informs us:
[T]he main science report ... was compiled by 150 scientists as main authors, another 400 scientists as contributing authors, a team of review editors, and some 600 reviewers. The document went through two rounds of reviews. And unlike past efforts, review editors required chapter authors to respond to each responsible review comment.
This combination of strong words in a carefully-reviewed document was impressive enough, in fact, to very likely have been responsibile for playing a decisive role in spurring some rather dramatic responses, such as these:

- The day after the report was released, 46 countries at a conference in Paris agreed to work to establish a new environmental body that could single out - and perhaps police - nations that abuse the Earth.

- On February 8, Nancy Pelosi told the House Science and Technology Committee during its hearing on global warming that the US needs to cut its greenhouse gas emissions in half by mid-century - and what's more, mandatory control are the only way that will happen.

- On Tuesday, New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine issued an Executive Order that by calls for reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the state below current levels by 20% by 2020 and an additional 60% by 2050.

- Also on Tuesday, Iona Campagnolo, Lieutenant Governor of British Columbia, declared at the opening of the new session of the provincial Parliament that global warming "leaves no room for procrastination" and the provincial government aims to cut greenhouse gas emissions by at least a third by 2020 - which would put them 10% under 1990 levels by that time.

- Speaking of Canada, the House of Commons passed a bill Wednesday to force the government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper to achieve the steep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions Canada agreed to under the Kyoto Protocol. Passage in the Senate is expected.
In addition, there was activism on the issue. Timed to coincide with the release of the report, the Climate Week of Action involved about 50,000 students at nearly 600 schools across North America,
from the University of Saskatchewan, to Coral Reef Senior High in Miami, to Collin County Community College in Plano, Texas.

"It's the largest youth mobilization on climate, and one of the biggest coordinated youth actions of any kind in a long time," said Billy Parish, a Yale dropout whom [Mother Jones magazine] recently named "Student Activist of the Year."
Events often revolved around a showing of An Inconvenient Truth.

All this activity and response has clearly given a sense that, as the Boston Globe said today, "the global warming debate has changed significantly in recent weeks." Indeed, it has shifted enough that even Exxon-Mobil is budging.
In a speech at a major industry gathering, [Exxon Mobil CEO Rex W.] Tillerson acknowledged that the planet was warming while carbon dioxide levels were increasing, suggesting a more accommodating position than the hard-nosed stance Exxon had held. ...

Mr. Tillerson's tone, if not the substance of his remarks, at times broke with the rigid positions of his predecessor, Lee Raymond, who has long been considered a skeptic in the global warming debate.

"That's Exxon-speak," said Barbara Shook, an analyst for Energy Intelligence Group, a publishing and information services company. "It's their own dialect, but if you look at where Exxon was one and a half years ago they may not have shifted their position 180 degrees, but they are moving."
And it's clear that all this is, as I said at the top, really, really frightening. Especially to certain people frightened that the facts are challenging their ideology.

One such frightened person is David Asman, host of "Forbes on FOX" (the title alone should tell you what you need to know), who in a column on the FoxNoise (copyright Keith Olbermann) site on Monday described global warming skeptics as having the "gumption to stand up to the status quo" in spite of "some of the nastiest insults and character assassinations." For their "audacity," he says, "they have been censured, excoriated and labeled as lackeys for the oil companies."
[Alabama meteorologist James] Spann was particularly upset with the charge that only those with ties to big oil could argue the way he and his colleagues do. In fact, he says, the truth is exactly the opposite: "Billions of dollars of grant money is flowing into the pockets of those on the man-made global warming bandwagon ... For many, global warming is a big cash grab." ...

Billions of dollars have been invested so far in studying climate change ($20 billion from the Bush administration alone), and very little of that money has landed in the laps of those outside of the global warming orthodoxy.
Instead, Asman insists, it's gone to "an enormous number of scientists who have already cashed in on it."

(Sidebar: I believe his last name is pronounced like Az-mun, but I think the other pronunciation that suggests itself is more apt.)

