Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Climate Change Conundrum

In one sense, I'm neutral in the climate-change debate. I have no access to the data, so I don't "know" what is true. But in the run up to the Copenhagen conference on global warming, I followed the news frenzy surrounding it with great interest, because I'm convinced that at no time since the Cold War's period of nuclear brinksmanship have the stakes for humanity as a whole seemed higher on a single use.

Based on geological evidence and climate data (temperature and other measurements recorded around the world since 1850), a large majority of climatologists have come to two stark conclusions. First, that we are in a period of global warming. The primary cause for this warming, they say, is an increase in "greenhouse gas" (primarily carbon dioxide or CO2) levels in Earth's atmosphere. Second, although geological evidence indicates that our world has been subject to periodic warming and cooling cycles, climate experts say this particular period of warming is, to some degree, fueled by carbon dioxide emissions generated by human technology coupled with human destruction of natural carbon storage mechanisms, such as rain forests.

The pace of warming and the degree to which the resulting climate change might alter our world is a matter of scientific conjecture — enlightened and informed conjecture, but conjecture nonetheless. We have no human record of another time like this in recorded history. Therefore, we have no precedent to which we can appeal. Hence, we face a conundrum.

People don't like conundrums, they prefer certainties. So as a political issue, global warming is proving to be difficult to manage in the public square. Those for and against the climate-change theory have drawn some predictable battle lines:

A large group of about 30,000 scientists and environmentalists (including a few tree-spikers who would rather see a lumberjack than a tree cut down) now believe that climate change is primarily the result of human agency. They point out that the average global temperature has recently, if I heard correctly, risen by one degree. Although that single degree sounds like "not much" to the lay person, these same scientists warn that a couple of degrees higher, on average, is likely to raise the ocean levels several meters and radically alter the climate. Some even predict utter disaster, spinning scenarios of domino-effect environmental crises — drought, famine, huge displacements of animal (including human) populations, pandemic disease, and finally, massive extinctions of plant and animals — that will lay waste to the planet's ecosystem and human civilization as we know it.

On the other hand, some scientists, inside and outside the climatology community (including a few funded by those most likely to lose if the battle goes the wrong way, such as oil companies) have cried foul, claiming variously that global warming is a fraud or, at best, a misreading of the data. Many attempt to discredit climatologists' climate-change research and/or discredit their conclusions. They have been joined by a motley crew of self-styled populists, including right-wing politicians and pseudo-libertarian TV performers, who add climate change to a long list of items that Liberals, Big Government and Obama have foisted on Main Street.

One of the roots of the debate is whether or not humans have the right to consider themselves more important than the other species in earth's ecosystem. For many environmentalists, our ecosystem is fragile, and its delicate balance must be maintained. To many of them, humans are the villains, aggressors who upset that balance and are to blame for most of the eco-ills we now face. Things for some have taken on the tone of a religious crusade: For the radical environmentalist, it's only a matter of time before Gaia herself rises to smite we human transgressors in just retribution if we do not radically change our ways. A smaller number, much like the most radical Islamists, aren't waiting for Gaia to do her work. They're ramming Japanese whaling vessels and performing other acts of eco-terror. No surprise, then, that some global warming apologists call those who disagree "deniers" — an obvious, calculated effort to set those who doubt climate-change science alongside those who doubt the reality of the Holocaust.

For naysayers, the earth is not so fragile, but is instead an ever-shifting, adaptive system that readily adjusts to what they argue is inevitable change. They cite a growing number of instances in which scientists have been wrong: Famously, the snail darter, a point of contention between eco-protectors and naysayers a while back, did not suffer extinction as eco-scientists predicted but instead flourished when their native habitat was "ravaged" by a hydroelectric project. These folks argue that Nature herself uses catastrophic change in positive ways: Notably, the lessons learned by foresters in the great Yellowstone Park fire. Foresters now use "planned" burns and "thinning" techniques to preserve the health of forests. Evidence such as this, the naysayers contend, shows that the eco-saviors are often wrong, and therefore, their "science" cannot be trusted.

What is undeniable is that global warming conundrum is a global issue. Representatives from more than 190 countries attended the Copenhagen congress — a meeting most who were there now admit was an almost abject failure. But the attention paid to the event, alone, indicates that the issue of global warming is the 21st Century's first great cause celebre. As in all such instances, the publicity surrounding it has directed outsized attention not only to those who compiled the data and published the conclusions on climate change but also to those who promote and castigate those results. There are papers to publish, speaking tours to negotiate. Talk show appearances. Egos and reputations are on the line. And, yes, there are paydays. Climate-change proponents and naysayers together have spawned a huge industry. It has generated books, TV programs, movies and become the substance of political careers.

There is considerable pressure to fan the flames of controversy when there are so many careers and dollars at stake. Controversy sells newspapers, and hype boosts the ratings of TV news organizations (their editors are desperate to save media models that in the Internet age might have outlived their utility). That does not make the climate change theorists or their detractors right or wrong, but it does whip up more than a little crusading zeal among the partisans. All this should prompt us Main Streeters to consider carefully and weigh with some skepticism the claims made on both sides.

The naysayers got a bit of a boost from the recent revelation of e-mails and other documents (3,000 or so, in all) hacked from the computers at the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia in the U.K. The hacker's timing couldn't have been better, with Copenhagen just around the corner.

I find it particularly puzzling that no one seems to be interested in finding out who released those e-mails. You'd think the people whose e-mails were exposed would be howling for an investigation. Hacking is a crime. And discovery of a "denier" behind the hack would help level the public-relations playing field for the beleaguered e-mailers, two of whom have had to temporarily relinquish their posts pending investigations into their conduct by their respective universities.

