Travel Guilt

If you’ve got a big trip planned for this year, should you cancel it?  Should you refrain from traveling at all, because of the impact that your share of carbon emissions from the plane flight may be having on Arctic sea ice, or rising sea levels?

edited-travel-guilt-770x515That’s the question posed by a curious New York Times article earlier this week.  The author wrings his hands about the issue, caught between a desire to broaden his horizons by seeing the world and his professed guilt that his travel interests are selfish and evil because they may be affecting global climate change.  After quoting lots of statistics about the potential impact of one person’s activities, and envisioning being glared at by a hungry polar bear while pondering his contribution toward disappearing Arctic ice, the author notes that he’s still going to take a trip to Greece and Paris, but only after he’s purchased enough “carbon offsets” to “capture the annual methane emanations of a dozen cows.”

The Times article notes that, in 2016, two climatologists published a paper that concluded that there is a direct relation between carbon emissions and the melting of Arctic sea ice, and “each additional metric ton of carbon dioxide or its equivalent — your share of the emissions on a cross-country flight one-way from New York to Los Angeles — shrinks the summer sea ice cover by 3 square meters, or 32 square feet.”  Taking a cruise isn’t the answer, either; the article says that cruise ships produce three or four times the pollution produced by jets.  Even worse, the article states that just by being an average American we’re harming and even killing fellow human beings, and quotes a determination somehow made by a University of Tennessee professor, who concluded: The average American causes through his/her greenhouse gas emissions the serious suffering and/or deaths of two future people.”

So, should we just stay huddled in our houses with the lights turned off, so as to minimize our personal contribution to potential global catastrophe?  I won’t be doing that.  I like leisure travel, and unlike the Times writer, I’m not wracked with guilt about it.  I’m quite skeptical of any calculation that purports to show that, in view of all of the huge, overarching factors, such as sunspot cycles, solar flares, ocean currents, and wind systems, that can affect the Earth’s climate, the activity of an “average American” can be isolated and found to have a direct, measurable impact on climate.  Science has endured a lot of black eyes lately, with research and calculations shown to be inaccurate and, in some instances, politically motivated, and I’m just not willing to accept unquestioningly that going to visit my sister-in-law in California will melt 32 square feet of Arctic sea ice.  I also question how the activities of an “average American” are calculated, or how a walk-to-work person like me compares to the carbon footprint of the “average.”

So, I guess you can call me selfish, because I do want to see more of the world and experience the wonders of faraway places.  But don’t just ask me — ask the places that travelers visit if they’d rather not receive the infusions of cash, and the jobs created, that come from being a tourist destination.  If we’re going to be doing impossibly complex calculations of benefits and harm, how about throwing in the economic and cultural benefits that flow from travel into the equation?

Is The Red Head Dead?

Climate change advocates have made a lot of dire predictions about irreversible increases in global temperature, seas rising and swallowing island nations, and other catastrophes wrought by the nefarious greenhouse gas emissions of humanity.  But now they may have crossed the line:  they’re predicting the extinction of redheads due to climate change.

The theory is that red hair is an evolutionary response to the lack of sunlight in areas like Scotland, where red heads make up a sizable chunk of the population, because red hair and fair skin allows people to get the maximum amount of vitamin D from a minimum amount of sunlight.  If gloomy places like Scotland starts to get more sunlight due to global warming, the theory goes, then the evolutionary advantage red hair provides will be lost, and redheads will vanish from the human gene pool.

There’s some facial rationality to this theory.  If you’ve ever seen a redhead in a hothouse climate like Florida, you know that gingers wouldn’t flourish in perpetually sunny conditions and instead would retreat indoors, bemoaning their apparently permanent sunburns.  There obviously will be less inclination to engage in the physical activity needed to pass on those redhead genes if your skin is burned to a brick red color and feels like it’s on fire.

I’m hoping the climate change scientists are wrong on this very upsetting prediction.  I’m a fan of redheads, and not just because I married one and Kish’s family tree is full of them.  The world would be a poorer place without Lucille Ball and Maureen O’Hara, Vincent Van Gogh and Winston Churchill, Ron Howard and Willie Nelson.  With a lineup like that, we’ll even take a clinker like Carrot Top now and then.

The End Of Snow . . . Really?

There’s an interesting and provocative piece in the New York Times about global warming entitled “The End of Snow?”

