Downsizing

Hollywood films frequently employ what’s called the “high concept” approach. That’s when you can describe the gist of the movie in a sentence. For the original Ghostbusters, for example, the high-concept sentence might have been: “A comedy in which geeky paranormal scientists use high-tech gadgets to catch ghosts and save the world from an ancient evil being.” Pretty compelling!

For Downsizing, the high concept pitch probably was something like this: “The world is changed when scientists discover a way to shrink human beings to five-inch size in order to reduce humanity’s carbon footprint and allow the tiny people to live like kings.” That sounds pretty interesting, too, and like Ghostbusters would allow for lots on great special effects, too.

But where Ghostbusters built great ideas and characters, like Mr. Stay-Puft and the controlling EPA twerp, into the plot and made the movie a classic, in Downsizing the premise just sits there, thrashing around in search of an identity. Is it a comedy, or a serious approach to global warming, or a treatment about how humanity is ultimately frivolous, caste-bound, and uncaring? Potentially interesting notions of how the big-people world and the little-world world would interact get raised and then vanish without a trace. Characters come and go, seemingly at random, stereotypes bizarrely intrude into the plot, and by the end of the movie, when a five-inch Matt Damon is beating on a drum on the shores of a Norwegian fjord with a band of hippies who are preparing to go underground to save the human species, you’re scratching your head and wondering what the hell the movie is really supposed to be about.

Downsizing shows that the initial high concept only takes you so far. The special effects are good, and the weird twists and plot holes will give rise to lots of after-movie analysis, but this film is a quickly forgettable dud.

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?

Do We Really Have To Politicize Santa?

I don’t remember believing in Santa Claus — but according to my mother, I did.  I do remember my younger sisters believing, and playing along with the Santa game.  It was fun, and it made Christmas a more special, magical time.  When Richard and Russell were little, and they believed in St. Nick, it was a time of great, innocent joy.

So why does Greenpeace need to produce a video of Santa warning children that Christmas might not come because global warming is endangering the North Pole.  I know this is just political claptrap, prepared to attract attention and, presumably, donations, but it really crosses a line.  Santa shouldn’t be political. Regardless of your position on whether human activities have produced global warming, can’t we leave little children and their beautiful fantasies about life and magical people like Santa Clause alone?

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.

 

Another Impending Benefit Of The Utica Shale

Eastern Ohio is enjoying an economic boom from the discovery of apparently enormous natural gas deposits in the Utica Shale formation, far underground.  The discovery not only has led to economic growth and lower unemployment rates — as well as the promise of less dependence on foreign sources of energy — but it also is likely to have a significant positive environmental impact.

The U.S. Energy Information Agency, a part of the Energy Department, said this month that total U.S. carbon dioxide emissions for the first four months of this year fell abruptly to the lowest level in 20 years.  CO2, of course, is one of the dreaded “greenhouse gases” that are blamed for “global warming.”  The drop in CO2 emissions is attributed to power plants switching from coal to cheap, and plentiful, natural gas.  The discovery of large natural gas deposits elsewhere in the U.S. has caused the price of natural gas to fall dramatically in recent years.  With the Utica Shale drilling coming on line, the surge in the supply of natural gas means that the price should stay low — even if the demand for natural gas increases.

As the linked story indicates, businesses pay attention to price, and when it comes to behavior modification good intentions about reducing greenhouse gases can’t hold a candle to lower prices.

Revisiting A Hot Topic

We need some good news, and NASA has provided some on on the “global warming” front.

The good news comes from data gathered by NASA satellites, which have evaluated the release of heat by the Earth’s atmosphere into space.  The data, from 2000 through 2011, indicates that far more energy was released — and therefore far less heat was trapped in the Earth’s atmosphere — than the dire predictions of United Nations computer models.  One of the principal U.S. scientists on the project said the satellite observations “suggest there is much more energy lost to space during and after warming than the climate models show,” and that “[t]here is a huge discrepancy between the data and the forecasts that is especially big over the oceans.”  If science works as it should, the real-world data should lead to revisions in the computer models and consequent reductions in predictions for temperature change.

The world as we know occasionally seems like it is going to hell, but it is at least reassuring to learn that predictions that we are going to reach Hades-like temperatures in the near future apparently are misplaced.

“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.