The two gentlemen appear now to be in a bit of a pinch. The e-mails suggest there was an effort to evade requests for data disclosure under Freedom of Information laws in the U.K. and U.S. Refusing to honor a properly filed request under the Freedom of Information Acts also is a crime. I've begun to wonder if the "hack" was actually the work of a climate-change insider, (a disaffected climatologist?) who might be portrayed by "deniers" as a whistle-blower. Time will tell.

In any case, when the stakes in the debate are so high, it is tempting to bend the rules and plot the demise of the opposition — a temptation I think might have been too much for the scientists behind the e-mails. The paydays, influence and accolades continue only so long as the data support your conclusions. Scientists who are critical of current climate science are not being unfairly critical to suggest that there might also have been attempts to deny other scientists the right to publish. The quality of scholarship that results from a peer review process is, like anything else, dependent on the honesty of those who control the process. I think obstructionist activity in peer review should give all of us pause.

The e-mails made abundantly clear that the climate-change folks aren't interested in making their data public. Why? What possible harm could come from releasing all the raw data to anyone who requests it? If the raw facts, such as temperature measurements, support the claim that we are, indeed, warming, that would only help their cause. Right?

Well, maybe. Trouble is, the old saw, "Let the facts speak for themselves," is an attractive maxim, but has little basis in fact. In the real world, facts are just facts. Consider the recently hacked e-mails: The various news reports and commentators quoted identical texts of an e-mail verbatim but from there, it was difficult to believe they're talking about the same data. Some saw a plot to deceive the larger scientific community and us plain good folk on Main Street. Others saw nothing more than the crass side-comments of good scientists who privately betrayed that they, too, are human and can make bad decisions under duress. Each group found what it was looking for.

Add to that that much of the raw climate data is just ... numbers. I've had several friends who have been forced to take statistics courses in college. They've each told me the same story. Day one, the statistics prof stands up and says statistics are just statistics. They don't say anything. They must be interpreted. And often can be interpreted in many ways. The science of statistics is, well, actually a very difficult art. Thus, there are, as one e-mailer noted, "tricks" to help hide inconvenient statistical truths.

Just as the pols and pundits drew different conclusions from the data the hackers unearthed, so scientists have drawn different conclusions from the statistical climate data. We shouldn't be surprised by this: It's inevitable when folks come to the fray with political, social and, yes, metaphysical predispositions that no doubt cloud objectivity.

On that note, I am puzzled by a paradox of no small proportion: A number of religious folk have aligned themselves with the doubters, primarily out of a general distrust for science and anything else that smacks of "secular humanism" or is tainted by Darwinism, while many atheists are numbered among those prepared to call for unprecedented sacrifice to prevent a holocaust that in no way impacts an eternal future in which they don't believe they'll have any share. I would have imagined it the other way around. I continue to ponder this strange reality with awful wonder.

Although there are the deniers — those who refuse to believe we're warming at all, there is a growing group of naysayers (Ms. Sarah Palin is one), who don't deny that global warming is a fact, but insist that humans aren't the primary cause. Oddly, Ms. Palin and friends aren't telling us that we could survive three degrees of temperature change without some sort of catastrophe. Given that the dire predictions go unchallenged, Ms. Palin's assurances that I'm not the cause would be small comfort. If warming is simply the inevitable result of an unavoidable global cycle — something we cannot control — then my great grandchildren could be dead no matter what I do. Neither a happy thought nor a very tenable political position. Frankly, the possibility that we are at fault offers some hope, because it leaves us humans the option to stop it.

As I've said before, I have no problem with the general populace believing that global warming is a threat and that it is primarily a human problem. Whether global warming is real or not, we can't afford to wait until the conundrum becomes a certainty. It'll be too late. Despite the East Anglia e-mails, its hard for me to imagine that thousands of climate scientists in at least three independent working groups would conspire to use fraudulent data to foist on the world a lie of such frightening proportions just to cash in on speakers fees and become celebrities. Even if the climate scientists are dead wrong, the science that has demonstrated the realities of human-generated pollution and the fact that we are depleting our natural resources is indisputable. And both are reason enough to take the precautions climatologists are suggesting.

Ironically, polls almost universally show that "belief" in global warming is eroding in the U.S., and has been in decline since long before the East Anglia furor. Pollsters are not sure why, but one possibility is that the same short-sightedness and lack of will that brought on our recent massive financial meltdown (which reverberated around the world), and put off meaningful reform of the U.S. health care system — both huge contributors to the massive national debt we will pass on to our children — is now blunting the U.S. population's will to solve a problem to which we have, for most of recent history, been the largest contributor.

If I am a Christian in truth, I need to stop pursuing personal comfort, pleasure, prestige and wealth at the expense of others and our shared environment. And I need to urge those around me to do the same. We do need to care about this Earth, because it is our home and God's creation and because our children deserve better. For those who believe there is Someone beyond this world to whom we must give an account, inaction is the unthinkable option. Any possible avenue that could forestall or reverse such an outcome should be taken.

As a Christian, the health of the community is no less important that my own health. I do not have the luxury to chose between the individual and the collective, for my God affirms and loves both. Jesus Christ sacrificed himself to save his community. That's the standard. So I'd far rather drastically reduce my contribution to pollution, the hole in the ozone layer and the wholesale waste of natural resources and then find out later that I was mistaken. The alternative is to plug my ears, eat, drink and be merry, and then stand before God and answer for my dying great-grandchildren.

Neutrality — even in the face of a conundrum — really isn't a Christian option.

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