Interestingly, that same "follow-the-money / poor, beleagured, truth-seeking skeptics" argument was made the very next day by another frightened man, Thomas Sowell, writing at the National Review website. Having first tried to connect scientific findings about global warming with "the political Left" on the grounds that Marxism was once called "scientific socialism," he declares that
[n]ot all the advocates of "global warming" are on the Left, of course. Crusades are not just for crusaders. There are always hangers-on who can turn the true believers' crusades into votes or money or at least notoriety. ...

Government money is falling on those who seek grants to study global warming and produce “solutions” for it. But that money is not as likely to fall on those skeptics in the scientific community who refuse to join the stampede.
Apparently, "scientists who believe in global warming are the ones who are really in it for the money" is going to be a new right-wing meme, similar to the "liberals are the real racists" and "wingnut warmongers who send soldiers into meat grinders for no damn good reason are the ones who really support the troops" ones with which we are already familiar. (By the way, researchers who take part in the IPCC process are volunteers who actually take a hit to their careers by seeing their own research projects postponed, leading to failure to publish journal articles.)

And it's not only nitwit columnists who are trembling in fear, it's nitwit members of Congress. Susan Soloman, a senior scientist at NOAA, a recipient of the US National Medal of Science, the nation's highest scientific honor, and co-chair of the IPCC, was a witness at the same House Science and Technology Committee hearing at which Pelosi testified. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-SomePlanetSomewhere) went after her:
Mr. Rohrabacher asked Dr. Soloman how much human activity contributed to greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and interrupted repeatedly when she tried to answer, accusing her of "dodging" and questioning her honesty.

When Dr. Soloman asked for a chance to finish a sentence, he said: "I control this time. You don't." ...

Eventually, Dr. Soloman said atmospheric carbon dioxide had held steady at 280 parts per million for almost 10,000 years, until the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Today, the level is 380 parts per million and increasing, she added, with "greater than 90 percent" of the increase because of people.
Talking to Fox later, Rochabacher
said Solomon's answer was "a total obfuscation" that "tries to exaggerate the actual amount of pollution being put into the atmosphere by human beings as compared to what nature does itself."
(By the way, speaking of Some Planet Somewhere, Fox's lead on the story about the hearing was this:
Not enough evidence exists that humans are responsible for global warming, so current laws should not be changed to limit greenhouse gas emissions, critics of a global climate change report told a House panel Thursday.)
Rohrbacher's question is a clever one for the nanny-nanny naysayers because the answer sounds damning: Humans contribute a relatively small portion of overall greenhouse gases, on the order of 5-10% of the total. It's sufficiently clever that I suspect the question was supplied to Rohrabacher rather than being something he came up with himself: It said a great deal about his scientific knowledge when he equated all greenhouse gases with "pollution." But in fact it's not a valid question, it's an ideologically-driven attempt to confuse the issue with irrelevancies. Nature has established cycles of greenhouse gas production and absorbtion that had kept the climate relatively stable for centuries. Human activity has added to production without adding anything to absorbtion, upsetting that balance. Imagine a water tank with both an in pipe and an out pipe. Water is pumped into the tank at a rate of 90 gallons a minute - and drains out at the same rate. The level stays the same. Now someone starts adding buckets of water at a rate of 10 gallons per minute. "Well, gee," Congressman Boobbacher would say, "the human contribution is only 10% of the total." But that additional, relatively small, contribution is what's going to cause the tank to overflow. It's the change that's important.

Dr. Soloman tried to answer the relevant question, not the ideological one - and Rohrabacher didn't like it. How bad was it?
When Mr. Rohrabacher again accused her of dodging his question, the committee chairman, Representative Bart Gordon, Democrat of Tennessee, told him to put it in writing and added, "My belief is the answer lies in what the lady just said."
If you know Congress, you know how unusual it is for the chair of a committee to tell a member to, in effect, knock it off.

