Saturday, December 15, 2007

Al Gore’s house, global warming, weather and climate, arrogance, and other ramblings...

I’m not actually going to specifically address the controversy about Al Gore’s domestic energy useage. But it has reminded me of a pervasive phenomenon amongst environmentalists and greenies (of which I am definitely one, make no mistake): “Our shit doesn’t stink."

I was surrounded by this in my time in various ecological institutes during my decades in Academia. In grad school I commented to my fellow students that we must have received special dispensation from E.P. Odum himself to decree that our own wasteful activities did not create any environmental harm because we were carrying them out for higher sacred purposes. Few really seemed to get my joke. The fact was, we ran through the toxic and radioactive waste, electricity, gasoline, and everything else at just as phenomenal rate as any research lab in the petroleum or pharma industries. Our building had been designed personally by EPO in a big, open plan, surrounding a glass-walled courtyard, in order to maximize interaction. Of course, it also maximized heat loss, and our energy consumption per square foot was well above average for the campus. But that was OK, because we were the Chosen Ones doing the Good Work. Green sorts also continue to have a marked fondness for carving out new homesteads beyond the end of the paved road on a lovely (formerly) undeveloped tract; which usually leads to the ultimate paving of roads, extending of phone and power lines, and the further spread of the outer tendrils of suburbia. Plus, of course, it creates long commutes.

The belief that studying the population dynamics of stream invertebrates, or the biogeochemical behavior of cesium, or even the creation of methane in wetlands is a higher, grander, more world-saving purpose which excuses liability for collateral environmental damage inflicted during this work has a very simple name: Arrogance. Just because you are flying to an environmental conference or driving to an ecological study site does not change the environmental impact of the fuel you burn. Radioisotopes and toxic chemicals released in eological studies cause cancers just the same as those released by power plants. All our shit stinks. The environmentalist is not engaged in work any more noble than the trucking company that modernizes its fleet and reduces its fuel consumption 15%; in fact my money would be on the trucking company for the marginal contribution of its action to “saving the world,” even if it was motivated by saving money rather than saving caribou.

Which leads me further into thoughts about energy conservation. Something is getting lost in the tidal wave of Global-Warming-ism that is sweeping the world. There are some features of the energy sector of our global economy about which there is little controversy among reasonable people: Energy extraction and transport are often dirty industries that have significant adverse environmental impacts. Energy transformation (e.g. coal to electricity or hydroelectric generation) and consumption require costly infrastructure and create waste that have significant environmental and social costs. Global patterns of energy resource distribution contribute to sociopolitical tensions, strife and war. Most people would be willing to concede these things as givens, even if they would argue about their exact nature and magnitude. Based on this, we already know that energy conservation is a worthy goal, regardless of the facts or fictions about greenhouse-gas-based anthropogenic global warming. But we seem now to be in a situation where it's all or nothing about global warming. We don't need CAFE standards because global warming is bunk. Greenhouse gasses aren't warming the plant so there's no reason not to strip mine the Canadian tar sands. And so forth. It is rarely stated so explicitly, but the undercurrent seems to be growing.

About global warming... personally, I believe that greenhouse warming from anthropogenic increases in greenhouse gasses is likely. It may be based primarily on theory, but the theory that predicts this is our fundamental understanding of how the global heat budget functions and why we are neither a steam bath nor an iceball. So if this theory is bunk then we don't apparently know anything about global climate. This seems unlikely to me. However, I agree that there are significant problems with existing temperature records when it comes to understanding what is actually happening now. These are the inevitable issues with comparing fundamentally different data sets; there need be no conspiracy theories involved. A fallacy that is seems everyone is engaging in, from the Weather Channel and Al Gore to the Petroleum Institute and Lord Monckton is the confusion of weather and climate. Individual weather events, short term-trends, patterns of hot and cold years over a few decades, these are essentially meaningless in the context of evaluating long-term trends. One year of "record low" arctic ice or one year of "record cold" in Tasmania means NOTHING. Nor is it of any significance whether 2007 is warmer or colder than 1998. The one case in which weather events might be of long-term climatological significance is in the case of truly unprecedented events for which there is a long historical record. An increasing frequency of these would be a valid indication of climate change. Mostly, we have been seeing an unprecedented level of media coverage, climate surveillance by remote sensing, and population densities in vulnerable areas. The punishing drought and heat in the eastern US this summer is not unprecedented. The 2005 hurricane season was probably not without precedent, if you subtract out the contribution of satellite surveillance of the oceans. The only difference between Katrina and Camille was a small shift in the landfall point. Atlanta's drought is record-breaking because of Atlanta's record high population and suburban sprawl. And so on. The one event I am aware of that does meet the unprecedented test was the South Atlantic hurricane in 2004. But until this repeats, we can't know that it wasn't just an isolated, once-in-300-years extreme in the normal variation.

Time will tell, as with so many things.


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