The article addresses the effect of warming temperatures on the ski industry, but it’s really about global warming generally. It urges a “national policy shift on how we create and consume energy” if we want to keep our mountains white in the winter.

IMG_5789Given the terribly cold winter we’ve had, and the amount of snowfall we’ve seen, it’s tempting to give a flippant answer like: “The end of snow? Bring it on!” But of course one harsh winter and days of sub-zero temperatures does not disprove any long-term global warming theory, and the dire predictions of some climatologists are no laughing matter. If the Earth really is irreversibly becoming warmer and warmer, and if — and it’s a big if — the warming is due to human activity, then any rational person should be concerned.

On climate change, I don’t know what to think. It seems like you can find a study or results to support just about any position. Temperatures have stabilized over the last decade or so. Arctic icecaps are melting and some glaciers are retreating, but Antarctic ice is growing. Is the cause of warming trends “greenhouse gases,” or sunspot activity? The most alarmist predictions of global warming scientists — and Al Gore — haven’t been realized. Does that mean there’s not really a problem, or just that we’ve hit a brief cessation in a long-term trend that will continue next year?

I tend to be skeptical about over-the-top predictions, and I’m particularly skeptical when people say that there is no reason for skeptical consideration any longer — which is what many climatologists have contended. It seems to me that science should always involve a willingness to test and revisit theory. But where do you go to find an honest and objective assessment of the science of global warming, by someone who doesn’t seem motivated by a clear agenda favoring one side or the other?

95 Percent Confidence

The Fifth Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report states that it is 95 percent certain that humans are the main cause of global warming.

IMG_2740The 95 percent confidence level reported in the IPCC document is surprising, because it is extraordinarily high.  Climate scientists asked about the confidence level say that they are about as certain that global warming is a man-made condition as they are that smoking cigarettes causes cancer, and more sure about the human cause of global warming than they are that vitamins are good for you or that dioxin is dangerous.  In fact, the climate scientists say that one of the few things that they consider to be more certain than human-caused climate change is the existence of gravity.  One scientist is quoted as saying that climate change “is not as sure as if you drop a stone it will hit the Earth,” and adds that “It’s not certain, but it’s close.”

There remains, however, a huge discrepancy between the scientific view of global warming and skepticism on the part of significant portions of the American public about the concept.  A recent poll showed that less than half of Americans believe that climate change is real and caused by humans — and that number seems to be declining, even as scientific certainty apparently is increasing.

Why is this so?  Some people suspect that there are just a lot of scientifically illiterate Americans out there.  I think that may be part of the answer, but there may be other motivating factors.  I think some Americans, at least, have grown increasingly suspicious of academics generally and believe that science has become increasingly politicized.  Still others argue that weather systems are extraordinarily complex, that the Earth’s climate has changed countless times over the course of planetary history, and that it takes enormous hubris for scientists to believe they can determine what influences the Earth’s climate.

It will be interesting to see whether the latest IPCC report moves public opinion one way or the other.  One thing is clear:  if politicians want to take expensive or disruptive action on the ground that climate change is an impending disaster, they had better figure out how to first convince the American people that the problem truly exists.

 

“Cloud Whitening” And The Hubris Of Science

I know that people disagree about the science and causes of “global warming,” but can we all agree that having scientists engage in large-scale environmental science experiments is not a great idea?

Consider the proposal to engage in “cloud whitening.”  Humans would spray fine droplets of sea water into the air.  The theory is that water vapor would condense around the salt crystals, producing new clouds or making existing clouds thicker and therefore “whiter.”  Whiter clouds reflect more solar energy back into space than does cloudless sky, so creating more, larger, and whiter clouds should reflect even more solar energy back into space, cooling the Earth.  The theory hasn’t been tested.  Nevertheless, many scientists apparently have seized on “cloud whitening” as a quick way to make a dent in global warming trends.

Now a scientist has announced results of a study that raises some significant cautionary issues about the concept of “cloud whitening.” Her study concludes that lots more salt would need to be sprayed than first thought, and that if we don’t get the size of the particles precisely right we could reduce cloud cover rather than increase it — and thereby increase the warming effect of solar energy.

