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.