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Science of global warming

01/03/2008

By Matthew Jarosinski

The climate system is extraordinarily complex and scientists are skeptical of their ability to understand what it is doing and why.

The last ice age began about three million years ago. But some 12,000 years ago the weather started to warm up again and it recovered one-third of the land mass as glaciers and snowpack have melted. Scientists believe that the warming trend will continue but they point out that the climate can shift in opposite directions sometimes for many decades. A solar cyclical variability is the central factor behind all the climatic change. High CO2 levels have always been a follow-up symptom of warming, not a cause.

But today we are putting a lot of CO2 into the earth's atmosphere. Some claim that the growing accumulation of CO2 can enhance the greenhouse effect beyond a point of no return. At present, this claim is still very largely hypothetical. There have been periods when CO2 levels were up to 16 times what they are now and yet the planet underwent glaciations, not warming. The CO2 levels are increasing and temperatures are rising but the correlation is not close enough to be sure about causation. The warmest year on record for the U.S. was 74 years ago and the warmest years were in the '30s and '40s thus prior to the steep rise in industrial pollution. During the past 10 years the world's temperatures have leveled off. In 2007 the Antarctic sea ice cover reached its all time maximum, while in the Arctic it has shrunk to a record minimum. The climatologists are puzzled by these contradictions and they caution against drawing conclusions based on a short timeframe.

Meanwhile the climate conference in Bali removed targets of the Kyoto Protocol for CO2 emission reductions and gave only vague recommendations. The IPCC hopes to build international support for their theory on global warming so it can provide stimulus for a global environmental policy. But meanwhile it remains hotly contested. Moreover a slightly warmer climate predicted by IPCC would be, on the whole, beneficial. By making their hypothesis a prima facie condition for a strong global environmental policy, the IPCC panel had in fact produced a significant obstacle to it. And in order to break the deadlock IPCC tried to politicize the science.

Science and politics are two distinctly different spheres of human activity; the aim of a politician is to create a consensus and the aim of a science is to break it. This is because scientific progress depends on endless challenges to the established views. And in science, which reasons from facts to general, it is not unusual for a controversy to go unresolved for many decades. On the other hand politicians are in habit of hastily building a consensus around uncertain views. In the public sphere, once a consensus is built, no matter how delusional, it earns a status of a warrant. Then a rational argument can be conducted with some prospect of success only when emotions do not exceed a certain degree. For that reason politicization of a scientific dispute on climate inevitably raises a question of substance as well as of method. Nevertheless there has been a persistent effort to block free scientific dispute. It is routine these days to read in newspapers or hear from politicians that the scientific dispute about human-made global climatic change has been settled and that it is now time to stop questioning the already decided issue. Anyone who dares to ask questions is called a "Holocaust denier." Some U.S. senators threatened Exxon Mobil with congressional censure if it does not adhere to the senators' view on global warming. The IPCC chairman, Dr. R. Pachauri, compared skeptical environmentalist Bjorn Lomborg to Adolf Hitler. It serves well to intimidate the public and many of us may respond by changing our opinions. But is it enough? By contrast in 1624 the Parliament of Paris had passed a decree that made criticism of Aristotle's views punishable by death.

Meanwhile scientist James Hansen whose congressional testimony created the global warming anger, admitted in <MI>Scientific American<D> that he had deliberately exaggerated the dangers of global warming but "emphasis on extreme scenarios have been appropriate when the public and decision makers were unaware of the global warming issue." Prof. Schelling, a Nobel laureate for economics, stated that there is scientific consensus on global warming, "even though it cannot yet be incontrovertibly detected in the climate record." But isn't it true that truly scientific knowledge must, first of all, be validated by appeal to empirical facts, on pain of being dismissed as meaningless? Various IPCC scientists voiced their skepticism. Nevertheless the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to IPCC and to AL Gore for alerting us to an incoming catastrophe. Soon after Mr. Christy, IPCC's co-recipient of this Nobel Prize, published an article in which he explicitly disagreed that human activity is to blame for global warming.

Meanwhile the human-made global warming issue has become a potent political weapon which will be used during the incoming elections. Bill Clinton proclaimed that he and Mr. Gore were right about global warming, and we are now suffering the consequences of President Bush's ignorance. The Republican presidential candidates admit now that they believe in man-made global warming. President Bush received Mr. Gore to discuss the issue and has stated during the press conference that he takes it seriously. The main credit for creating 'a planetary emergency' belongs to one person -- Al Gore. In his scary science-fiction movie, humans will destroy the planet and civilization unless CO2 emissions are stopped. But the more he lays claim to universal validity, the less capable he is of doing justice to the individual facts. The sea level is going to rise 15 times higher than the level predicted by IPCC's research. Historically proven wide temperature swings have disappeared, like a medieval warming period and the drastic mid-millennium cooling period. The movie shows the 1999 Michael Mann's graph which made the temperature look persistently steady over the millennium until the unique strong climb over the past decades. In short, according to this graph there were no warming periods in the human history prior to the Industrial Revolution. A number of research groups showed that Mann's work is full of basic errors, nevertheless Al Gore used it in his movie. The movie shows that the reduced sea ice will kill all polar bears. Several years ago four dead bears drowned during a fierce storm and some environmental group had aired commercial showing an animated polar bear and a cub on cracking ice and slipping underneath the water. But can we attribute this hurricane's intensity to global warming? The fact is that Polar bear population has actually increased over the past decades. Until Gore's extreme scenario is supported by facts, anyone who believes in CO2 impact on global climate has no alternative but to accept a more moderate view presented by IPCC. Meanwhile Mr. Gore assures us that "the debate in the scientific community is over." But during the TV interview Al Gore himself admitted that scientists don't know enough to be sure. Yet, the Nobel committee felt that only extreme means would wake up the public to the growing problem and awarded half of the prize to Al Gore. Now they can lay back and wonder how long the public inertia can outlast the onslaught of the robust propaganda. Meanwhile the scientific dispute goes on, while Mr. Gore continues to give the appearance of handing out the ultimate truth.

It is time that such attitude is given a decent funeral. The information is incomplete and it will remain such in the foreseeable future; we simply don't know for sure what CO2 does to the climate. The point is that we don't have to pressure scientists to stop debating the scientific issue and to agree not to disagree. Instead we can change the focus from the hypothetical issue of man-made warming to the real problem of human-made pollution. Industrial pollution is a well-known fact and it concerns the entire society. The cooperative effort of all nations is needed to combat it. Focusing the attention on industrial emissions would transform the argument from the scientific field to the public sphere where building political consensus based on informed beliefs is appropriate. We can also state that even if we don't know for sure if there is a risk to the climate from CO2 emissions, we nevertheless cannot live under the condition of uncertainty and we therefore want to do something about it. Such a position would make it possible to proceed with responsible global environmental policy without a need for distorting inconvenient facts and putting politicians in charge of weather forecasts.

Meanwhile we should monitor the ongoing dispute about climate. It is important that the public understands the weakness of the science behind Al Gore's movie. Knowledgeable citizens don't have to be continuously agitated by the extreme scenarios and thus ready to break the bones of the opponent. Only informed society can proceed collectively in a responsible manner. Otherwise our politicians will continue with a string of absurdities which will be told with such pretense of truth that they themselves will start believing in their own mission.

The fundamental modern problem is the problem that Al Gore failed to solve. It is a problem of maintaining a society more open than any mankind has ever known, open to a debate and able to forge a reason-based consensus. Al Gore furthers means by which the society is sidelined and conditioned into the role of a passive herd. It might be a symptom of recoil from that prospect.
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