I don’t know who will ultimately decide whether humanity should engage in some of the large-scale environmental engineering projects that periodically are proposed by scientists — but I hope it is someone with a healthy skepticism about the certainty of science and some humility about the ability of humans to confidently predict the results of their efforts on something as complex as the Earth’s weather systems.  We get all kinds of assurances from scientists and engineers, and sometimes they are wrong.  It’s one thing when they screw up a machine or a theory about how gravity works.  It’s quite another if their tinkering wrecks weather patterns and unintentionally turns Iowa into the Midwestern version of the Sahara Desert.

A Hot Topic (Cont.)

I’ve posted on several occasions before on sloppy science related to climate change — see here and here, for example — so I was glad to see that an independent review has suggested changes in how the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change operates.  The proposals are designed to avoid politicizing science issues and making the body more transparent, although it remains to be seen whether changes actually are implemented.

The crucial point, I think, is to return scientists to their role as objective evaluators who develop theories and then carefully test their hypotheses.  When scientists pursue a political agenda, rather than simply trying to uncover the truth, the science obviously suffers.

Not Our Fault

A recent study has concluded that the woolly mammoth died out due to declining pasture land, rather than being hunted to extinction by early humans as some scientists have speculated.

Interestingly, climate change apparently played a role — although no one seems to be attributing that climate change to humans (yet).  During the Ice Age, there were smaller concentrations of carbon dioxide, which discouraged tree growth.  As a result, there were vast pasture lands that were perfectly suited to large grass- and plant-munching beasts like the woolly mammoth.  As the Ice Age receded, climates warmed and carbon dioxide concentrations increased, which in turn led to the development of forests that encroached on the grasslands that were crucial to the survival of the mammoths.

The study is based on computer simulations, so there will still be room for debate.  Nevertheless, it is nice to think that our ancestors were not responsible for the extinction of these striking, colossal creatures that roamed the planet at the dawn of mankind.

A Welcome Debate

The head of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the entity whose reports have been subject to significant criticism lately, says the group now “welcomes” vigorous debate on the science of climate change.  Some people may be skeptical of that statement, because it certainly appears that the IPCC and other groups have tried to quash any debate in the name of “consensus.”  But let’s accept what the IPCC head now says at face value.  I think all that global warming skeptics have sought is an honest scientific debate about whether human activities in fact are responsible, in whole or in part, for any global warming.  If the scientific debate is an honest one, that is all anyone can ask.

A Hot Topic (Cont.)

Here’s the latest on the global warming science front.  The most recent development involves errors and lack of substantiation in the 2007 report of the UN climate change panel, the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change, and its headline-grabbing statement that it was very likely that the Himalayan glaciers would melt by 2035, if not sooner.  The IPCC now admits that the statement was “poorly substantiated” because it was not based on any consensus of scientists, but rather on a single, 1999 magazine interview of an Indian glaciologist.  The Himalayan section of the report is riddled with other errors, including grossly misstating the actual size of the glaciers and the rate at which they have melted during recent time periods.   (And this is a report that won the Nobel Peace Prize!)

Again, I don’t know what the actual objective scientific method — gathering confirmed data, testing and disproving hypotheses, and so forth — would reveal about global warming, and news stories like the one linked above just add to the quandary.  It is hard to escape the conclusion that the whole area has been tremendously politicized and that the science has suffered as a result.  If a leading report from a scientific body makes the sensational claim that the Himalayan glaciers will disappear in 25 years and that statement is not even vetted, and indeed the underlying data about the glaciers stated in the report is demonstrably wrong, what does that tell us about the credibility and rigor of global warming science?

Edited to Add:  A story published today quotes one of the authors of the IPCC report as admitting that the information about the melting Himalayan glaciers was added solely to put political pressure on world leaders.

A Hot Topic (Cont.)

One great thing about the holidays is seeing your children and nieces and nephews, fresh from their college campuses, and learning what is on their minds.  We were up in Vermilion to visit with the “Kishman cousins” on Christmas Eve, and I had a chance to chat with our godson Andrew, who is a junior at Grinnell College and recently returned from a semester abroad in Sri Lanka.  He, Kish, Richard, Patty and I talked about Sri Lanka, about politics, and a little bit about global warming, too.

Although Andrew and I come at the global warming issue from different perspectives, I think there is some common ground.  We both recognize that we aren’t scientists, and we both are disappointed that we are now at the point where we question what is the true state of the science surrounding global warming.  I think any fair-minded person who has read about the hacked e-mails and data taken from the Climatic Research Unit at East Anglia University realizes that, at minimum, it raises questions about whether the science that has been portrayed as reflecting an overwhelming consensus view based on undisputed evidence may be, instead, result-oriented and politicized.

