In a recent trip to Africa, we went in a dry season between the Short Rains and the Long Rains. It still rained occasionally. We asked a local guide why, and he said, "Global Warming." Reminded me of a story that Joe Kennedy told, that one day in 1929 while getting a shoe shine, the shoe shine boy began giving him stock advice. He knew the top was in. He got out before the crash. Is the top in on Global Warming?
We have so many indicators. Politicians claim a scientific consensus, that no credible scientist opposes. So did the Catholic Church when they suppressed Galileo. John Doerr, tough-minded venture capitalist, got choked up at the recent TED conference when he began a talk on Global Warming. He was worried about the kids! As if climate change is a sudden thing. I have earlier reported how Al Gore had his John Dean moment when a Global Warming skeptic chimed in. Now known as the Goracle, Al too was worried over the kids. But why the rush to action on a problem whose solution is obscure, whose impact might be benign, and whose timing will be long? If the top is in, the backlash will soon begin.
On the Africa trip, we noticed that the snows at Kilimanjaro have lengthened, as compared with a book cover photo from 2003. No surprise, since the area has had around seven years with unusually long rainy seasons. Al Gore uses these snows as one of the proof points of Global Warming - they had been retreating. Now they are lengthening. Ah, but if Global Warming is causing the rains which lead to more snow, we have the best of all circumstances. If the snows retreat, Global Warming. If they lengthen, Global Warming. A good catch, that Catch 22.
The inconvenient truth is the science is not yet that good on Global Warming. And yet even the local guides in Africa buy into the story. This is a case of politics way ahead of science. The proponents simply want the debate to end, to get on with solutions, so they are browbeating opposition and claiming victory. This is not about science or logic but passion and politics.
I accept the premise of global warming: the world is warming up. After all, the period from 1550-1850 was called the Little Ice Age for a reason. Also, people are having a global impact. Oceans have been vacuumed. Whole animal populations devastated. Rainforests burned down. In many large scale ways we are contributing to global warming: deforestation, agriculture, urbanization, too many cows. But the focal point of Global Warming has become Carbon, and the science on THAT being the prime culprit is sketchy. Consider the core arguments of the skeptics:
* The largest Greenhouse Gas is water vapor (including clouds). Carbon Dioxide and other carbon-based gases (methane for example) make up only 5% of greenhouse gases. Even if carbon levels were to increase another 30%, this is a mere 2% more greenhouse gas, and is lost in the noise of water vapor fluctuation.
* People-caused carbon is around 4% of carbon dioxide, and a mere 0.3% of greenhouse gases. The fluctuation in carbon dioxide levels is something like 3 times larger, meaning the industrial-spewed carbon is lost in the noise of natural carbon dioxide.
* The correlation of carbon dioxide and warming is fairly good, but the causation is backwards. Carbon dioxide levels in ice cores LAG warming or cooling, sometimes by 1000 years or more - meaning it is not a cause but an effect. It may be that as the world warms up, it can support more biomass, and that biomass produces more carbon dioxide.
* The ocean is a natural regulator of carbon levels. It releases carbon dioxide when levels are low, and absorbs when levels are high. A fundamental tenet of the case against carbon is that the oceans are at the limit of their absorption capacity; otherwise, oceans will self-regulate carbon levels, and all the efforts to stop spewing industrial carbon will be an incredible waste of time and resource.
* There are other regulators of carbon, such as longer growing seasons from warmer climate (plants absorb carbon dioxide), whose rate of achieving balance with increases in carbon dioxide are unclear - which create enormous uncertainty in carbon models.
* Despite all that extra carbon dioxide, we are not that warm yet - we were warmer during the Medieval Warming Period (800-1300 AD). More areas of Greenland were cultivatable then, and England had extensive vineyards. Viewed over 1000 years, our recent warming looks like a bounce from the Little Ice Age.
The proponents have rebuttals to these points:
*On water vapor: not all greenhouse gases have equal impact, and the natural cycle of water vapor is different than that of carbon dioxide. Climate science is more complex than simple linearity. Carbon has a larger impact than water vapor, so its 5% level acts as a much higher percent. Yet even when that is accounted for, a doubling of carbon dioxide would have only about a 5% increase in the greenhouse gas effect, or about 1 degree C. And it may increase cloudiness, dampening the temperature.
* On carbon dioxide: it has spiked ahead of warming by 30% in the last 200 years, a faster increase than nature's regulators can respond to. It appears to be people caused, much of it from deforestation in the 1800s. Al Gore's charts show it continuing to grow at a steady pace, although some of the skeptics say despite SUVs and fossil-fuel power plants, the rate of increase has slowed since the 1970s.
* On ocean absorption: Coral reefs are decaying, the thermocline is rising, and we have over-fished and over-dredged major areas of the oceans. Something is going wrong. But are these evidence of absorption exhaustion? This is as murky as an algae-encrusted lake.
* On the Medieval Warming Period: it may not have been that much warmer (Gore's charts show it is a minor blip), and on a global basis the Medieval Warming Period and the Little Ice Age may have been local to the North Atlantic area.
On this last point, the proponents have some serious problems to work through. The infamous 'hockey stick' chart which shows a dramatic recent temperature spike also flattens both the Medieval Warming and the Little Ice Age, and seems to have been based on flawed analysis. This has led Global Warming skeptics to criticize a lot of the charts shown in Gore's documentary, particularly when they attempt to marry together different sources (eg., Antarctic ice cores with Mauna Loa CO2 measurements). If the normalization metric which ties the multiple sources together is flawed, so are the charts.
Climate is a non-linear chaotic system of such complexity that we cannot predict weather more than a few days out. The same models that predict global warming also were used to predict global cooling. The problem with computers used to be captured in the saying, 'garbage in, garbage out'. But we give enormous credence to computers, so perhaps today the mantra is: 'garbage in, gospel out'. But these climate models cannot lead us to the promised land.
Certainly there are sensible steps to managing energy - conservation, efficiency, better light bulbs, slower deforestation and burning of rainforests, more fuel efficient vehicles, fewer cows. If the environmental movement were really dead set against carbon, the best way to scale a non-carbon economy would be to push plug-in electric cars and build plenty of nukes. As it is the overall plan is a bit incoherent - more carbon-based biofuels rather than nukes (which doesn't help on carbon), expensive investment in carbon-sequestering (which slows economic growth and creates resistance to environmental issues - wealth pays for cleaner environments), expensive and under-utilized mass transit plans, and so forth.
The political momentum to do something could be harnessed to make real change. The good thing about a bubble is it overcomes resistance to investment in a new area. We are in a clean-tech bubble right now. The bad thing about a bubble is after it pops. If the top is in, the ardor for Global Warming will chill. The exaggeration of the threat and pushing of grandiose schemes will lead to mockery and complacency. It happened before - in the '80s after a government-subsidized push to get off the addiction to oil and find alternative energy. Oil dropped, crisis abated, grandiose projects sit rusting.
Al Gore predicted that the snows of Kilimanjaro will vanish in the next ten years. Is this the test of validity of Global Warming? Right now the snows are increasing, at least at the end of a longer rainy season. We'll see what vanishes first.