(Sidebar: Dr. Soloman was one of four witnesses speaking on behalf of the report. The others were Richard Alley, professor of geosciences at Penn State, and Kevin Trenberth and Gerald Meehl of the National Center for Atmospheric Research. One science blogger commenting on the hearings - unfortunately, I have misplaced the link - said he thought Dr. Soloman was the least effective of the four. I strongly doubt it was a coincidence that she was the one Rohrabacher went after.)

Okay, so we know various right-wing nutbags are scared of the IPCC report. But of just what are they scared? What is the root of that fear? Here's a hint, from
A lot of people in Europe are worried that draconian car emission laws now being considered by the European Commission could mean the death of sports and luxury cars.
Omigod! Not that! Not the end of gas-guzzling, over-priced, "hey-peons-looka-me-I'm-rich" cars! Don't tell me we'll have to drive (gasp!) efficient vehicles that can't lord it over common folks! How will we live? No wonder they're scared. (I wonder if that's the sort of thing Rohrabacher had in mind when he said that curbing greenhouse gas emissions would be to "dramatically change our way of life.")

And how scared are they? Well, for one thing, as the Guardian (UK) for February 2 told us, they're prepared to offer bribes for the "right" answers.
Scientists and economists have been offered $10,000 each by a lobby group funded by one of the world's largest oil companies to undermine a major climate change report due to be published today.

Letters sent by the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), an ExxonMobil-funded thinktank with close links to the Bush administration, offered the payments for articles that emphasise the shortcomings of a report from the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Travel expenses and additional payments were also offered.
That's scared. Then there are those who are either scared out of their minds or just nuts to begin with. The Sydney Morning Herald (Australia) reported back on January 29 about a little-noticed proposal for the IPCC report:
The US wants the world's scientists to develop technology to block sunlight as a last-ditch way to halt global warming.

It says research into techniques such as giant mirrors in space or reflective dust pumped into the atmosphere would be "important insurance" against rising emissions, and has lobbied for such a strategy to be recommended by a UN report....

Possible techniques include putting a giant screen into orbit, thousands of tiny, shiny balloons, or microscopic sulfate droplets pumped into the high atmosphere to mimic the cooling effects of a volcanic eruption.
(Thanks for Talking Points Memo for the link.)

The US apparently also whined that the report tended to "focus on the negative effects of climate change."

It was, again, a case of the US being, as I wrote in the wake of the State of the Union address, "all hat and no cattle" on global warming. In fact, not only is there no cattle, but the range is being plowed under: One promising form of energy is geothermal, with the potential to meet 10% of US electricity demand by 2050 with virtually no greenhouse gas emissions.
There are just two major catches. First, about $800 million in research and development is needed over the next decade to make the drilling technology cost-effective. Second, the Department of Energy is trying to kill the program by ending its funding.
The excuse is that geothermal is a "mature" technology ready to compete in the marketplace without additional support. This comes even as the White House proposes to continue to fund work on other forms of energy - including nuclear.

This is idiotic. Fearfully idiotic. What are they trying to protect? In place of the wholly rational fear of the effects of global warming, right wingers and their corporate fellow travelers are being guided by the most base sort of fear, that of unadulterated selfishness. Oh yes, we'll do something about global warming - if it doesn't cost me anything, if it doesn't hurt my profits, if it doesn't require me to actually do anything.

A few years ago I had an email exchange with a woman who told me that she wasn't concerned about global warming because by the time the bad effects were hitting, in 30 or 40 years, she'd be dead. While I'm sure at least some of the small number of skeptics among scientists are sincere, I believe that many of the corporate, economic, and political hangers-on truly feel the way she does: They are convinced that effective action against global warming will have some measurable impact on their lifestyle and they just can't get their small minds around the concept of having less than they do or (even worse!) of sharing some of it.

Well, they're likely right that we can't battle global warming without some impact on our lifestyles. But I think back on my lifestyle from the '80s - or hell, even the '60s - and yes, I had less in the way of hi-tech goodies, but was my life really that much more limited, that deprived? Was yours? Compared to protecting the environment for, and safety of, future generations that seems a damn small price to pay.

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