I recently heard Al Gore interviewed in connection with the Copenhagen conference.  He dismissed the e-mails as old and meaningless, and then returned to the mantra that global warming due to human activity is the near-unanimous consensus of the knowledgeable scientific community.  And then I read a piece like this — written by a geologist who is an IPCC expert reviewer — and I wonder how Al Gore can say what he says.  Clearly, someone is not being truthful in their depiction of the data.

Obviously, no rational human being would want the environment to be irreparably damaged by human activity, causing sea levels to rise and turning temperate zones into jungle.   Equally obviously, however, no one should want to saddle our economy with crushing and enormously disruptive regulations, costs and taxes if doing so is not a scientific imperative.  The decision on how to proceed could have huge consequences, and making that decision therefore should be based on actual data and real science.  For that reason, I am relieved that the Copenhagen conference did not produce any binding agreement.  My sense is that allowing time to pass, observing the fallout from the East Anglia University incident, and seeing whether there are fractures in the claimed scientific consensus may help to clarify things and put our eventual decision on sounder scientific footing.

Living Near The Terminal Moraine

I was interested in UJ’s recent post that linked to a photo that showed that a particular Canadian glacier has retreated in the 90 years since 1919.  UJ’s question was whether the photographic evidence of the glacier’s retreat was “bothersome.”

Being a lawyer, my answer to that question is (of course!) it depends.  Glaciers advance and retreat as weather conditions change.  We in Ohio should be acutely aware of that fact because the impact of glaciers can be seen all around us.  During the last Ice Age, advancing glaciers gouged out the Great Lakes, covered most of the State, and shoved enormous boulders hundreds of miles to the Terminal Moraine, which geologists place a few miles to the south of Columbus.  If glaciers were immutable, the location where I am typing these words would still be covered by a sheet of ice hundreds of feet thick and would be a likely playground for the woolly Mammoth and his Ice Age animal companions. 

The question is not whether it is good or bad that glaciers grow or shrink, but why that process occurs.  Is it part of the same natural processes — whatever they may be — that has produced the variable weather conditions, like the Ice Age, that have been found throughout the geological record?  Or, is it the result of human activity and greenhouse gas emissions?  The mere fact that temperatures have increased does not mean that a hypothesis about why temperatures have increased is correct.

This is why, in my view, it is so important to have a legitimate, vigorous scientific debate about climate change, complete with testing and experimentation that challenges the currently prevailing global warming hypothesis.  After all, scientists have been known to be wrong.  When was the last time anyone went to a doctor and asked if they had an imbalance of bodily humours?

A Hot Topic (Cont.)

I’ve posted before — see here and here — on the e-mails and other information collected as a result of the data breach at the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia.  The Weekly Standard has now published a thorough and carefully considered analysis of the data obtained, the context and meaning of the e-mail exchanges, and their ramifications for climate science specifically and science generally.

I encourage any layman who is interested in trying to piece together the science of global warming and the impact of the data breach to read the attached article.  It raises serious questions about the truth of the claimed “consensus” of scientists with respect to global warming and the validity of the “scientific findings” that are being used to justify the need for massive and crushingly expensive changes to our energy policies and economic structure.  At minimum, the data breach should cause the Obama Administration to hesitate, and revisit the science in a thoughtful, apolitical way, before rushing headlong into agreements and lifestyle changing decisions that are based solely on what may be nothing more than fearmongering and bullying masquerading as legitimate science.

A Hot Topic (Cont.)

Other shoes continue to drop in the ongoing story about the activities of the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia, which is regularly cited as one of the world’s leading proponents of the global warming hypothesis.  I’ve previously noted the curious e-mails obtained as a result of a criminal computer hacking episode.  Now the CRU has admitted that much of the raw data that it accumulated, and that formed the basis for its global warming findings, have been discarded, purportedly due to lack of storage space.   The linked article reports that a statement on the CRU’s website states that, while the raw data has been discarded, the CRU has retained what it calls its “value-added (quality controlled and homogenised) data.”

This decision seems extraordinarily unscientific to me.  One of the hallmarks of the scientific method, as I understand it, is to collect data based on tests, experiments, or other procedures, publish the data, and then let scientists elsewhere see whether they can recreate those results by following the identified procedures.  If other scientists can’t recreate the results reportedly obtained by a claimed procedure to achieve “cold fusion,” for example, they can legitimately question the legitimacy of the underlying study that claimed those results.  By discarding the raw data and keeping only data that has been modified in some way — whatever “quality controlled and homogenised” might mean — the CRU scientists have made it impossible to verify, or disprove, their claims.  If storage space was really that scarce, why would you discard the original data rather than the modified data?

I think scientists generally have credibility with the public not just because they are viewed as smarter than the average citizens, but also because they are viewed as neutral, objective observers who are engaged in an abstract quest for truth.   The CRU episode shows just how far that perception is from the reality of modern science — at least as it is practiced by some “scientists.”  When scientists discard raw data, refuse to share other data, and attempt to quash dissenting views, they are not acting as scientists but as proponents of a particular position.  They don’t deserve the credibility that we normally assign to scientific views — and others are coming to that same conclusion.

I hope that our government at least recognizes that this incident raises fundamental credibility issues that cannot be ignored.  Before we spend hundreds of billions of dollars to reshape our economy and our energy infrastructure in an effort to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that are the supposed cause of climate change under the global warming hypothesis, which should at least insist that the scientific basis for that decision be the product of true science — where data is openly and completely published, opposing views are fully and fairly heard, and hypotheses are tested and verified.  Until that happens, we are building our policies on faith, not science.

A Hot Topic (Cont.)

The fallout continues from the data breach that led to the release of e-mail exchanges between climate scientists about global warming dataThis New York Times piece indicates that the controversy about the e-mails, and their true meaning as it relates to the science of global warming, has had broad repercussions. 

Hacking into a computer is a criminal act which should not be condoned.  However, if this particular criminal act results in greater access to raw global warming data, and increased scientific debate about that data and its true meaning, then it has had some positive effect.  Science should not be a black box.  If global warming is to be used as a basis for arguing that western countries like the United States should make enormous and costly changes to their economies and activities, it obviously should be the subject of robust and skeptical discussion.  If climate change scientists aren’t willing to engage in such debate, that says something about their methods, practices, and status as scientists.  To paraphrase Harry Truman, if climate change scientists can’t stand the heat, they should get out of the kitchen.

 

A Hot Topic

Climate change and the science of climate change are hot topics these days, for several reasons.  First, it is now conceded by most in the scientific community that the continuing increases in global temperatures predicted by the most touted computer models have not occurred.  Instead, the global temperature trend lines are flat for the past decade.  Second, hackers recently broke into the computer servers of one of the leading climate science institutes, the Climatic Research Institute of the University of East Anglia and procured many e-mails which some global warming skeptics suggest may reflect a collusive effort among scientists to demonstrate global warming.

I cannot pretend to add anything to the scientific debate on the reality of global warming, or its causes if it exists.  What I find interesting is that so much of the response to the global warming debate is based upon computer programs that purport to forecast the future based upon past data.  The first article linked above demonstrates that the computer models, with their straight-line projection of temperature increases, have in fact been proven wrong by the actual data of the past 10 years.  In any rational scientific world, scientists would scrap the models, reexamine the data, consider other causal factors, identify reasons why the models have been shown to be inaccurate, and engage in a vigorous debate, complete with alternative hypotheses and testing of those hypotheses, to determine new theories.  Some scientists appear to be doing this, but others seem to be trying to defend the computer models by arguing that it is the damning actual data, and not the models, that are wrong.  Such a response does not seem to be consistent with the “scientific method” and instead suggests a political or social agenda.

In any system as complex as the Earth, there obviously can be many potential causes of temperature trends.  Human activity and CO2 emissions could be one causal factor, but as the first article linked above notes, so could sunspots and other solar activity, ocean currents, and the impact of volcano eruptions, among others.  A computer model is only as good as its data and assumptions — every computer model is subject to challenge on “garbage in, garbage out” grounds.

We can all agree to leave the science to the scientists.  In terms of American policy, however, shouldn’t we be more certain of the accuracy of the now at least partially discredited computer models before we undertake massive taxing programs, like the “cap and trade” proposal now before Congress, that would saddle our already burdened economy with additional job-killing costs?